Supreme Court closes its front doors to the public

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A21

The public no longer will pass under the famous words "Equal Justice Under Law" and enter the Supreme Court through its iconic bronze front doors, the court announced Monday, citing security risks.

The court said that as part of its $122 million modernization plan, the public will now enter the building on the plaza level, where a security checkpoint will make it easier to contain any risks. The new process starts Tuesday.

The new entrance was designed in light of recommendations from independent security studies conducted in 2001 and 2009, the court said in a news release. The public will still be able to exit via the massive, 6 1/2 -ton sculpted doors.

The changes have been debated for years and came with a dissent from two justices who expressed concern about altering the symbolic experience of visiting the 75-year-old building, designed by architect Cass Gilbert.

"The significance of the court's front entrance extends beyond its design and function," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in a statement joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "Writers and artists regularly use the steps to represent the ideal that anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this Court. And the steps appear in countless photographs commemorating famous arguments or other moments of historical importance.

"In short, time has proven the success of Gilbert's vision: To many members of the public, this court's main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself."

Security enhancements have been part of the nearly seven-year, ongoing renovations at the court, wedged on an oddly shaped piece of land at 1 First St. NE across the street from the Capitol and the Library of Congress. A proposal to blockade Second Street after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was rejected. Maryland Avenue, on the court's north side, will be reopened in full when the renovations are done.

Justice Clarence Thomas recently told a House appropriations subcommittee that the court was looking to expand its police force by 12 members this year. "Without getting into too many details in an open hearing, one of the reasons for the request is actually to . . . do the work on threat assessment," Thomas said. "And we are going to upgrade that because of the volume."

The 44 marble steps leading to the entrance have taken on a romantic and symbolic importance for both the court and the public. Breyer said they are part of a "carefully choreographed, climbing path" that leads to the court's Great Hall and then to the courtroom. A new justice's first public appearance is on the steps with the chief justice.

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was selected for a spot on the court, he said "I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court, and I don't think it was just from the nerves."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in an interview last summer with C-SPAN that "it's important for the public to make sure that people always want to come up these steps because we're doing the job the right way."

Breyer, lamenting the court's "dispiriting" decision, said he knows of no other supreme court in the world that has closed its main entrance.

"I thus remain hopeful that, sometime in the future, technological advances, a congressional appropriation, or the dissipation of the current security risks will enable us to restore the Supreme Court's main entrance as a symbol of dignified openness and meaningful access to equal justice under law," Breyer wrote.

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