POLITICS

Photos Reveal Supreme Court Justices In Private Moments

This term, a nine-member court suddenly became an eight-member bench.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As he chatted with law clerks in his chambers, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas laughed so hard he looked as though he might tumble from his chair.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sorted through the cabinet of lacy collars she wears over her black robe for the one she dons when about to announce a majority opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer searched his shelves of antique books for just the right volume to make a point. And Chief Justice John Roberts savored a bowl of soup while lunching with his clerks in a book-lined study.

These are some of the moments captured by Reuters since it began last October to chronicle a single nine-month term of America's highest court. The session is set to close by the end of June, with rulings still awaited on abortion rights, race-based university admissions and President Barack Obama's immigration plan.

Laboring in a white marble building insulated from the sounds of any protesters outside, the Supreme Court clings to its own steady rhythms regardless of the politics of the day and changes in its own ranks. That is how it has been for the 2015-16 term, marked by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A nine-member court suddenly became an eight-member bench.

Ideologically divided between four conservatives and four liberals, the justices began opting for narrow decisions that minimized differences.

In some instances, they returned disputes to lower courts for more proceedings, in effect deciding not to decide - or at least not to decide much - while shorthanded. Obama's nomination of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia has stalled in the U.S. Senate. The Republican majority has vowed not to act on any nominee put forward by Obama, whose presidency ends in January.

Supreme Court rulings tend to be illustrated in news reports by photos of the marble-columned exterior or by nondescript head shots of individual justices in black robes. Rarely does the public see images of the elegant courtroom, the flower-filled inner courtyards, the chandeliered library, or the ceremonial conference rooms lined with portraits of the 16 chief justices who preceded John Roberts since the country's founding. Rarely does the public see the staff members who support the justices.

Reuters captured not just the court and lawyers who argue cases, but Clerk of the Court Scott Harris, who handles the thousands of petitions that reach the justices each year, of which they select only about 70 to hear, as well as the gardeners and elevator operators. This is an institution that hews to tradition, and its elevators are still operated by hand.

Reuters sought to avoid highlighting any single day or case. One day turned out to be more notable than others, however. That was Feb. 13, when Justice Scalia died while on a hunting trip in Texas. His death, and the loss of a crucial fifth conservative vote, changed everything, and the session now coming to a close offers a contrast between what might have been and what is.

The justices had been set to rule on disputes that would determine the power of unions, the reach of abortion rights, the future of racial university admissions, and the validity of Obama's executive action to shield millions of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. The court seemed headed for a series of blockbuster rulings, likely favoring conservative results.

After Scalia's death, it became clear that with conservatives unable to dominate, a majority across ideological lines was readier to compromise. In this politically charged U.S. election year, the justices have largely drawn back from the national scene, sticking to familiar routines, closing ranks, and awaiting the day when they have a ninth again.

  • A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on Oct. 5, 2015.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on Oct. 5, 2015.
  • Red velvet drapes hang at the back of the courtroom at the U.S. Supreme Court building June 20, 2015.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Red velvet drapes hang at the back of the courtroom at the U.S. Supreme Court building June 20, 2015.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her chambers, shows the many collars (jabots) she wears with her robes.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her chambers, shows the many collars (jabots) she wears with her robes.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chamber
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chambers.
  • U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts eats a bowl of soup as he sits down to lunch with his team of clerks in his private study at
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts eats a bowl of soup as he sits down to lunch with his team of clerks in his private study at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on June 15, 2016.
  • Justice Stephen Breyer looks for a favorite volume of Proust in his rare book collection in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Justice Stephen Breyer looks for a favorite volume of Proust in his rare book collection in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on June 8, 2016.
  • A clock hangs above the bench in the Supreme Court on April 4, 2016.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    A clock hangs above the bench in the Supreme Court on April 4, 2016.
  • A notice is seen on a lectern where lawyers stand to argue before the Supreme Court justices.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    A notice is seen on a lectern where lawyers stand to argue before the Supreme Court justices.
  • Name plates mark the spaces reserved for justices' families in the courtroom.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Name plates mark the spaces reserved for justices' families in the courtroom.
  • Pencils, a reminder of how to address the court and a seating chart of the justices.
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Pencils, a reminder of how to address the court and a seating chart of the justices.
  • Television journalists prepare for a news conference on the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 9, 2016
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Television journalists prepare for a news conference on the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 9, 2016.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan walks with her clerks in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court buildin
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan walks with her clerks in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. 
  • U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben departs the U.S. Justice Department in traditional morning coat on his way to a
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben departs the U.S. Justice Department in traditional morning coat on his way to argue his one-hundredth case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 27, 2016. 
  • Carved oak walls and arches are seen in the reading area of the library at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Carved oak walls and arches are seen in the reading area of the library at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. 
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Roo
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Room at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. 
  • Daniel Agbleze waters flowers in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016.&nbsp
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Daniel Agbleze waters flowers in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. 
  • Elevator operator Johnnie Bacon, from Washington, smiles at a passenger as he tends one of the elevators in the U.S. Supreme
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Elevator operator Johnnie Bacon, from Washington, smiles at a passenger as he tends one of the elevators in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. 
  • Reporters wait for the release of the text of the justices' opinions, timed to match the readings of the decisions from the b
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    Reporters wait for the release of the text of the justices' opinions, timed to match the readings of the decisions from the bench, at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. 
  • A circular staircase is seen in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2016. 
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    A circular staircase is seen in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2016. 
  • The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. 
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
    The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. 

(Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Will Dunham)

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