Scholars of constitutional law have long addressed the legal factors that contribute to decision-making by the Justices – such as text, precedent, history, tradition. Perhaps food should be added to the list. Last night at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor discussed the role and customs of food at the Court with Clare Cushman and Catherine Fitts, two experts in Supreme Court history.
The importance of food goes back to the Court’s earliest days. Following the first session of the Supreme Court, in February 1790, the Justices moved on to a local tavern for dinner and toasts – to the president, the Constitution, and the judiciary.
In those early days of the Court, Cushman explained, the Court’s Terms were only about two months long, and so the Justices left their families behind in their home states and lived together in a boarding house. As Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife, Sarah, back in Massachusetts, the Justices tried to limit their alcoholic consumption – Madeira was the favorite due to the flavor caused by the rocky voyage across the Atlantic Ocean – to rainy days and for medicinal purposes. Ginsburg noted that for Chief Justice John Marshall, even if it wasn’t raining in Washington, D.C., it probably was elsewhere and that was enough.
Ginsburg explained that as the practice of boarding together waned – the Term lengthened and Washington, D.C., developed as a city, prompting the families of the Justices to move – so too did the practice of dissents emerge.
The discussion provided a human insight into the lives of the Justices. Justice Harry Blackmun used to have breakfast with his clerks in the Supreme Court cafeteria each morning, while Chief Justice Warren Burger would prepare bean soup for them on Saturdays. Sotomayor likes to leave chocolates and other sweets from her travels in a bowl in her office; Fitts, the curator at the Supreme Court, quipped that she will sometimes make a detour for a little candy and some conversation. Healthy Justice Louis Brandeis every day ate one spinach leaf between two slices of whole wheat bread, whereas Justice Harlan Stone consumed platters of French cheeses with paired wines. (Sotomayor later joked that she would have liked to have a chance to lunch with him.) Justice David Souter would eat for lunch “just… plain… yogurt,” Ginsburg said with perfect delivery. Sotomayor added that sometimes he would have an apple, but Ginsburg maintained that the apple came later in the afternoon. These Justices have their routines.
These days, the Justices will typically have lunch together on argument and conference days. Favorite books are a popular topic of conversation; they rarely touch on politics or religion, much less the cases themselves, as had been the Court’s habit in earlier times. Sotomayor remarked that master story-teller Justice Thurgood Marshall never told the same anecdote twice. Like many workplaces, the Justices eat together when one of them is celebrating a birthday; Chief Justice John Roberts will often bring a bottle of wine on those days.
A touching moment came when Cushman asked the Justices if they ever shared foods from their respective homes, as Marshall, proud of his home state’s Virginia hams, and Story, of Massachusetts-caught cod, had once done. Ginsburg recalled the various foods hunted and prepared by their “dear colleague,” the late Justice Antonin Scalia: fish, fowl, even “Bambi,” she joked fondly. Sotomayor told a story in which Justice Stephen Breyer decided to serve his grandchildren pheasant, which Scalia had recently bagged. Afraid that pellets might still be in the bird, the children refused to eat it.
The speakers also paid a moving tribute to the late Marty Ginsburg, Ginsburg’s husband of fifty-six years. She joked that his fondness for the kitchen came “shortly after I made my first meal.” The speakers remembered him as a “joyful participant” and “big contributor” to spouse luncheons, whose recipes were compiled after his death in a cookbook, Chef Supreme. Justice Ginsburg’s arrival on the Court as the second female Justice made Marty the second male spouse (after John O’Connor, the late husband of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor). After his wife’s death, and at the two women’s suggestion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist renamed the Ladies Dining Room the Natalie Cornell Rehnquist Dining Room to honor his late wife.