Legal Eats: Justices Dish Out On Supreme Court’s Food History & Traditions

Greetings from California! Before leaving Washington Thursday morning, I attended one of those only-in-DC events that reminded me why I love living in the city so much. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat down with Catherine E. Fitts, Curator of the Supreme Court, and Clare Cushman, Director of Publications of the Supreme Court Historical Association, to dish out about their personal eating habits as well as reflect on the food traditions and culture of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sotomayor discussing food at the Legal Eats events on March 31 in Washington, DC

The panel was a part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing Food History Programs at the National Museum of American History (same as the Battle of Paris anniversary event I attended recently). Not only was it really neat to be seating less than ten feet away from two associate justices, but they were there to talk about a topic that I could actually understand: food!

Among the tidbits of Supreme Court history I learned that evening is that its history was always intertwined with food. Prior to the establishment of the Federal City, the United States government resided briefly in New York and after the first Supreme Court meeting in 1790, the Justices went to a local tavern for dinner where they made 13 different toasts, including one to the Constitution. When the capitol moved to Philadelphia, the court did too before settling in the District in 1800. Until 1810, the Court had no permanent location and eventually began to meet  in a room in the basement of the Capitol. Back then, the Justices would all live together in a boarding house, while their families stayed behind back home. They shared all of their meals together there, until the 1930s when they finally got their own building which included a cafeteria for lawyers and staff as well as a dining room for the Justices.

Today, the Justices don’t eat together as often, though they do break bread on occasion, especially when the court is in session. One rule at the lunch-table though: no discussion of ongoing cases and an avoidance of controversial topics. Instead, the 8 (for now) of them talk children/grandchildren and sports. RBG doesn’t contribute much to those discussions, she noted and Sotomayor added that she loves baseball, but that Justice Kagan was the real sports-fan of the lot. They also talk about the latest exhibit they may have seen, including many at the Smithsonian Institutions, and books. All justices are voracious readers who love discussing their latest reads. Occasionally, they’ll invite a speaker to join them for lunch and that sounded like the most awesome guest series in town with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Alan Greenspan, the head of the National Zoo and others (occasionally Justices from foreign countries) joining them to share a meal over what I’m sure is a fascinating conversation. Justices also always get together when a former colleagues comes to town and to celebrate each other’s birthdays. In addition to being one of the nation’s top tax law professors and practitionners, Martin Ginsburg, the late husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was also a talented cook who used to bake for those occasions. Today, Chief Justice Roberts will bring the cake, as well as wine to toast the birthday guy or gal. RBG, who was elegantly dressed with purple lace gloves, joked that there would always be singing though “truth be told, most of them can’t carry a tune.” She also brought up that Justices now get together when a former colleague comes back to town and before the State of the Union. Showing that she has a great sense of humour and that she can laugh at herself, Justice Ginsburg recalled the time when Justice Kennedy brought bottles of Opus Wine to that gathering, which she really enjoyed. “It was the first time I fell asleep during the State of the Union ” she joked.

Other than wine, Justices will typically bring some treats to share with their colleagues. In the past, they would be local delicacies from their hometown or regions, like salted cod from Boston. More recently, Sandra Day O’Connor used to share the beef jerky her brother would make. “It was very spicy,” noted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I bet I would have liked it,” replied Justice Sotomayor. And of course, as was highlighted at the time of his death, Justice Scalia was an avid hunter who would bring back everything from fish to fowl, though Justice Breyer had a bit of a hard time introducing one of the pheasant he brought back to his grandchildren apparently…

A couple of other fun tidbits I noted: Justice Harlan Fiske Stone (1925-1946) was a big cheese fan and would bring a whole platter of his favourites to eat for lunch. This prompted Justice Sotomayor to mention that, if she could have lunch with any 2 justices from the past, she would pick him in addition to John Marshall and Thurgood Marshall… because you know he would bring good food! On her own food habits, Sotomayor appreciates Puerto Rican cuisine, mostly that of her mom and sister, but hasn’t mastered how to make it well herself. Ever the typical New Yorker, she mentioned being a big fan of food deliveries, though those are not easy to get through the Court’s security 😉 When her clerks come over, they will try to order in from different places so they can try new things and she also relies on them for restaurant recommendations. Justice Bader Ginsburg, on the other hand, relies on her daughter to eat properly now that her husband has passed away. On her husband’s culinary skills, RBG quipped that he “developed a fondness for the kitchen shortly after I made my first meal.”

This was definitely one of the best events I’ve attended recently. Check out a complete listing of upcoming event for the Smithsonian’s Food History Programs. They always have some good ones coming up! 

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