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Good and Evil at the Supreme Court

The high court's art dares to praise public pieties.

11:00 PM, Nov 5, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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I ONCE SAW Sandra Day O'Connor in my corner store, and years ago, before Justice O'Connor even sat on the U.S. Supreme Court, I used to push a stroller on the terrace surrounding the white marble temple where she works. But until Tuesday--even though the Court is only four blocks from my house--I'd never actually heard an oral argument there and seen the justices in session.

The case wasn't exactly exciting (at issue was the definition of "investment contract" in securities law), though it must have mattered to the administration since Solicitor General Ted Olson spoke in person. Instead, I was there because a friend who'd worked on the case had reserved a seat for me. Undistracted by legal preoccupations, I concentrated on soaking up the atmosphere.

Watching the justices, I was struck by how old they all are (or at least look--even Clarence Thomas's hair has gone gray), but also by how attentive they were. All appeared engaged; all asked repeated questions of counsel, except the famously silent Thomas, though he chatted privately with Justice Breyer.

I was impressed with the pains taken to pack in visitors. Not a seat is wasted. You can watch a whole case (an hour), as I did, or stay for three minutes. The idea is to let as many people as possible see their court in action.

Mostly, though, I took in the grandeur of the courtroom. It's immense and approximately square, with four huge Ionic columns on each side and a ceiling 44-feet high. What finally captured my attention were the large marble friezes at the top of the four walls.

From where I was sitting, I could see only two of them. The one over the justices' heads shows several allegorical figures, with right in the middle a tablet suspiciously numbered, in Roman numerals, I to X. The tableau to my left was a parade of figures from history. I picked out Napoleon and a Founding-era American in knee-breeches and a worthy in a curly wig and assorted medieval kings.

It was only later, downstairs on the way out, that I came across small-scale, three-dimensional reproductions of the friezes with all the figures labeled and could see the two panels I'd missed. They seemed truly relics from another age--though the building is only 68 years old.

THE CENTRAL FIGURES in the carving high above the justices' heads represent Majesty of Law and Power of Government. The tablet between them, the notice hedges, "symbolizes early written laws." Other figures are Wisdom and Justice.

The right-hand frieze begins the parade of lawgivers down through the millennia--Menes, Hammurabi, Moses (with his trusty Ten Commandments), Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Octavian, interspersed with allegorical representations of Fame, Authority, the Light of Wisdom, and History. And I found out who Napoleon's companions are on the frieze opposite: John Marshall, Sir William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX of France, King John of Magna Carta fame, Charlemagne, Muhammad, and Justinian.

But most striking of all--and more anachronistic even than this parade of dead mostly-white males (some of the allegorical figures are female)--was the panel on the back wall, the one the justices look at every day, if they care to raise their eyes. It depicts the confrontation of Good and Evil.

Explains the legend: "Its central motif depicts female figures of Justice and Divine Inspiration, flanked by allegorical representations of Truth and Wisdom. The struggle of good over evil is portrayed by The Powers of Good (Defense of Virtue, Charity, Peace, Harmony, and Security) on the left and The Powers of Evil (Corruption, Slander, Deception, and Despotic Power) on the right."

In the gift shop there were no postcards of these edifying works (created by one Adolph A. Weinman, a student of Saint-Gaudens). But back at the office I found them in glorious detail on the web. Feast your eyes here. (click on the two pictures of the courtroom labeled "North and South Courtroom Friezes" and "East and West Courtroom Friezes") and take in a whiff of a bygone culture--before the assaults on Western Civ. and the phallocracy made it camp to say in public that men down through the ages have striven to craft laws and institutions so that people can enjoy a degree of security and harmony; or to note that, imperfect though they invariably are, these codes and courts give political substance to aspirations for wisdom, truth, and justice; or to reflect with gratitude that the U.S. Supreme Court stands in that worthy line.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.