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It's All a Facade: SCOTUS Facelift Begins

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

As we mentioned last week, the Supreme Court's popularity is waning. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that only 52 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Court, its lowest approval rating in a quarter-century.

So what’s an aging institution to do when it loses its sex appeal? Why, get a face lift, of course. This week, workers started a nearly two-year Supreme Court renovation project on the building’s marble facade.

The work, which will include cleaning and repairing the marble, is necessary considering that the Court's Authority started crumbling seven years ago. Literally. In November 2005, 80 pounds of marble fell from the Authority figure of Robert Aitken's sculpture of "Liberty Enthroned." (We can't make this stuff up.)

While the building is nipped and tucked, visitors will be greeted by a "scrim" -- a screen printed with a life-sized architectural image of the Court's west side -- that will cover the unsightly scaffolding. Scrims are pretty common at European landmarks during renovations.

While the facade of justice will conjure countless puns, it probably won't generate as much criticism as the decision to redirect traffic from the front steps of the building after the last round of Supreme Court renovations.

As those of you who've read Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine will recall, Cass Gilbert designed the dramatic steps to the Supreme Court to symbolize that justice operates on an elevated plane. Until 2010, Supreme Court litigants ascended the front steps to enter through 6.5-ton bronze doors under the chiseled words "Equal Justice Under Law." In the lead up to his confirmation, Chief Justice John Roberts recalled the impact, saying, "I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court, and I don't think it was just from the nerves."

Those days are behind us, as litigants now enter through security checkpoints on either side of the steps, which sit at ground level with the rest of us mere mortals.

The new entrance to Court -- like many controversial decisions on First Street -- had dissenters. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, questioned the change, writing, "The significance of the court's front entrance extends beyond its design and function ... To many members of the public, this court's main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself."

Perhaps the Court should try an experiment when the Supreme Court renovations are finished: Remove the scrim, re-open the front entrance to coincide with a Pew poll, and see if the higher plane yields higher approval ratings.

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