Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11848
The United States pledges "justice for all." To ensure that justice, the founders established the Supreme Court, tasked with making sure laws are just. Take a virtual tour of the home of the SCOTUS!
Where did the Supreme Court meet before it was given its own building? They are referred to as a "bench;" did they sit out in the park?
In previous Related Lessons in our Let's Explore Washington, D.C.!, series, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned about the buildings that are home to the executive and legislative branches of government.
In this lesson, you will learn about the history of, and take a tour of, the building that is home to the judicial branch of American government. Before you begin, discuss what the judicial branch of government is with your teacher or parent. The judicial branch of government decides whether or not laws are constitutional. The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court.
When the Residence Act was passed in 1790, establishing Washington, D.C., as the official capital of the United States, Congress immediately proposed plans to construct buildings for the executive and legislative branches of government. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court was never given its own building until 1935. You will remember reading in the previous lesson that, upon moving the nation's capital to Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court met in the Capitol building. Aside from a brief move to another small Washington building when the Capitol was burned down by the British in 1814, the Supreme Court remained in the Capitol building for more than 130 years.
In 1921, William Taft was appointed to be a justice on the United States Supreme Court. You may be thinking that name sounds awfully familiar. Tell your teacher or parent what you know about William Taft.
William Taft was the 27th president of the United States, from 1909 to 1913. He was the only president to serve on both the executive and judicial branch in his lifetime. When Taft was appointed to the Supreme Court, he immediately began entertaining visions about moving the Supreme Court out of the Capitol and into its own building. Secretly, Taft hired an architect, Cass Gilbert, and instructed him to begin drafting plans for a Supreme Court building. Then, he began petitioning Congress to approve funds for a Supreme Court building. According to the letters Taft wrote to Congress, there was not enough room in the law library to hold all of the court's books, and some justices often worked from home due to the lack of space. He also said the local and state courts were given better facilities than the Supreme Court, despite it being the highest court in the land.
It took several years of persuading, but, in 1928, Congress finally agreed to begin construction on a Supreme Court building. Cass Gilbert was officially hired as architect for the job, and construction officially began more than one year later after funding was secured. The location for the building did create some tension during the pre-construction process. Taft and the other justices desired the building to be placed just behind the Capitol building. They said this location provided easy access to Union Station, which was needed for out-of-town lawyers who traveled to Washington, D.C., for cases. Gilbert did not like this location because he felt it was given an inferior position to the Capitol. He believed the Supreme Court building should be given a place of prominence equal to the locations of the Capitol building and the White House. Ultimately, Taft and the justices won this argument, and the Supreme Court building was placed behind the Capitol building.
Careful thought and consideration went into the interior and layout of the Supreme Court building. Taft insisted that the main chamber, where cases are heard, be kept small. The justices had grown accustomed to a small setting while residing in the Capitol building and wished to maintain this intimacy. It was also important to the justices that their offices be kept away from public areas to allow them an appropriate space to reflect on, and study for, cases. Finally, it was important to all that the law library be big enough to accommodate a growing collection of books.
Construction of the Supreme Court building was completed in 1935. Unfortunately, many of the building's biggest proponents did not get to see the building through to the end. Both Taft and Gilbert died before the building was completed. The completed project is known as nothing short of spectacular. The exterior of the building models the same style used in many of the federal buildings throughout Washington. The interior of the building features marble and mahogany, and the law library is home to more than 500,000 books.
The completion the Supreme Court building finally gave the judicial branch of government its home. Explain to your parent or teacher why this is significant.
Review what the purpose of the Supreme Court is before moving on to the Got It? section to tour one of the most important buildings in Washington, D.C.
Consider exploring the Elephango lesson in the right-hand sidebar under Additional Resources to learn more about the president mentioned in this lesson.
Resources Referenced in the Lesson