Obama and Biden Visit Supreme Court

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama yesterday toured the Supreme Court as a guest of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who said he hopes a "sporadic practice" of incoming presidents meeting with the justices will become a "congenial tradition."

Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. spent about an hour alone with Roberts and other members of the court -- only Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was a no-show.

Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said the group met in the ceremonial West Conference Room and then toured the courtroom and the justices' private conference room. The only outsiders present were aides to Roberts and Biden and Greg Craig, Obama's choice for White House counsel.

There was no report about what they discussed, but there were sore subjects to avoid.

Obama and Biden voted against confirming Roberts and Alito, President Bush's choices for the court. In fact, when Roberts administers the oath of office to Obama on Tuesday, it will be the first time a president has been sworn in by a justice whose confirmation he voted against, according to Lucas A. Powe Jr., a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the court's history.

Biden, who was a major player in Justice Clarence Thomas's contentious confirmation hearings, will be sworn in by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's longest-serving member.

Roberts and Obama both like gestures of outreach, and Roberts wrote him in early December proposing a trip to the court "so that colleagues in public service might become better acquainted."

Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, visited with the justices before taking office in 1980, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore made the trip in 1992. After the court's 5 to 4 decision in Bush v. Gore that settled the 2000 presidential election, President Bush and Vice President Cheney did not visit before taking office.

Obama's visit was far different from Clinton's. The former president had greeted well-wishers on the street in front of the court, stridden up the grand marble steps to the Great Hall and lingered with Thomas, reminiscing about Yale Law School, which both attended.

But in more security-conscious times, Obama arrived via the court's garage, and employees caught only a quick glimpse of him. They cheered.

Arberg said she did not know why Alito had been absent. He had attended the court's hearings earlier in the day.

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