By Michael M. Gleeson - 09/25/09 10:00 AM EDT
Much like Justice Sotomayor's beloved Yankees, the Supreme Court also has some long-standing rites of passage for new members.
Justice Samuel Alito, during an interview for a new C-SPAN documentary, said Sotomayor is tasked with a couple of chores.
She must open the conference door at the Supreme Court when someone knocks on it, Alito said. There are no staff members allowed at these conferences, and sometimes, a Supreme Court official will knock on the door to deliver a message, he said.
Former Justice Stephen Breyer presumably had a lot of doors to open when he was the junior justice from August of 1994 until January of 2006.
Sotomayor must also keep the vote count when justices are deciding whether to take a case, Alito said.
Mark Farkas, who produced the documentary for C-SPAN, said Sotomayor was “humbled” the first time she took the bench in the nation’s capital. Sotomayor’s remarks came during an interview taped seven days after hearing her first case as an associate justice.
C-SPAN’s 90-minute documentary is scheduled to air on Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. The documentary will take viewers behind the scenes at the Supreme Court and allow the audience to get a better understanding of how the court works and who the justices are, Farkas said.
“Viewers will have a rare opportunity to hear the justices talking about the role of the court, its traditions and its history,” C-SPAN President Susan Swain said.
To this day, there is an air of mystery to the Supreme Court. Unlike the president or members of Congress, who are routinely seen on television, the Supreme Court prohibits cameras in the courtroom.
“The public does not know a lot about these people,” Farkas said. “Once they get confirmed, they disappear across the street.”
Farkas told The Hill that Chief Justice John Roberts recounted that when he goes to a law school or a speaking engagement, he is often recognized. But in large public places, like an airport, few people know who he is.
The unprecedented documentary features interviews with all 11 living justices, including former Justice David Souter, who has a reputation of avoiding the media spotlight. Swain and C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb conducted the interviews.
C-SPAN cameras were given access of the Supreme Court building that have never been seen on television, including the robing room and the Justices’ dining room.
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female on the high court, said she had a wardrobe quandary when she started her lifetime appointment.
“I didn’t know anybody who made robes for women justices,” O’Connor said. “And I think most of what was available was something like a choir robe. … I just got what was available and put it on.”
The documentary highlights that despite the strong ideological differences that exist among the members, justices maintain a strong sense of comity.
“You’d be surprised by the high level of collegiality here,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“As far as the composition of the court, you’re bringing in basically — and this word can be overused — you’re bringing in a family member,” said Justice Clarence Thomas.
“It changes the whole family. … You have to start all over,” Thomas said.
Each of the justices gave between 30-minute and one-hour interviews. The justices wore business attire for the interviews, with many of the men wearing a jacket and tie. Justice Anthony Kennedy sported an American flag on his lapel.
O’Connor told C-SPAN that she felt some pressure as the first female justice.
“I have always said it is wonderful to be the first to do something, but I didn’t want to be the last. If I did not do a good job, it might have been the last,” said O’Connor. “And indeed, when I retired I was not replaced then by a woman, which gives one pause to think, ‘Oh, what did I do wrong?’ ”
But O’Connor added that she is confident that in the future, many more female members will serve on the high court.
Alito said that as the junior justice before Sotomayor’s arrival, he was the last to register his view on a case because of the seniority system adopted by the justices.
“By the time they got to me, I was either irrelevant or I was very important, depending on how the vote had come out,” he said.