In a rare glimpse into internal disagreement among the members of the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, issued a statement on Monday objecting to Court plans to bar the public from entering the Court via its famed front steps.
Under the Court's new entry and security plan, members of the public will be able to leave the Court down the steps, but they will have to enter through new ground-level doors at either side of the steps. Entering the Court through the bronze doors at the top of the steps will not be allowed. The new entry plan, aimed at improving security, begins today, according to an announcement by the Court, also released Monday.
Constructed as part of the Court's ongoing renovation, the new ground-floor entrance will provide a "secure, reinforced" area for screening visitors for weapons, explosives, and biological and chemical hazards. Credentialed employees and others with business at the Court will be able to enter at another entrance on the Maryland Avenue side of the building, as before.
The plan to end public entrance up the steps has been publicly known for years, but as we reported a year ago, Breyer indicated it was "under review," though he declined to say if there was disagreement among the justices over the issue. But now it is clear there was a difference of opinion over the closure. Breyer has received acclaim and awards for his advocacy of a public-oriented design of the new federal courthouse in Boston while he was on the 1st Circuit.
Breyer's memorandum issued Monday said, "I think the change is unfortunate," and not justified by security concerns. "I write in the hope that the public will one day in the future be able to enter the Court's Great Hall after passing under the famous words, 'Equal Justice Under Law.'" Breyer recounted the history of the Court's design, noting that the 44 marble steps were intended to show the "processional progress toward justice reenacted daily."
The steps have gained added symbolism over the years, Breyer asserted, as a representation of the ideal that "anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this Court." Even though the public will be able to leave by going down the steps, Breyer said, "I find dispiriting the Court's decision to refuse to permit the public to enter."
Breyer added that "potential security threats will exist regardless of which entrance we use." From an informal survey, Breyer said he is unaware of any other Supreme Court around the world that has taken similar measures to close its main entrance.
In the future, Breyer concluded, it is his hope that technological advances, congressional appropriations or the "dissipation" of security threats will allow the Court to restore the main entrance "as a symbol of dignified openness and meaningful access to equal justice under law."
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.