- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

"With liberty and justice for all." The phrase is familiar to all American schoolchildren as the finale to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The U.S. Supreme Court proudly links the notion of justice to the practice. The court's purpose, extolled over the doors of the majestic building in the nation's capital, is to ensure "equal justice under the law."

The court is the nation's highest tribunal for all cases and controversies arising under the Constitution or U.S. law. "Few other courts in the world have the same authority of constitutional interpretation and none have exercised it for as long or with as much influence," boasts a brochure.

Every weekday, the Supreme Court opens its marble halls to the public it serves.

There's a lot on the docket for visitors. They are invited to duck into the courtroom for a lecture and to listen to oral argument. They can view a video on the history of the court, take in one of the rotating exhibits and enjoy the magnificent architectural elements of the building, designed in a classical Corinthian style.

Many visitors are amazed to learn that the building was only finished in 1935, the 146th year of the court's existence, says Cristy Meiners, an intern who leads several tours daily. Until that time, the court sat in various rooms throughout the U.S. Capitol. In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the former U.S. president, led the charge in Congress to OK construction on a permanent courthouse.

Perhaps not a moment too soon, as the nine justices who rule the court today are busy people. They receive 8,000 petitions annually, the majority hand-written by inmates, Ms. Meiners says.

"Out of these 8,000, the court hears about 80 to 100 each term," she says. "Once the justices have read the petitions that come in, they get together every Friday to decide what cases to place on the docket next year. If four justices decide a case is worthy, it will be placed on the docket. It's the only time a decision is made by the Supreme Court that doesn't involve a simple majority."

Cases chosen to be placed on the court docket, says Ms. Meiners, are scheduled for an hour's worth of argument, with each side receiving a half-hour time limit.

"They can have an extended argument, but they have to decide that before they go into argument," she says, noting that a recent school-voucher case was extended to 80 minutes.

Visitors of any age can secure a viewing spot in the courtroom to listen to a case being argued many days during the year, except when the court recesses in July and August.

"If you get here by 8 or 8:30, you probably will get a seat at oral argument," Ms. Meiners says. Line up in the plaza in front of the building, she says. "They also have a 3- to 5-minute line," she says, where visitors can enter the courtroom and sit briefly to take in the experience.

"If you just want to give your kids an idea of what's going on, it's interesting for a few minutes, especially if you don't have legal knowledge," she says.

Actually, the Supreme Court gets a good number of junior-high and high-school visitors.

"Tons," Ms. Meiners says. "And obviously we get families in. Sometimes I'll get little kids who are really interested, but usually not."

She says she is sure to tell children about the turtles depicted out on the plaza. The lampposts out front, for example, are resting on the backs of sculptured turtles.

"Turtles represent the slow and steady pace of justice," she says. "Kids like them."

Another favorite for younger visitors is the building's self-supporting spiral staircase, which Ms. Meiners calls one of the more interesting architectural aspects of the building. Its railings and door frames are made of bronze, and the stairs wrap around twice for each floor, giving the illusion that the building is twice as tall as it is.

Several New Jersey high-school students, fresh from checking out the exhibit on the building's interior friezes, stopped for a minute to offer their perspective on their visit.

"I wanted to go into the courtroom, but they're not letting us in right now," Maureen Rozanski, 17, says. "But a lot of history was made here and that's what makes it cool."


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