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Salomé’s conviction on appeal at the Shakespeare Theatre

Last week Justice Elena Kagan convened two other “Tribunes of Rome” – Judge Cornelia Pillard from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Judge Amy Jackson from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia – to hear an appeal left unresolved for nearly twenty centuries: Was Salomé guilty of conspiring to murder John the Baptist, as a lower tribunal had ruled?

According to the story, Herod – the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea at the time (28 C.E.) – promised Salomé, his stepdaughter, anything she asked for as a reward for her marvelous dancing. (Kagan asked both attorneys to demonstrate the dance, but they refused.) Salomé, with prompting from her mother, Herodias, requested that Herod give her the head of John the Baptist, whom the mother resented for his critical remarks on the propriety of her relationship with Herod, “on a platter.” Underlying the drama are political tensions surrounding John’s social criticisms and, as recently re-adapted for the Shakespeare Theatre, the indeterminate but certainly unrequited feelings of Salomé for John, which ultimately ended with her “triumphant kiss” of his executed head.

Deborah Baum of Pillsbury spoke first on behalf of Salomé and began her argument with the claim that Herod acted in his official capacity in ordering John’s execution. Salomé, Baum continued, had only petitioned the government. Jackson interrupted this suggestion, wondering what the limit would be to such official authority should another ruler, “perhaps one with bad hair,” receive similar requests.

The tribunes also struggled to distinguish between the ruling family’s official and domestic interactions. After Jackson wondered if a Jewish tetrarch’s Chinese-food Christmas dinner would qualify as an official feast or as purely a domestic meal, Kagan complained, “these are all my jokes,” a reference to her confirmation hearings. Jackson, who came clearly prepared to question the attorneys, also wanted to know if evidence for a conspiracy could be found by looking into Herod’s private email account.

Reading from Mark 6, Kagan joked that she often felt like Herod in front of her own colleagues: “When [Herod] heard [John] speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” This came as part of a larger duel between Biblical translations. Kagan wanted to know how Salomé was only making a petition when she demanded John’s head immediately. Baum countered that in the King James Version Salomé asked for the head, “by and by.” Unfortunately neither the attorney nor the tribunes knew exactly how long that phrase meant.

Carol Bruce from K&L Gates, serving as counsel for the people of Rome and charged with defending Salomé’s conviction, began her remarks on this very subject, arguing that the King James Version has been discredited and replaced by newer translations. Pillard stopped this line of argument with her interjection, “have we so held?”

Bruce next explained that John’s execution could not be considered an official act because he received no trial, which would have been his right, even at the time and even for “plebeians,” which she said while motioning to the crowd. (Thankfully, no one in the audience seemed to be too offended.)

Kagan took issue with the prosecution’s decision to charge Salomé in the Roman court instead of the Sanhedrin. (After all, Jackson joked, could Salomé possibly have done something wrong in obeying her Jewish mother?) However, the tribunes seemed more miffed by the prosecution’s choice to not charge Herod. Weren’t they picking on the teenage girl?

Bruce’s attempts at asserting Salomé’s agency, emphasizing especially her provocative dancing, were pointedly dismissed by Pillard: “Please don’t tell me you’re playing the ‘she had it coming’ card?” With reference to her own children, Pillard also expressed incredulity about agreement between the family members reached so easily, as Bruce suggested, as with a wink and a nod.

While the tribunes deliberated, Lisa Blatt from Arnold & Porter briefly interviewed Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. The first woman to serve in a number of positions for Ireland, including her current posting, Anderson discussed her role in the development of many Irish laws and policies related to women. These efforts included a campaign – which she pushed to the point of threatening legal action – to receive a stipend as an overseas married female official equal to what similarly positioned married men received. In Anderson’s experience as a diplomat, women in different nations vary in the encouragement and welcome they receive in the workplace and society more broadly, but everywhere she sees women struggle the same to give their own selves permission to pursue their goals and ambitions. For this, she explained, she was grateful for shows like tonight, which featured an all-women cast and dealt with subjects of women’s agency.

Kagan commended both attorneys at the end of the evening. “This is not a funny story,” she said, but both did a fabulous job. In the end, the tribunes as well as the audience jury ruled for Salomé.

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Salomé’s conviction on appeal at the Shakespeare Theatre, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 15, 2015, 1:07 PM),