Ketanji Brown Jackson made history last week, becoming the first Black woman to ascend to a seat on the Supreme Court. She’s reached the pinnacle of her profession, but she’ll have some very humble duties to fulfill once she’s sworn in.
Like many staid institutions, the Supreme Court holds certain, shall we say, rites of initiation for its newest junior justices. Jackson will have to open the door whenever there’s a knock outside the court’s conference room, take notes during conference meetings, and help choose the lunch options in the cafeteria.
“The Court is a tradition-bound institution, and there are official and unofficial ways that they hold up that tradition,” says Dan Urman, who teaches constitutional law and the modern U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern. “One way is a nerdy version of rookie hazing.”
Jackson, like all new junior justices before her, will be responsible for answering knocks at the door when the justices meet in conference to privately discuss the cases before them.
“Sometimes the justices will forget their glasses or their coffee, and they’ll ask their clerks to get them,” Urman says. But, the court’s conference room is something of an inner sanctum, where clerks and assistants aren’t allowed. So, when someone knocks on the door with those forgotten spectacles or a beverage, it’s Jackson who will have to answer.
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who was the court’s new justice for six years, explained at a fireside chat in 2017: “Literally, if I’m like in the middle of a sentence … and there’s a knock on the door, everyone will just stare at me, waiting for me to open the door. It’s like a form of hazing. So that’s what I do, I open the door. Pronto.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, whom Jackson will replace, was the new guy on the bench for more than 11 years, and got so accustomed to answering the conference room door that he jumped up even after Justice Samuel Alito was seated in 2006, according to USA Today.
Jackson clerked for Breyer during that time, so she’ll know what to expect, Urman says. “That was ingrained and integrated into her understanding of the role of the junior justice.”
Then there’s cafeteria duty. Each new justice serves on the committee that oversees the court’s cafeteria, a “boring and thankless” task that comes with plenty of ribbing (pardon the pun) from the other justices.
Kagan explained, “I think this is a way to kind of humble people. You think you’re kind of hot stuff. You’re an important person. You’ve just been confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. And now you are going to monthly cafeteria committee meetings where literally the agenda is what happened to the good recipe for the chocolate chip cookies.”
Kagan, famously, introduced a new frozen yogurt machine in the cafeteria. Justice Brett Kavanaugh added pizza. And Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s brief tenure as the newest justice coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the cafeteria was largely shut down.
The lighthearted committee assignment has a less savory history, though. When President Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman to the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in 1981, Chief Justice Warren Burger “responded by assigning her to the cafeteria committee,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
It would seem that the “birth of the cafeteria committee assignment is rooted in sexism,” Urman says. If it were the case, it didn’t stay that way: Every junior justice since O’Connor has been stuck with the task, a list that includes eight men and four women.
It’s worth noting that O’Connor’s presence on the bench required some other important changes, too. The signs on chamber doorways that read “Mr. Justice” needed to be updated, and construction crews needed to add a women’s bathroom behind the bench—previously there was just a men’s room, Urman says.
Still, as the first Black woman prepares to step into her rightful place on the bench, might it be time to ditch traditions that reek of bias?
“Do I think it’s bad optics? I do,” Urman says, “but I don’t think this is something that’s going to change.”
As an institution, the Supreme Court is slow to change. Turtles in the courtyard of its building in Washington, D.C., are meant to represent the deliberative pace of justice. When O’Connor joined the court, the justices worried that she might find the role of opening the conference room door demeaning, “but decided that custom must go on,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
It’s likely the same will happen now, Urman says, with change coming slowly. After all, it took more than 200 years for a Black woman to serve as a justice on the High Court.