At Supreme Court, a more-than-full house shows up for work

With official Washington shut down by Hurricane Sandy, the full Supreme Court showed up Monday for work — and there were even two justices to spare.

The nine justices — four of whom are in their 70s — are a hardy bunch. They often drive themselves around town. And the court tends to remain open when the rest of the federal government closes, taking pride in braving snowstorms and other inclement conditions.

In addition to all nine members of the court being robed and in place by 10 a.m. Monday, retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor watched the court hear two cases, along with Hironobu Takesaki, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Japan.

Top jurists of foreign countries are often guests of the court, and Takesaki is probably more familiar with his American counterparts than most. He is a 1971 graduate of Columbia Law School, which is also Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s alma mater.

O’Connor maintains chambers at the building and frequently returns to watch her former colleagues or when a former clerk argues before the justices.

With rain pelting outside, it was a full house indoors, with lawyers and tourists filling the chamber. The justices heard cases about national security and a consumer issue involving the resale of goods manufactured overseas.

In 1996, the court stayed open when a snowstorm shut down the rest of the capital, but in that case it was shorthanded.

Then-Justice John Paul Stevens was unable to get back to Washington from his home in Florida. And another now-retired justice, David H. Souter, the stout New Englander, was late. He had set out for the court in his own car from his apartment in Southwest Washington and got stuck. The Supreme Court’s police fetched him and delivered him six minutes into oral arguments.

Hurricane Sandy, however, proved to be too much even for this stalwart bench.

The court, already shed of the decorative scrim that has covered the building while its marble front is being repaired, closed at 2 p.m. Monday.

Arguments scheduled for Tuesday have been postponed until Thursday. The justices will decide later whether to keep their regularly scheduled Wednesday session.

The weather entered the court’s Monday proceedings twice, both times when Justice Stephen G. Breyer was questioning lawyers about their speculative arguments.

“All right. Fine,” Breyer said in one instance. “That’s why I say certainly — it might not be a storm tomorrow. I mean, you know, nothing is certain.”

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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