Tea at the White House

Traditions smooth our turbulent and chaotic lives. Read the following about a tradition that no longer exists, but should be reinstated in my not so humble opinion:

For the Jackson List:

On Monday, October 2, 1939, the Supreme Court of the United States began its new term.

The Justices—Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Associate Justices James C. McReynolds, Harlan Fiske Stone, Owen J. Roberts, Hugo L. Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter and William O. Douglas—took the bench at noon. Justice Pierce Butler, hospitalized with a bladder ailment, was absent.

The Court’s session lasted only twelve minutes. It admitted a number of attorneys to practice before it. The Solicitor General of the United States, Robert H. Jackson, moved the admissions of two of these attorneys, new Assistant Attorneys General Samuel O. Clark, Jr. (heading the Tax Division) and Francis M. Shea (heading the Claims Division). The second was personally meaningful to both Jackson and Shea—they were good friends from western New York, and Jackson had recruited Shea to the Department of Justice from his previous position as dean of The University of Buffalo School of Law.

During its session, the Court received a report on one substantive matter. Charles Warren, the Court-appointed special master handling a Texas-New Mexico-Colorado boundary dispute, told the Justices that he had nothing left to do in the matter because the states had agreed to the settlement that he recommended two years earlier. Following this report, the Court adjourned until the following Monday.

That brief session did not mark the end of the Supreme Court’s day. Late that afternoon, seven justices—Chief Justice Hughes and Justices Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter and Douglas—went as a group to the White House. They were accompanied by Attorney General Frank Murphy and Solicitor General Jackson. The occasion was a visit, and tea, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The ailing Justice Butler and the Roosevelt-hating Justice McReynolds did not attend. For all who did, the visit was relaxed and enjoyable.

This 1939 White House visit marked the first time in four years that the Supreme Court made its then-traditional call to pay respects to the president at the start of the Court term. In 1936, 1937 and 1938, FDR had been absent from Washington on the first Monday in October. 1937 also had been the year of his Court-packing proposal, starting that February and continuing into the summer. Perhaps the resulting bruises, on both president and Court, were still there in Fall 1937, and even a year later.

The tradition of the President inviting the Justices to visit him in this fashion lapsed many years ago. On this first Monday, when the Supreme Court begins its new term and all wish it well, that lapse is something to remember and, in my view, to regret.

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Professor John Q. Barrett

Professor of Law, St. John’s University, New York, NY

Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow, Robert H. Jackson Center, Jamestown, NY


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