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Resolution opens door to dialogue about Supreme Court, security

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010; E09

The closing of the front doors of the Supreme Court building came as so many incremental attacks on public space do: A news release announced a closure date, chiseled in stone, the decision final. It was done with the bland and peremptory confidence of pure authority, power unlimited by any democratic right to redress.

But a strange thing has happened. After weeks of the usual quiet grumbling and ineffectual head shaking, the passive acceptance of the unassailable security regime is being questioned. Late last month, a member of the House of Representatives offered a resolution -- which is probably doomed, and won't do much anyway -- that nonetheless questions the wisdom of a major security grab on public space. It could be the beginning of a new conversation.

On May 3, the court decreed that as of the next day, visitors would no longer be allowed to ascend the 44 marble steps, pass under the grand promise chiseled on the pediment -- Equal Justice Under Law -- and enter through the court's massive, ornamental bronze doors. In one swift, final fiat, the architectural logic of Cass Gilbert's magnificent 1935 neoclassical structure, which dramatizes the open access to justice, had been rescinded.

Two justices dissented. Stephen Breyer (with Ruth Bader Ginsberg also signing) described the grand procession, the careful and artful arrangement of stairs, statues, hall and courtroom that can be experienced only by passing through the doors as Gilbert intended: "Each of these elements does its part to encourage contemplation of the Court's central purpose, the administration of justice to all who seek it."

There were other complaints, too, from academics and jurists, in the media and even from the public. But this kind of dissent doesn't register in a world in which security experts are alone enfranchised to determine security measures, with concern only for safety and indifference to the power of history, culture, aesthetics or architecture.

But now Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has joined the ranks of dissenters, but perhaps her dissent will carry more weight. Late last month, she introduced a resolution calling on the Supreme Court to change its mind and reopen the iconic doors. She has more than 30 co-sponsors. She is seeking more allies and says she will reintroduce the resolution in the next Congress if need be.

"I live behind the Supreme Court, and I walk past it just about daily, and when I saw the very small article announcing that the front doors of the court were going to be closed and the public could not enter, I was appalled," she says. "I was really stunned."

She defends her resolution with the usual caveats: that we live in dangerous times, that she takes security seriously and that Congress can't force the court to take action. But, she says, "I think we can address risk without giving up our ideals, our national ideals in terms of justice, openness and access."

There is a natural suspicion of these kinds of resolutions, which are easy to draft, don't have much force and are often written in support of the most quixotic goals. And cynics can point to the huge security embarrassment of the Capitol's west terrace, which only a decade ago gave visitors free and open access to the best view of the Mall but is today closed to the public. Or to the monstrosity that is the new public front door to the Capitol, the budget-busting $621 million subterranean Capitol Visitor Center, which was an egregious boondoggle wrapped in the mantle of security fears and built despite huge destruction to a historic landscape that was in many ways as symbolically important to Congress as the front doors are to the Supreme Court.

But protest must begin somewhere. A study by the Congressional Research Service suggests that Eshoo's resolution doesn't have obvious precedent, one reason to take it seriously. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new conversation about security, and the public's role in making security decisions. Our most directly democratic branch of government is publicly challenging another branch of government about institutional courage.

The resolution also asserts a right that has been eroded to insignificance since the attacks of nine years ago: the right to have a say in matters of security. These are two very positive developments, two small challenges to the insularity of the security decision feedback loop. The way most security decisions about public buildings are made -- a conversation between security experts and bureaucrats -- leaves the decision in the hands of risk-averse people who have nothing to gain from maintaining accessibility.

The natural trend is a security spiral, the ultimate end of which is a surveillance culture, in which the public is herded and corralled and wanded and inspected. The grand, aspirational architecture of democracy becomes merely a lesson in submission, terse smiles, barked orders, heads down, bags open, keep moving.

Individuals may find courage within themselves, but when it comes to institutions, courage can be injected only from without. A congressional resolution about a security decision at another branch of government is, at the very least, an outside challenge to do better, to live up to professed ideals. But perhaps it can gin up courage, the way soldiers on a battlefield find a collective courage that is stronger than any singular fortitude. It is a reminder that, as said the president under whose watch the Supreme Court doors were first opened, the most frightening of our enemies is fear.

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