Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, and Sonia Sotomayor, right, discuss the food traditions of the Supreme Court at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 1, 2016.
Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, and Sonia Sotomayor, right, discuss the food traditions of the Supreme Court at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

In the early days of the republic, when U.S. Supreme Court justices stopped dining together every night at a Washington boardinghouse, “dissents began to appear,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Wednesday night.

Ginsburg made the observation at an unusual panel discussion at the National Museum of American History titled “Legal Eats: Food and the Culture of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

After Ginsburg’s pronouncement, drawing any other connection between what the justices eat and how they rule was difficult. But Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor regaled the audience nonetheless with stories about the food traditions of the court—and their own culinary likes and dislikes.

They were joined by court curator Catherine Fitts and Supreme Court Historical Society publications director Clare Cushman, author of a book about life at the court. Cushman is working on a Supreme Court cookbook.

The justices revealed a court practice that has rarely if ever been mentioned before: When a new justice arrives on the court, the next most junior justice puts on a welcoming reception.

That meant that when Sotomayor joined the court in 2009, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. was the welcomer. He gave her a custom bottle of wine with her name and a picture of the Supreme Court on the label. A classical guitarist played Spanish music.

The next year, it was Sotomayor’s turn to host a reception for newcomer Elena Kagan.

Sotomayor said she called an unnamed friend of Kagan’s from Harvard Law School to find out what kind of food she liked. Chinese food was the answer, so that is what Sotomayor arranged to serve—along with other items because Justice John Paul Stevens does not like Chinese.

It went well, but Sotomayor said Kagan asked her: “Who told you I liked Chinese food?” It turned out that Chinese food was the friend’s favorite food—not Kagan’s.

To hear the justices tell it, they and their colleagues find all kinds of excuses for food-related celebrations—departures from the court as well as arrivals. Birthdays are the occasion for a bottle of wine at lunch provided by the chief justice. They sing “Happy Birthday.” Perhaps not well. “Most of them can’t carry a tune,” Ginsburg said. Sotomayor pleaded guilty to being atonal.

The justices have fancy dinners after the regular musicales Ginsburg puts on in the court’s east conference room with performances mainly by classical music superstars. They also dine before the State of the Union address, and the year that Justice Anthony Kennedy brought expensive California wines to that dinner, Ginsburg said, was “the first time I fell asleep at the State of the Union.”

When the court is sitting, Sotomayor said five or more of the nine justices usually have lunch together at the court, with the ground rule that cases are never discussed, and politics only rarely. “We try to avoid controversy,” she said.

Ginsburg told the audience that from time to time, the court has invited luminaries ranging from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to Shakespeare Theatre Company director Michael Kahn to lunch—a practice she first revealed in 2002.

Upon hearing this, Sotomayor remarked that it had not happened recently, and Ginsburg said, “We should start it up again.”

As for their own food preferences, Sotomayor said she is “not a bad cook, but I am a horrible cook of Puerto Rican food.” She enjoys wide diversity in the foods she eats and assigns her law clerks to scout out new restaurants in Washington.

Ginsburg left the cooking to her “supreme chef,” her late husband Martin, and now her daughter Jane, a professor at Columbia Law School, visits her monthly to cook ahead and fill her freezer with meals.

Justice David Souter left the court in 2009, but Ginsburg still had a strong opinion about his lunch habits. He would eat “plain yogurt—just plain yogurt,” she said incredulously. Sotomayor chimed in that Souter would also eat an apple later in the day—and he would eat the whole thing, including the core.