Legal Eats

The U.S. Supreme Court has a long history with food.

From the court’s first meeting to its current day practices, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor sat down to discuss that history at a Smithsonian Institute event June 1.

It all began in 1790. After the court’s first meeting, which was held in New York City, the justices collected at a local tavern, Clare Cushman of the Supreme Court Historical Society said.

Other judges and the attorney general dined with the justices that evening, she said.

And they had a good time, too. Toasting the president and the Constitution, the party made thirteen toasts in all, Cushman said.

Food’s importance to the Supreme Court continued as the high court moved to Washington, she said.

Many of the justices came to the newly minted capital alone, as the term was typically only about two months back then, Cushman explained.

Therefore, Chief Justice John Marshall arranged for the justices to board together. They worked together, lived together and ate together, Cushman said.

They would often discuss cases over meals, she said. Catherine E. Fitts, the Supreme Court curator, said only two topics were really off the table: politics and religion. An infraction of that rule came with stiff penalties, she said—namely, a case of champagne that was shared among the justices.

Food, however, wasn’t confined to the boarding house, Fitts noted.

The oral arguments used to take up most of the afternoon, Fitts said. So during those long oral arguments, the justices would take turns sneaking behind a curtain to eat lunch.

One time, a justice decided to enjoy a glass of champagne with his meal, she recalled. All of a sudden, in the middle of the argument, a cork exploded over the bench, Fitts said.

The justices now take a lunch break before afternoon oral arguments.

But the justices still enjoy food and wine together.

Sotomayor said that several of the justices have lunch after oral arguments and on conference days when the court is in session.

The most common topic? Books, she said. The justices will also share funny stories about their families or discuss sports. Just the regular conversations that people who want to get to know each other might have, Sotomayor said.

For more “tidbits” on the U.S. Supreme Court, take a free trial to United States Law Week.