On October 6, 1993, I join my parents walking up the steps into that enormous edifice, a modern-day Parthenon. These aren’t normal steps leading up to a normal building. Rather, these 44 pure white marble steps are stunning for their length (over 250’) and perfection, with nary a speckle or worn spot to diminish their purity. They lead up to the west entrance of the almost-square building, each side slightly bigger than a football field. Welcoming us are towering statues of a pensive young woman (“Contemplation of Justice”) on the left and a muscled man (“Authority of Law”) on the right. Above us, sixteen enormous Corinthian columns suggest respite and protection. Emblazoned on the top frieze are the words, “Equal Justice under Law.”
As with my earlier visits here, there are no tickets, no reservations, no admittance fees, and no bag check. All are welcome. Equal justice under law.
On previous outings, I would take a short tour, admire the sculptures of Moses, Confucius, and Solon, study the bas relief scenes of jurisprudence history, and ponder the architrave that reads “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.” Depending on time, I might walk through the Great Hall and up the long circular staircase to the visitors’ entrance into the Court Chamber, slightly under 100’ square, where Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade were decided. There, in the upper galleries of the 44’ high courtroom, I could watch and listen as justices and lawyers argue the future of our country. Sitting humbled in a stiff wooden chair, I wonder: in what other country could I participate, if only as a bystander, in the greatness of a nation?
But that was past visits. On this day, things are different. My parents and I aren’t in a far-away visitors’ gallery getting a birds-eye view of the action, but in the main floor section reserved for important people. The seats are wide and well-cushioned as I admire the 24 Siena marble columns and watch my brother Peter argue Shannon Carter’s case against the Florence County, S.C., School District, in what would become a seminal case on special education law. During his presentation, the justices sit forward in their chairs, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist leads the questioning, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg ask precise-but-gracious questions, Anthony Scalia counters with operatic flair, and Clarence Thomas stares silently throughout. After Peter, the defense counsel argues its case and then both sides give closing statements. The oral arguments continue for just under two hours.
Afterwards, as we gather in the wide oval plaza at the top of the steps, the Carter family, other lawyers, and some of the justices come over to thank Peter for his efforts. I walk down the steps, proud of my brother and proud to be an American. [One month later, the court ruled unanimously in favor of Ms. Carter.]
Descending the majestic marble stairs, I remember that Ruth Bader Ginsberg once wrote, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
I try to remember her wisdom and her words as the world struggles through the terrors of COVID-19, one step at a time.