Supreme Court Justice Pulls Back the Curtain on How the Court Works

Aug 20, 2013

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan offered rare behind-the-court insights Tuesday at a forum celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Rhode Island royal charter.

It’s hard to manage getting by these days without using email, but the Supreme Court of the United States does just fine without it, said Justice Elena Kagan. Speaking to about 500 people at Trinity Repertory Theatre, Kagan said they type everything on paper and have couriers deliver it.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan visits Rhode Island and spills some secrets about how the court works.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

“It’s basically you put it on a piece of paper you know this thick, ivory, you know 19th century looking paper,” said Kagan, “and it’s walked around the building by somebody who used to be called a messenger and now is called a chamber’s aide.”

Questioned by Brown University historian Ted Widmer, Kagan said the court is surprisingly amicable, despite the frostiness that can emerge in dissenting opinions. “The truth of the matter is we’re a very collegial court. The court hasn’t always been. At some points in the court’s history there were pathological hatreds,” Kagan said.

Kagan said the court is aware of public opinion but not overly influenced by it.

In 1987 Elena Kagan clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. When she returned 23 years later as a justice herself she was surprised by how little has changed.  Seniority still rules in deliberations, “and there’s a rule that nobody can speak twice before everybody’s spoken once. That’s a very good rule if you’re the last person.”

Kagan is the youngest and most junior member on the court, having joined it in 2010.  She said the funniest justices, based on the laughs they get on the bench, are Justices Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia.  And somebody is actually charged with keeping tracks of who gets the laughs. 

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