The Supreme Court justices have voted to end one of the most important symbols of American justice: the open doors of justice at the Supreme Court building. Visitors have always entered through the massive doors which represented the access of citizens to our legal system. In yet another case of security trumping all other considerations, the justices voted to close the doors to citizens (and to use new doors located in a more secure location).
Only Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg objected to the move and issued a statement condemning the decision. In a disappointing move, Justices Stevens and Sotomayor decided not to join their liberal colleagues to speaking out against the move. There is less surprise with justices who routinely yield to security demands in cases, but only these two justices on the left of the Court spoke out to oppose the move.
“While I recognize the reasons for this change, on balance I do not believe they justify it. I think the change is unfortunate, and I write in the hope that the public will one day in the future be able to enter the Court’s Great Hall after passing under the famous words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ . . . Writers and artists regularly use the steps to represent the ideal that anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this Court. . . . I thus remain hopeful that, sometime in the future, technological advances, a Congressional appropriation, or the dissipation of the current security risks will enable us to restore the Supreme Court’s main entrance as a symbol of dignified openness and meaningful access to equal justice under law.”
The design of Cass Gilbert emphasized the entrance as the central visual element. It will now become largely decorative. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger once ordered the doors shut in a ridiculous over-reaction to a protest outside — and received overwhelming criticism for the act. Now, citizens will be barred entirely from entering through the doors. For civil libertarians the doors now represent a symbol of a different kind — showing how even the Supreme Court is compromising important traditions to accommodate security demands. There is little evidence of balancing in such decisions and only two justices were willing to fight to preserve a defining element of this iconic structure.
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