Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor Dig Into the History of Food at the Supreme Court

The American History Museum and the Supreme Court Historical Society brought the justices together to share tales from the highest court

Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor at the National Museum of American History discusses the dining traditions at the Supreme Court. (NMNH)
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During the early 19th century, the Supreme Court’s term was so short that the justices would leave their families behind when they came to Washington. Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall arranged for the Supremes to live together, in hopes that shacking up in boarding houses or inns would instill a sense of fraternity among them. It did.

Often, they discussed legal questions during dinnertime at the common table. Marshall was famously fond of Madiera wine and urged the others to join him for a drink at dinner. 

He had one rule. They would partake only if it was raining, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a panel discussion held at the National Museum of American History about food and its traditions over the past two centuries at the Supreme Court. Where it was raining, however, was mere semantics. 

After Justice Joseph Story joined the Court, Ginsburg said Marshall asked him to check the weather, and the justice reported it was sunny outside. Marshall was nonplussed, Ginsburg said with a hint of a smile: "He said, somewhere in the world, it's raining.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as well as curator of the U.S. Supreme Court, Catherine E. Fitts were also in attendance at the museum Wednesday night for a light-hearted discussion entitled “Legal Eats,” moderated by Clare Cushman, director of publications at the Supreme Court Historical Society. Delving into the food history of the nation’s highest court, it was revealed that the members don’t just share a bench; they also share meals and have been doing so since the Court was first established.

Wine never agreed with Story, who was a teetotaler because of a delicate stomach. Nor did it appeal to his wife, Sarah, who didn’t like being away from Joseph and joined him in Washington for the Supreme Court Term in 1828. Though Marshall arranged for her to live nearby, the situation bothered Marshall, as he worried her presence would distract Story. He wanted the justices to remain living together to ensure their civility toward each other, as well as to pressure the justices to come up with a uniform majority opinion—one that Marshall often authored, Cushman quips.

Sarah’s stay in the capital was the beginning of the end of the boardinghouse era; 1834 was the last year all seven justices lived together. It was not, of course, an end to their shared meals. In the 19th century, the justices were not given a break for lunch. Instead, one or two would go behind the curtain to eat while oral arguments were still ongoing. The lawyers could sometimes hear the clatter of knives and forks from the meals.

“You couldn’t see the justices eating because they were behind a screen, but you could hear them,” says Cushman.

The Judicial Code required that there needed to be at least six justices—a quorum—to hear a case. Once, two justices were sick, and during an argument, after one or two of the remaining justices ducked out for food, one of the attorneys asked the Chief Justice if there was, indeed, a quorum.

“He assured the attorney, ‘You can’t see them but they are here,’” says Cushman.

Just a few weeks following that incident, the court initiated a half hour lunch break between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., Cushman says.

Ginsburg shared that while doing research for a talk about the lives of Supreme Court wives several years ago, she learned that the spouses used to hold a tea every Monday for anyone interested in coming. The detail was hidden in a manuscript titled, Some Memories of a Long Life, written by Malvina Shanklin Harlan, who was married to Justice John Marshall Harlan. The practice continued until the Great Depression, when economic reasons caused the tradition to be retired.

Another tradition among the spouses remains today—coming together for lunch several times a year in the Ladies Dining Room. It took until 1997, after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg joined the court, for the room to be renamed to the Natalie Cornell Rehnquist Dining Room, after the chief justice’s late wife, so that the men could feel less awkward. 

Today, while the justices often share meals, their only rule is not to discuss cases. 

"There is no topic that's off limits, but we try to avoid controversial ones. We're very guarded about raising topics that create hostility," says Sotomayor.

The justices are known for bringing back different foods from their travels to share. Speaking about Justice Antonin Scalia, who died this spring, Ginsburg says of the justice's well-known taste for hunting: "He brought back everything from fish to fowl to Bambi."

On special occasions, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Stephen Breyer bring wine, like the night Justice Kennedy brought back a bottle of Opus One in 2015. “That was the first time I fell asleep during the State of the Union,” Ginsburg says.

Ginsburg says while she is not much of a cook herself, it was her husband Martin Ginsburg, who earned the nickname "Chef Supreme" for his culinary prowess. He would make the couple's meals, but since his death in 2010, the task has fallen to her daughter who prepares home-cooked meals for Ginsburg every month and leaves them in the freezer. 

Though Sotomayor says she can't hope to replicate her mother's Puerto Rican meals, she enjoys cooking, and also frequents sushi and Indian establishments in the area. She also has tasked her law clerks with researching new takeout establishments in Washington, D.C. Though she is diabetic, the justice says she keeps a large bowl of candy in her office to encourage people to stop by. 

"For me, eating is sacred," Sotomayor says. "You should not waste a meal.”

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