Traditional Supreme Court group photo boasts lengthy, fascinating backstory: Report

December 10, 2018

Traditional Supreme Court group photo boasts lengthy, fascinating backstory: Report Steven Frame / Shutterstock.com

The dozen-or-so photographers who gathered to capture the newest Supreme Court class photo last month were participating in a long and awkward tradition.

In an illuminating article in the New York Times, Adam Liptak sketched some of the history behind the often eccentric Supreme Court photo, typically taken when a new judge joins the court, on Monday. 

History behind awkward SCOTUS pics

According to Liptak, a dozen news photographers including the New York Times cameraman Doug Mills assembled for the latest shot last month. Mills said that it’s a tradition every photographer looks forward to — but just because the pictures are historic doesn’t mean that they’re serious.

In a shot captured by Mills, newcomer Justice Brett Kavanaugh stands in the back on the far-right, the designated place for freshmen, wearing a big smile for the camera as judges Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Chief Justice John Roberts chat in the center. Justice Ginsburg, recently hospitalized for a fall, winces straight ahead as Justice Stephen Breyer on the far left seems to laugh at a private joke. Standing in the back row on the left, Neil Gorsuch towers with mouth agape.

The candid, goofy photo is the latest installment in a tradition that often belies the stateliness of the black robes. The reason partly has to do with time: before Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist intervened, photographers had three minutes to get the shot; now they have just two.

In fact, a court officer had the photographers on a stopwatch for 120 seconds during last month’s shoot, according to Liptak. Within that time frame, the judges can be grumpy, talkative, or, like Thurgood Marshall who once dozed off for during a shoot, sleepy. Clarence Thomas is notoriously gregarious.

“The tough part is that most of the time their heads are turned and they’re talking to each other,” said Bob Daugherty, a retired Associated Press photographer. “You like the animated stuff, but you do want something where the faces are identifiable in a group shot.”

“Our nemesis is [Clarence] Thomas, because he’ll start laughing and joking with whoever is next to him,” said Dennis Brack, who a long-time court photographer for Black Star Publishing Company. “If you’re doing a group picture, you want everyone looking at you and looking serious.”

Tenacious traditions, and some innovations

There have been 52 group photos since Alexander Gardner captured the first shot in 1867, according to Liptak’s report, and new pictures are generally taken when there’s a freshman on the court. But while some traditions have stuck tenaciously through the decades, recent years have brought some changes.

Judges are always positioned in order of seniority, a tradition dating to 1899, with the freshman judge standing on the far-right in the back. The junior justices stand in a row next to the freshman, while the chief justice sits in the middle with his four most senior colleagues flanking him.

For the last 50 years, photos have been taken in the court’s east conference room in front of red velvet drapes. Going back at least to when William Howard Taft was chief justice of the court in the 1920s, the justices have voted on which pose they want to be the official photograph from a series of pictures taken by a Supreme Court photographer.

For 2017’s official photo, though, the judges got a little more freedom than that. Photoshop was used to piece together a composite image from individual shots, each of which were chosen by the judges separately. The result is a seamless and sober, serious-looking picture.

“This is the first official color group photograph for which color film was not used,” said notes on the picture from a court exhibit, “and the result is the first to combine each of the justices’ individual choices, from several poses, into a single image.”

Popular myths persist

Still, some popular myths about court photos have persisted, Liptak reported, like the story that the court did not take a group photo in 1924 because Justice James C. McReynolds would not sit next to the first Jewish justice, Louis D. Brandeis. Reynolds wrote a letter in 1924 to Chief Justice William Howard Taft expressing his refusal to sit through the “bore” of a photo shoot unless a new judge was seated.

“I absolutely refuse to go through the bore of picture taking until there is a change in the court,” Reynolds said. His letter was misinterpreted by a Taft biographer as an anti-Semitic broadside against Brandeis, who was confirmed to the court in 1916, and the legend took flight. The myth was eventually cleared up in a 2015 essay by court photographer Frantz Jansen.

Justice Reynolds did not say anything about Brandeis in his letter and never missed any of the 10 group photos throughout his time on the court, 9 of which included Jewish justices.

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Matthew Boose

Matthew Boose is a staff writer for Conservative Institute. He has a Bachelor's degree from Stony Brook University and has contributed to The Daily Caller and The Stony Brook Press.