The Long Lost Photographs of the U.S. Supreme Court

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 1 2012 2:51 PM

Smile for the Camera

The long lost photos of the Supreme Court at work—and what they reveal.

Erich Salomon/BPK Supreme Court
In 1932, photojournalist Erich Salomon sneaked a camera into a Supreme Court argument, being held in what was known as “The Old Senate Chambers.”

Erich Salomon/Berlinische Galerie.

At  10:07 a.m. on June 28, 2012, more than 5 million people were glued to SCOTUSblog, a popular legal website, waiting to receive word of the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Inside the courtroom, Chief Justice John Roberts was reading his opinion from the bench, as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy waited to share their views. The press, meanwhile, was rushing to transmit the news via an awkward process reminiscent of a child’s game of “telephone.”

Later we would be told that Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared “exhausted” and that Justice Antonin Scalia “looked like he wasn’t very happy.” We would hear tale of the “collective head-snap” in the courtroom when the Chief Justice announced the controversial individual mandate would survive as a tax. Of course, almost none of us actually witnessed these moments. We were staring helplessly at our blinking cursors, repeatedly refreshing our screens for another morsel of news.  

It didn’t need to be this way. In a day when even our cellphones can capture images unobtrusively, why were we forced to stare at pixels on our computer screens or at a static televised image of the Supreme Court’s exterior? In 2012, why is there a wall of separation between the American people and their high court?

Advertisement

The Supreme Court has never wavered in its opposition to allowing cameras into its courtroom. It has steadfastly held that position despite the fact that all 50 states allow camera access in some form and that lower federal courts have been “experimenting” with the practice since the early 1990s—at roughly the same time that the Canadian Supreme Court let them in without incident.

For decades, the debate over cameras in the court has gone something like this: the press pleads for permission and the court says no; academics make policy arguments that the court ignores; and Congress threatens to force cameras into the court, but the justices don’t blink. The argument remains deadlocked, with the justices insisting that they will not risk the integrity of the court until they can be certain of the effects and camera proponents arguing that it is impossible to know the effects until cameras are allowed inside.

Yet few people know that twice in the court’s history cameras did get in. It was stealthy and illicit, but two rogue photographers managed to capture what few have seen—the justices at work. And the resulting photographs give us a small glimpse of what we have been missing.

In 1932, photojournalist Erich Salomon sneaked a camera into a Supreme Court argument, being held in what was known as “The Old Senate Chambers.”  To pull this off, he faked a broken arm and hid a camera in his sling. His single photograph was published in Fortune and promoted as the first image ever taken of the court in session. It is a clear and close-up shot of the bench, with a bearded Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes presiding. Two chairs down, most court devotees would recognize the wavy locks of Justice Louis Brandeis. The justices appear to be listening to the argument being presented by an unseen attorney.

Five years later, Time published another clandestinely shot photo. This one, the magazine reported, was taken by “an enterprising amateur, a young woman who concealed her small camera in her handbag, cutting a hole through which the lens peeped, resembling an ornament.” The unnamed photographer “practiced shooting from the hip, without using the camera’s finder which was inside the purse” in order to capture the court in action. To my knowledge, this photo hasn’t been reprinted since it was first published 75 years ago.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

John Oliver Debunks the Miss America Pageant’s Claim That It Gives Out $45 Million in Scholarships

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 1:37 PM Subprime Loans Are Back! And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 22 2014 3:33 PM Killing With Kindness My in-laws want to throw me a get-well-from-cancer bash. There’s no way I can go.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 22 2014 4:06 PM No, Women’s Soccer Does Not Have a Domestic Violence Problem Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 3:16 PM Watch the Best Part of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s On the Run Tour
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.