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Opera-loving justices bring the music to the high court

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; A11

It hardly seems necessary, but anyone looking for additional evidence of how the Supreme Court is unique within the federal government need only consider last week's happenings in the court's elaborate East Conference Room.

A majority of the justices gathered in the stunning space --oak-paneled walls, two enormous chandeliers, coffered ceiling in shades of terra cotta and sky blue, similar to that of the courtroom -- for a bit of opera.

It was the court's spring musicale. For more than 20 years, after they have finished a term's oral arguments and while they are deep into writing the opinions that will complete the court's work by the end of June, the justices take a small break for music.

"This delightful pause in our occupation" is how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described Thursday's mid-afternoon festivities.

This year's event featured Ginsburg's "cherished friend," the home-town mezzo-soprano diva Denyce Graves, and tenor sensation Lawrence Brownlee, accompanied on piano by Betty Bullock. The event is made possible by a group of music lovers called the Friends of Music at the Supreme Court, which has brought such superstars as Renée Fleming and Marcello Giordani to perform.

The Friends and dozens of other guests crowded into the room for the music before the justices headed back to their chambers to consider the latest pension-law challenge or constitutional encroachment.

Opera is not for everyone, of course, but it seems to be catnip to a Supreme Court justice. Justice Antonin Scalia is a great fan -- he and Ginsburg have appeared together in Washington opera performances in non-singing roles -- and they were joined in the audience last week by justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr., Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

After Justice Harry A. Blackmun left the bench in 1994, O'Connor was the impresaria, and she passed the baton to Ginsburg, probably the court's biggest enthusiast. She has often said she would have given it all up if she'd had the voice to be a diva herself.

The event, and the image of the justices heading back to their individual chambers for their mostly solitary work, was a reminder that serving on the Supreme Court, like opera, is not for everyone.

Its stately environs bring gravitas to even the most mundane case. Its detached air is meant to apply the cool logic of law to the most curdling of crimes. But its decisions are not so much collaboration as negotiation, a summing up of nine distinct points of view.

Whenever there is an opening on the court, as with this year's departure of Justice John Paul Stevens, there is a hunger to shake things up. Commentators suggest adding someone different, something new. Most often, a politician is mentioned.

But while the court is often political -- no president would appoint someone he thought disagreed with his views -- the justices are hardly politicos. Politicians have been nominated to the court, of course; even a former president has served. But a lifetime appointment to the court could not be more different from the constant speechifying, fundraising and campaigning that mark the political cycles of the House or Senate.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been mentioned as a possible justice ever since it became clear her bid for the presidency was over. Lots of people thought it would be a great idea -- but not her. This month, during an appearance on "Meet the Press," she seemed to have had enough.

"I do not and have never wanted to be a judge, ever," Clinton said. "I mean, that has never been anything that I even let cross my mind because it's just not my personality."

Roberts, who charmed the Senate at his 2005 confirmation hearing, might be the court's closest thing to a politician- justice. He charmed Thursday's audience with a funny story about a case the court decided almost exactly 122 years ago, involving the great opera star Adelina Patti, referred to in the decision as a "wonderful songstress."

Roberts said that he was not as learned as some of his colleagues about the art, but that even he knew "something rare and something very beautiful" had taken place.

And President Obama's court nominee, Solicitor General Elena Kagan? Loves opera. Used to be a season subscriber.

Schools for justices?

The debate has picked up again about whether the court should be entirely composed of lawyers who were educated at Ivy League law schools. For his part, Roberts said a couple of months ago at the University of Alabama he didn't think that where a person went to law school much mattered when he or she has reached the point of being considered for the high court.

Of course, he has also joked that not all of his colleagues went to elite law schools, because some of them "went to Yale."

But Roberts (Harvard '79) said he did try to mix it up when choosing law clerks. How successful has he been?

His record of Supreme Court clerks, including his reported hires for the term beginning in October:

Yale (8); the University of Virginia (5); Harvard (4); the University of Chicago (2); and one each from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Georgia, George Washington, Georgetown, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

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