A new justice joining the Supreme Court is something of a mixed blessing, it turns out. While Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. called it "an exciting part of life at the Court," Justice Clarence Thomas noted, "You have to start all over; the chemistry is different," and Justice Anthony Kennedy added, "It's stressful for us, because we so admire our colleagues."
These comments and more will be aired starting Oct. 4 on C-SPAN, part of a weeklong series of programs on the Court that resulted from unusual access to the Court and to the justices for the public affairs cable channel. All the sitting justices except Sonia Sotomayor (she had not been confirmed when the taping was taking place) plus retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave interviews for the series. C-SPAN has posted video excerpts here on YouTube. The shows, produced by Mark Farkas, also will offer footage inside the Court building, including rare glimpses of the justices' robing room, their private dining room, and even some of their chambers. Court officials, historians and journalists are also interviewed.
In the excerpts on YouTube, the justices echo the late Justice Byron White's oft-cited observation that every time a new justice joins the Court, it becomes a new Court because of the different dynamics and range of views. "You're bringing in a new family member," Thomas said in the interview. "It changes the whole family. ... And I have to admit, you grow fond of the Court that you spend a long time on."
Kennedy's wistfulness also seemed more about sadness that an old colleague is leaving than any negative feelings toward the new member. And Kennedy said there are benefits in having a new justice on board. "It gives us the opportunity, again, to look at ourselves to make sure that we're doing it the right way. ... I'm sure a new justice can always ask the question, 'Well, what are you doing this for?' Then we have to think about whether or not we should continue to do it."
Asked what the new justice should know, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "You will be surprised at the high level of collegiality here." She recalled that in his early days at the Court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia counted liberal Justice William Brennan Jr. as his best friend in spite of their ideological differences. "These were two men who genuinely liked each other and enjoyed each other's company."
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. seemed cheerful about the arrival of a new member, perhaps because he gets to hand off his duties as junior justice to the newcomer. One of those duties is answering a knock at the door during the justices' private conferences. "Usually it's somebody's glasses or a memo or something like that," Alito said.
O'Connor and Ginsburg also discussed their judicial robes, and how they differ from their male colleagues' garb. The black robes show the men's shirt collars, but when O'Connor began, she did not always wear the kind of outfit underneath that would display a collar above the robe. She got a note from a spectator one day saying that the absence of a collar made her look like a "washed-out justice." That sent O'Connor on a search for collars that led her to suppliers in England and France. Ginsburg displayed her robe from England, which she wears with a collar from Cape Town, South Africa. "I have many, many collars," said Ginsburg.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.