The Supremes' World Tour '99
So you think the life of a Supreme Court justice is all dusty tomes and arcane footnotes? Figure those nine justices never truly shed the black robes? That their idea of a good time is a curling up with a law dictionary and dry toast?
Well, think summer recess and think again. The men and women on America's highest court get invited places. Swell places. Exotic places. Far-off places. From July through the end of September their venue switches from white marble and red velvet to white beaches and European castles. The Orient and South America. Off go the robes. On go the tennis togs.
This summer their destinations could have again been torn from the pages of Conde Nast Traveler: the Greek island of Crete, the French Riviera and Salzburg, Austria.
For the far-flung travelers and for the law schools or international groups that pay their way, it's a win-win arrangement. The organizations marquee the justices to boost interest in their seminars and conferences. And the justices enjoy the travel, the posh accommodations and even the chance to gab about the law in a foreign setting.
"Because we're all there together for about three weeks, there's a lot more interaction outside of the classroom for the students," said Tulane University law dean Edward Sherman. "In the afternoons, they can see the justices under the tree or by the swimming pool . . . Yes, even in swimming trunks."
Tulane sponsors a large overseas program each summer with 10 locations; it's open to law students from all over the United States and usually accepts a few foreign attendees as well. Sherman said Tulane administrators put out feelers to the justices, through various high-level judicial pals, to see what locales they might be interested in. Tuscany, anyone?
He said the settings also are chosen for their legal interest. This summer, for example, Chief Justice William Rehnquist lectured at one of the school's sessions in Montreal, where the distinct legal system in Quebec offered a contrast to U.S. law.
Most of the justices refuse to disclose their recess travel engagements ahead of time. (Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, the newest justices, are the exception, and through a court spokesman confirmed they would be in Crete and Salzburg, respectively, this summer.) But, by law, all the justices must report any reimbursed travel or lecture fees on annual financial disclosure reports. So sooner or later their jaunts become public knowledge.
Also, some law schools advertise the justices' appearances as they try to entice students to pay four-figure tuition for the overseas sessions. On its Web site, the Sacramento-based McGeorge School of Law told potential students that Justice
Anthony Kennedy would visit picturesque Salzburg this summer, as he has done for more than 10 years. The Web site noted in the next paragraph that the school uses "the fully renovated 16th-century baroque-style Residenz Palace, the former home of the archbishop of Salzburg."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's first female justice and a popular speaker, is one of the most frequent fliers for academic programs and foreign associations. Her whirlwind itinerary last summer included Luxembourg, Germany, France, Romania and Brazil. Like many of the justices, she travels with her spouse. When she and her husband returned from Rio de Janeiro last September, O'Connor then flew to San Antonio, where she dedicated the new Sandra Day O'Connor High School and met with students.
In similar fashion, Justice Antonin Scalia has crisscrossed the globe and seen nearly a dozen countries in the past two years. In 1994, he and Ginsburg were among those who took a sojourn to India. After they returned, Ginsburg told audiences about a favorite snapshot: "Justice Scalia [is] on the front of an elephant and I'm on the back."
While Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer rack up the miles, the three other justices stay close to home. Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas usually accept a few speeches on U.S. turf, but Justice David Souter, the court's only bachelor and a man who lived in the same New Hampshire town for almost his entire life before coming to Washington, basically stays put.
By law, the justices can take as much free travel, lodging and meals as their schedules allow. But if they accept any fees for their lectures -- and many do not -- they are bound by a cap in federal statute to receive no more than $20,505 annually.
Court officials say that despite the distances the justices travel, they are only a telephone call or fax away when emergency appeals arise. But the officials provide no specifics on the whereabouts. A few years ago, a magazine wanted more than destination info, asking for -- who knows why? -- a picture of Justice O'Connor in a bathing suit. A court spokeswoman declined, but offered her official portrait, in a black robe instead. No thanks, came the response.
Joan Biskupic covers the Supreme Court for The Post. Al Kamen is on vacation and will be back In the Loop in mid-September.