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Time to ask Elena Kagan the 'culture question'

June 27, 2010 | 11:00 am
Supreme Court AP Photo Evan Vucci

Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination will begin with opening statements Monday. Questioning starts the following day. So, the time has come to ask Kagan the "culture question."

As I noted when her nomination was announced in May, the court had just launched a new and troubling policy. Citing unspecified security concerns, the front doors of the imposing 1935 building were closed to the public. If you wish to get into the U.S. Supreme Court, the ultimate place where American social grievances are adjudicated, you can no longer climb the grand staircase and pass through the massive bronze doors and into the imposing entry. Instead, you are now shuttled around through a side door to a central screening facility.

Building-architect Cass Gilbert and artists John Donnelly Jr., who sculpted the bronze doors, and James Earle Fraser, whose allegorical statues flank the stairs, based their designs on ancient Greek and Roman prototypes. The idea was to invoke historic democratic principles. Those powerful cultural symbols of an open society have now been shuttered, replaced by a paranoid aesthetic representing fear.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have strongly opposed the switch. In a memorandum filed with the court May 3, they appealed to the meaning embodied in the original artistic program:
Starting at the Court’s western plaza, Gilbert’s plan leads visitors along a carefully choreographed, climbing path that ultimately ends at the courtroom itself. The Court’s forty-four marble steps, the James Earle Fraser sculptures Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law, the Western portico with its eight pairs of columns standing high above the removed wings of the building, the Great Hall—each of these elements does its part to encourage contemplation of the Court’s central purpose, the administration of justice to all who seek it.

Breyer went on to note that, as far as he could discern, "no other Supreme Court in the world — including those, such as Israel’s, that face security concerns equal to or greater than ours — has closed its main entrance to the public."

Now someone on the Judiciary Committee, which includes Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), needs to ask Kagan where she stands on the controversial closure.

-- Christopher Knight

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Top photos: The U.S. Supreme Court. Credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press. Bottom photo: Elena Kagan and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images


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