Social Justices: Washington's New Power Guests

The nine members of the Supreme Court have become the new high-society superheroes.

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Washington has a new gang of celebrity power guests. Unlike Hollywood darlings, media stars or visiting royals, no one questions their intelligence, seriousness or stamina.

They are the nine justices of the Supreme Court.

By all accounts, the nation’s ultimate adjudicators make great party guests once they shed their black robes. At the Kennedy Center annual gala, the Opera and Symphony balls, on Embassy Row, in private homes, and at the National Gallery and Phillips Collection, they are the new high-society superheroes. When it comes to joining forces to celebrate culture without the benefit of a divisive policy issue to rally support, a Supreme Court justice has the social clout to rally a must-attend, A-list event.

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With its majestic Corinthian columns and white marble facade, located just across the street from the U.S. Capitol, the court is creating its own high-culture social universe. Hosting musical performances and theatrical interludes, reaching out to Congress, friends and supporters, the justices are adding the role of high-culture savior to their ever-growing list of unprecedented new powers.

No question the nine justices are draped in power. And unlike politicians who come and go, Supreme Court justices serve for life. They don’t have to worry about negative publicity for savoring high culture, D.C.-style. Nor do party hosts have to fret that their favorite theater, symphony or opera supporter will suddenly be voted out of office.

“These days Congress doesn’t go out much socially, and hardly ever do any of them go to the theater,” says Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Co. Kahn is among the first cultural leaders to call on the Supreme Court to help build support for his venue. Starting in the Nineties, when he teamed up with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, once a year he hosts a sold-out Mock Trial special event where justices take the stage to decide cases involving Shakespeare’s plays and plot lines.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who presides as chief magistrate of the Mock Trial tribune, recalls taking over after “Justice Kennedy presided over a case of whether Hamlet was competent to stand trial for murder at the court.” Since then, top D.C. trial lawyers have joined in to argue the finer points of law in made-up cases such as Iago being put on trial for the murders of Desdemona and Othello; Malvolio for whether he was entitled to $10 million in damages for wrongful imprisonment, and Hamlet questioning an insanity plea for his murder of Polonius. The arguments take place before a packed crowd of Washington lawyers who cheer, hiss and vote before gathering for cocktails at the end of the evening.

“The Supreme Court gets very involved in the theater,” says Kahn, who confides the justices are known to hand out their own reciprocal invitations. Over the years, Kahn has been invited to lunch in the Supreme Court’s private dining room. Kahn is not the only one. “I remember when Rusty Powell [director of the National Gallery of Art] joined us for lunch,’’ says Justice Samuel Alito.

The new supersocial court is filling the void once occupied by conservative senators like Orrin Hatch, who used to hang out with the late Massachusetts liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, or Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, who was friends with conservative icon President Reagan.

“Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no matter what divides them politically, they are famous for their sociability and their sense of humor,” says Kahn.

Who knew?

“We’re more social because we have more women,’’ says Justice Stephen Breyer, who credits his predecessor, Sandra Day O’Connor, with giving him the necessary advice to survive the D.C. social scene. “She said to watch what you say and stay out of politics.”

As the first woman appointed to the court and a socially adept Junior Leaguer, O’Connor gets credit for social trailblazing even though her own introduction to after-hours Washington was anything but courtly. Invited to the 1985 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, O’Connor was seated next to Washington Redskins fullback John Riggins. Noting the justice’s reserve, and having spent the night drinking, Riggins told her, “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up. You’re too tight,’’ before passing out on the floor during then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s remarks.

Everyone agrees the court has done a lot to loosen up. “These days, they’re all writing books, and with so many speaking outside the court, we all get the benefit of their sense of humor and their famous sociability,” says Kahn.

“Everyone takes their cue from the Chief Justice,’’ says Republican veteran Wayne Berman. “John Roberts goes out a lot.” This spring, Roberts attended the Opera Ball and a dinner party hosted by his former boss, Fred Fielding, who served as White House Counsel to President Ronald Reagan. He also turned up at the Metropolitan Club, one of Washington’s oldest private institutions, to welcome new members.

Sharon Percy Rockefeller, whose husband Jay Rockefeller is stepping down from his West Virginia Senate seat, praises O’Connor for not following her own advice after retiring from the bench. “She’s doing a great job writing books and recently by questioning whether the Supreme Court may have erred in weighing in on the 2000 presidential election,” says Percy Rockefeller, referring to the court’s decision tipping the election to George W. Bush rather than Al Gore.

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