Supreme Court Group Photo

Above, the Supreme Court in 1921: (sitting l. to r.) William Day; Jospeh McKenna; Chief Justice William Howard Taft; Oliver Wendell Holmes; William Van Devanter. (standing l. to r.) Brandeis, Mahlon Pitney, McReynolds, and John Hessin Clarke.

In 1924, Pitney’s retirement somehow led to Brandeis and McReynolds being reassigned next to each other when seniority seating for photographs was introduced. That year, the annual photograph of the Justices of the Supreme Court had to be canceled when Justice McReynolds refused to be photographed next to the Court’s first Jewish Justice, Louis Brandeis. The Supreme Court’s custom of sitting for a new portrait whenever it acquires a new member began in 1861, has been broken only once before, in 1891, when Justice Joseph P. Bradley was mortally ill.

Reactionary James McReynolds — only appointed because President Wilson wanted to get rid of his obnoxious Attorney General– was an anti-Semite, racist and misogynist and perhaps the court’s crankiest justice. He held three successive occupants of the court’s Jewish seat (Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter) in contempt, and refused to speak to them or participate in any formal supreme court duties having to do with any of them. During Cardozo’s swearing-in, McReynolds pointedly read a newspaper. He would turn his chair around 180 degrees whenever a black attorney argued a case before the Supreme Court. He would not accept “Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals as law clerks.” His attitudes towards the other white justices were no better. A continual grouch, McReynolds would always complain that the court is doing something that he regards as undignified; he hated wristwatches, and cigarettes and would regularly admonish other justices for wearing wristwatches and smoking. He argued with all the patrons at the Chevy Chase golf club — an establishment favored by Washington elite — and two fellow justices transferred from the club when they couldn’t stand McReynolds anymore.

The earliest photographers of the Supreme Court were the Washington establishment’s go-to photographers like Matthew Brady. For the better part of its history, the photos were taken by “the semiofficial photographers of official Washington” Harris & Ewing in their signature gray stone building on Washington’s F Street. In recent years, the Supreme Court has official staff photographers.

Supreme Court in Session

German-born pioneer of photography, Dr. Erich Salomon was one of only two known persons to have photographed a session of the U.S. Supreme Court. Salomon, the father of ‘candid photographs’ had an eye for photo opportunities–a hollowed out book on mathematics enabled him to take pictures of gambling rooms in Monte Carlo; a floral arrangement at a Washington banquet gave him a close-up of Herbert Hoover; a hole in his bowler or fedora enabled him to take photos inside Berlin courtrooms. He was daring too; he used a window washer’s ladder to spy an international conference in the Hague, while for the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, he simply walked into the signing room and took the vacant seat of the Polish delegate as well as several photos. For the Supreme Court, he faked a broken arm and a sling over it concealed his camera well.

The photo appeared in 1932 Fortune magazine. The Supreme Court at the time was made up of four conservatives (McReynolds, Butler, van Devanter, Sutherland), three liberals (Brandeis, Stone, Cardozo) and two moderates (Chief Justice Hughes, Roberts). Five years later, another concealed picture of the Supreme Court (this time in its new chambers) was taken. It was by “an enterprising amateur, a young woman who concealed her small camera in her handbag, cutting a hole through which the lens peeped, resembling an ornament. She practiced shooting from the hip, without using the camera’s finder which was inside the purse”.