Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! US Supreme Court is now in session
It's a monument to history, tradition, nostalgia. On its exterior, marble candelabra display carved panels with Justice holding sword and scales and the Three Fates weaving the thread of life.Skip to next paragraph
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Sixteen stately columns adorn the main entrance on the west. Above is incised ''Equal Justice Under Law.'' On the east side, more marble. Figures representing great lawgivers - Moses, Confucius, Solon - flanked by symbols typifying Means of Enforcing the Law, Tempering Justice With Mercy, Carrying on of Civilization, and Settlement of Disputes Between States.
Inside, solemn corridors and a museum of memorabilia. Then the focal point of this monument to justice - a spacious chamber of marble and mahogany. It's dignified, stately, but not pretentious. This is America's court of last resort. And, ostensibly, this is where ultimate justice is done.
Midmorning, at the stroke of 10, a sharp knock of a gavel and a marshal's chant commence the drama:
''Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are now admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!''
A panel of black-robed wise men (and one wise woman) enters on cue and settles comfortably into ample leather-cushioned chairs slightly elevated above the assemblage of lawyers, government officials, reporters, and guests.
The chief justice, Warren Burger, slides into the center chair. On his right sits the senior associate justice. The second senior is on his left, and so on, alternating left and right by seniority.
Unlike other courts in the land, there is no jury. Plaintiffs and defendants are not called to the stand to be interrogated and cross-examined. Witnesses are nowhere to be seen.
All that has gone on before - in lower courts. In most cases, several lower courts. The issue is no longer the guilt or innocence of the defendant but the administration of the law and how it should be applied in a case.
Here it's only the lawyers who are in the spotlight. Each side has 30 minutes to present a case and submit to questions by the justices. For the counselor, it could be likened to taking orals for the doctor-of-law degree. The questions are often tough and penetrating. They come from all sides. But there is only one authoritative text that arguments must measure up to - the Constitution of the United States.
The cases are both civil and criminal. They range in subject from bankruptcy questions and monopolistic practices to police procedures in capital crimes and issues bearing on separation of church and state.
Justices mostly rely on what has gone on before. They often fall back on the reasoning of their famous predecessors. The chamber is filled with memories of former justices: John Jay and John Marshall, Louis D. Brandeis, Charles Evans Hughes, Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Howard Taft.
Former Chief Justice Hughes called the workings of the court ''distinctly American in concept and function.'' French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that ''a more imposing judicial power was never constituted by any people.''
The US Supreme Court has come a long way since Alexander Hamilton, in helping to frame it, saw it as the ''weakest'' branch of government. He opted for lifetime appointments to give justices lasting influence. Today some critics, mainly ultraconservatives, want to strip it of some of its power.
Starting as a tribunal of six, the court first convened in the Royal Exchange Building in New York City 194 years ago today, Feb. 1, 1790. It didn't hand down a formal opinion for three terms. Now nine-strong, the justices look at more than 5,000 cases a year; they hear arguments on 160 to 180 of them and write about 150 signed opinions a session.