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Supreme Court 'hazing?' Here's what's ahead for new Justice Neil Gorsuch

  • By JESSICA GRESKO, Associated Press
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Neil Gorsuch

In this photo provided by the Public Information Office Supreme Court of the U.S., Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and fellow justices watch as Neil Gorsuch signs the Constitutional Oath after Roberts administered the Constitutional Oath in a private ceremony, Monday, April 10, 2017, in the Justices' Conference Room at the Supreme Court in Washington.

Franz Jantzen

WASHINGTON (AP) — How do you keep a new Supreme Court justice's head from getting too big?

Start by making him take notes and answer the door at the justices' private meetings. Then, remind him he speaks last at those discussions. Finally, assign him the job of listening to gripes about the food at the court's cafeteria.

That's what awaits Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Supreme Court on Monday as the "junior justice," the freshman of the nine-member court. The menial duties for the newest justice are a part of tradition, but not a bad deal for a job that comes with lifetime tenure and the prestige of a high court seat.

Still, it can take all the justices a while to adjust. Justice Samuel Alito says that when he took over as the court's rookie from Justice Stephen Breyer in 2006, after Breyer had been the court's junior member for more than a decade, Breyer still leapt up the first time someone interrupted the justices' private conference with a knock.

Samuel Alito

President George W. Bush watches Judge Samuel Alito of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia speak after he announced him as his new nominee for the Supreme Court, Monday, Oct. 31, 2005, in the Cross Hall in the White House.

Stephen Breyer

U.S. President Bill Clinton and his Supreme Court nominee Stephen Breyer walk to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 16, 1994, where the president officially introduced Breyer to the nation. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Doug Mills

"Before I could even start to get out of the chair, Justice Breyer was out of his chair and headed for the door and the chief justice had to say, 'Steve, sit down, that's not your job anymore,'" Alito said in a 2009 interview .

Gorsuch will take over junior justice duties from Justice Elena Kagan, who has held the spot since 2010. Kagan has said of her door-opening duties: "Literally, if there is a knock on the door and I don't hear it there will not be a single other person who will move. They'll just all stare at me until I figure out: 'Oh, I guess somebody knocked on the door.'"

Kagan said at Princeton in 2014 that retrieving a justice's forgotten pair of glasses or coffee from whomever is knocking sometimes conflicts with her other job at private meetings: taking notes.

"There I am, popping up and down," she said. "I think that's a form of hazing, don't you?"

Elena Kagan

President Barack Obama, left, introduces Solicitor General Elena Kagan, right, as his choice for Supreme Court Justice in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Kagan has said other justices also liked to rib her about the food at the court since it's the junior justice's job to help oversee the cafeteria, which is frequented by court employees and visitors.

Chief Justice John Roberts has said that the appointment to the cafeteria committee has another function for a new justice.

"It's a way of bringing them back down to Earth after the excitement of confirmation and appointment," Roberts told an audience in 2011 following Kagan's appointment.

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John Roberts

President George W. Bush stands with Supreme Court nominee John Roberts at the White House July 19, 2005 in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)


Kagan said it worked and that it's a way of telling the new justice: "You're not so important after all ... You have to spend an hour every month thinking about the chocolate chip cookies."

Kagan's main cafeteria committee accomplishment has been introducing a frozen yogurt machine. Breyer expanded the cafeteria's salad bar and added Starbucks coffee. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice, found herself in some hot water when she singlehandedly chose a new cafeteria food service company. Several committee members promptly resigned.

Sandra Day O'Connor

Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor is shown on arrival at Washington National Airport in July 1981.

Byron White

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Byron White, left, poses with President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, at the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 1961. Kennedy would go on to nominate White to the Supreme Court in 1962.

Clarence Thomas

President George H. Bush introduces Judge Clarence Thomas, left, as his nominee to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall during a press conference July 1, 1991, at his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Doug Mills

For Gorsuch, cafeteria duty is likely the least of his worries. Kagan, who like Gorsuch clerked on the court, compared adjusting to being a justice to "drinking out of a firehose" and said the "learning curve is extremely steep, sometimes it seems vertical."

Justice Byron White had a five-year rule, telling new justices that's how long adjusting takes. Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the court in 1991, said White told him : "Well, Clarence, in your first five years you wonder how you got here. After that you wonder how your colleagues got here."


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