The streets in Washington, D.C., were barely covered with snow Wednesday morning.
Eventually, some 3 to 5 inches accumulated. But D.C. isn’t particularly known for handling inclement weather very well. It’s essentially a Southern town when it comes to weather.
Most folks huddled at home, with the federal government shut down — except for essential workers. The schools announced a day early that they would shutter their doors, too.
But there was at least one place where the work went on, and it always does — the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the highest court in America, it was just another day at work.
The justices announced opinions, heard arguments and the chamber was packed with lawyers and interested observers.
(Across the street, Congress was in session, but that’s probably because most members live close by; the Easter recess starts next week; and votes on bills had already been scheduled for Wednesday. Lawmakers are also set to unveil a spending deal to avoid a shutdown at the end of the week.)
Snow way they’re missing a day in court — a legacy of William Rehnquist
At the Supreme Court, snow is simply not considered an excuse for failure to function. Most old-timers give the credit (or blame) for that to the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
Rehnquist, who grew up in snowy Wisconsin, viewed Washington’s fear of falling snow as totally ridiculous. Even in near-blizzard conditions, if necessary, he would send out court SUVs to pick up the justices and other court personnel to ensure that there was no interruption in the schedule.
And woe be to the lawyer scheduled to argue a case who thought he or she could easily beg off on grounds of difficult transport.
Indeed, on one or more occasions, attorneys drove through blizzard conditions from cities hundreds of miles away in order to be at the lectern when their case was called for argument.
Snow games and misdirection
In Rehnquist’s eyes, snow was an occasion not for anxiety, but for games, and perhaps misdirection. One year, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Rehnquist and Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. were spotted on the court plaza during an anti-Roe demonstration nearby.
The Washington Post reported that the two justices were spotted watching the marchers.
In fact, they were doing nothing of the sort.
Rather, they were watching two of their law clerks measuring the snow. One clerk was to measure; the other was to verify the measurement. The outcome would settle a bet.
As it happens, the current chief justice, John G. Roberts, clerked for Rehnquist, and he has followed his onetime boss’s show-must-go-on policy for the most part.
But then, he’s from Indiana, another snowy state.
So, on Wednesday morning, promptly at 10 a.m. ET, the justices were on the bench, first issuing opinions, then hearing cases argued.
Justice Samuel Alito announced the first opinion. A 9-0 decision overturning a decision in a death-penalty case. The court said a federal appeals court in Texas wrongly denied funds requested by a defense lawyer for “investigative, expert, and other services reasonably necessary” for the representation of the accused.
Justice Stephen Breyer announced the second decision, a tax ruling with potentially broad implications. By a 7-to-2 vote, the court made it harder for the federal government to prosecute someone for obstructing an IRS investigation.
It was nothing a little snow was going to stop.
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