On the clock in the Supreme Court

According to a fascinating piece written by Tony Mauro*, the clocks in the Supreme Court weren’t working properly yesterday after the onset of standard time. “As the court chamber filled in anticipation of oral arguments, spectators noticed that the stately clocks hanging above the bench and at the back of the court were also showing the wrong time—and differing wrong times at that. When the session began, the front clock was hours off, and the rear clock was showing 3:50.”
Photo credit: John Marino per Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image has not been altered.

Photo credit: John Marino per Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image has not been altered.

Chief Justice Roberts cautioned the lawyers not to rely on the clocks. The Chief added: “You should not look at the clock anyway, but particularly not today,” Mauro then relates an incident involving Chief Justice Rehnquist and the clock over the bench:

In warning that advocates should not look at the clock, whether functioning or not, Roberts was channeling his former boss, mentor and predecessor William Rehnquist.

It was 1989 when Barry Goldstein, then a lawyer for NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, made the mistake of looking up at the clock while arguing in Lorance v. AT&T Technologies, an employment discrimination case.

Rehnquist had started to ask a question, and Goldstein, probably trying to pace himself, glanced upward to see how much time he had left.

“Don’t look at the clock,” Rehnquist snapped. Goldstein apologized, but Rehnquist was clearly still annoyed that he had paused before answering. “You’re here to answer questions as well as to talk,” the justice said.

Does it strike anyone as just plain screwy that a clock hangs above the bench but lawyers aren’t supposed to look at it upon pain of an ass-chewing during oral argument?


*H/t How Appealing.


6 responses

  1. My first reaction is that it says something that the clocks in this Supreme Court are wrong. Even more appropriate, indeed, if they were running backward.

    Most courts these days have lights that go on to tell counsel when s/he is getting close to the end. Some lawyers who still carry watches put them down on the desk, next to their notes,

    There is a story that I’m sure many of the readers know, told about John W. Davis, who at that time (the 20’s and 30’s) had argued more cases before the Supreme Court than anyone in history. Once, Davis asked the clerk, “How much time do I have?” The clerk replied, “Two minutes and thirty seconds.” Davis then said, “I present the court with two minutes and thirty seconds.” I’m sure the justices were grateful.

    That was then. Today, I’m sure one or two of the justices would have filled up the time with questions, germane or not.

  2. No surprise. Why it has not been widely reported all sorts of computers in numerous Executive agencies haven’t been working for weeks. Allegedly the secure computers in the White House are working. Suggestions that the Russians hacked us. Putin probably hacked SCOTUS too.

    How pathetic. And frightening.

  3. Judge any guess as to what the Perfesser and Curmudgeon will make of this, even federal judicial clocks can not be trusted and the only time is the judge’s time anyway. Where is the true time of yesteryear.

  4. Dear repenting lawyer,

    I have no clue, but my patience is wearing thin. Both of those folks ought to read my rules which are posted on the masthead of this blog. I am near to pushing my magic block button.

    All the best.


  5. I think Goldstein was rolling his eyes at yet another Rehnquist question, or yet another Justice’s interruption of his golden words, and Rehnquist, the better man of the two, chose to interpret that as clock-watching rather than the slur that it was. Rehnquist then made his point obliquely.


    Eric Hines

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