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Visiting the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC

Updated on December 7, 2014
The United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC
The United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC | Source

Visiting the United States Supreme Court

There are many reasons one may choose to visit the Supreme Court. When I first moved to Washington, DC it was one of the first places I visited just to look at it. The Capitol Building is right across the street and so you can literally stand right between the homes of two of our three branches of government. The history of these building is awe-inspiring, and when standing in front of the Supreme Court it is easy to conjure up mental pictures of the best legal minds walking up those steps and arguing in front of the justices. Since that first visit I have gone to observe or participate in protests, taken a tour, and listened to arguments. Your level of planning for your trip to the Supreme Court depends on the purpose of your visit.

History of the U.S. Supreme Court Building

Many people don't realize that until 1935, the Supreme Court met in the Capitol Building. Former president William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the Court in 1921 and began pushing for the Court to have its own building. The location chosen across from the Capitol Building was not considered ideal by some, as it placed the Court between the Capitol and The Library of Congress, and on the "other side" of the National Mall. Supporters of the site noted its proximity to Union Station and the cornerstone of the building was laid by President Herbert Hoover in 1932. The building was designed by Cass Gilbert and ultimately finished upon his death by his son Cass Gilbert Jr. The final cost was just over $9 million (unlike many buildings in DC this was actually on budget).

Preparing to Visit the U.S. Supreme Court

As with other high-profile buildings in Washington, DC you should plan carefully when visiting the Supreme Court to be sure that you aren't turned away. Some things to keep in mind:

Visitor Passes - You do not need a pass to visit the Supreme Court, entrance is first-come, first-served. All visitor programs once you are inside are also free and non-ticketed.

Cameras and Photography - You are allowed to take pictures within the Supreme Court Building, however you are not allowed to take pictures in the courtroom.

Children - Children of all ages may visit the public areas of the Supreme Court, however they do recommend that infants and small children not attend court sessions due to the chance of disruption.

Lockers - An advantage of the Supreme Court Building that isn't common in DC is the presence of a coat-check and lockers. If you bring any items that aren't allowed in the courtroom you can use these rather than having to leave. The lockers take quarters so be sure you have them on hand!

Prohibited Items - Some items are prohibited in any parts of the building: handguns and other weapons, and more generally anything it is illegal to possess. The rules inside the courtroom are much stricter as you cannot bring: sunglasses, electronic devices, coats, hats, books, etc. You can visit these rules on the FAQ page of the Court.

A markerUnited States Supreme Court -
Supreme Court of the United States, 1 First St NE, Washington, DC 20543, USA
get directions

The U.S. Supreme Court is across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building

Getting to the United States Supreme Court

Most visitors to the U.S. Supreme Court take public transportation, or walk from another part of the city. An unfortunate number of visitors have told me afterward that they missed seeing the Court because they viewed the Capitol Building from the National Mall side but never walked around. It is worth the extra steps, not only can you see the Supreme Court from the other side, the front view of the Capitol Building is extraordinary.

Public Transportation to the U.S. Supreme Court - If you are taking Metrorail, the closest stops are Capitol South on the Blue, Orange, or Silver lines, and Union Station on the Red Line. Please be aware that once you are near the National Mall metrorail stops are very close together and so while it may seem like you are not close to the Supreme Court if you can see the Capitol Building and it feels walking distance then you can also get to the Supreme Court.

You can also take Metrobus or the DC Circulator buses to the Supreme Court. The best way to choose a bus to the Supreme Court is to use WMATA's trip planner and also visit the DC CIrculator site. Several bus lines will get you to the Court, and it is less expensive than Metrorail, particularly if you are travelling during rush hour.

Inside the United States Supreme Court
Inside the United States Supreme Court | Source
Staircase inside the U.S. Supreme Court Building
Staircase inside the U.S. Supreme Court Building | Source

Take a Tour of the U.S. Supreme Court

One of my favorite parts about visiting the Supreme Court is that tours are self-guided. It is much like visiting a museum in that you can spend as little or as much time as you want in front of things that hold the most interest for you. Inside you will see the Thurgood Marshall statue, busts of former justices, two fabulous marble staircases, and other great historical exhibitions and architectural features. You can also get in line for one of the lectures that cover different aspects of the Court. When the Court is not in session lectures are held Monday-Friday with the first at 9:30am and the last at 3:30pm. When the Court is in session, the lectures will start once the Court has concluded its business. To plan for your visit you can visit the Supreme Court website and view the calendar (on some days there are only a few lectures rather than a full schedule). There is also a 24-minute visitors' film available from 9:15am to 3:45pm.

Listen to arguments and decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Listen to arguments and decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court. | Source

Listen to Arguments and Decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court

If you would like to see the Court in session be aware that the court calendar is limited in that the Court only sits during certain parts of the year. You can check the Supreme Court Calendar, or I have also found SCOTUSblog very helpful in planning when to see the Court in action as it includes details on cases and other helpful information. Listening to arguments is first-come first-serve so if you are planning to see a particular case, especially one that is high publicity, you should plan to get in line early. There is also a separate "three-minute" line for those who wish to see the Court in action but do not plan to stay for the entire session.

Protestors at the United States Supreme Court
Protestors at the United States Supreme Court | Source

Attend a Protest at the U.S. Supreme Court

You do not have to feel a strong pull toward a particular issue to enjoy seeing a protest in action at the U.S. Supreme Court. Protests have their own energy and it can be great fun to look at creativity people put into their protest signs. Security is very tight at these protests so you do not have to be concerned that brawls break out regularly. Some of my most enjoyable visits to the Supreme Court have been on days when protesters are outside, most are willing to talk to you at length about their views.

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