The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court gather for a formal group portrait at the Supreme Court Building, Nov. 30, 2018.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
explainer / justice

The Stories Behind the Supreme Court’s Class Photos

For 150 years, the justices have sat, not always happily, for an extraordinary series of group portraits.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh stood in the back row, on the far right, beaming. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recovering from a fall, sat in front of him, grimacing. Off to her right, Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared to chuckle at a joke he had just recalled.

It was the latest installment of an awkward and illuminating tradition at the Supreme Court: the group photographs prepared when a new justice joins the court. Last month, the justices took their places, in strict order of seniority, and tried to smile for the cameras.

About a dozen news photographers were there to document the occasion, supervised by a court official with a stopwatch. “It’s a tradition that all the photographers in town look forward to getting a crack at,” said Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times, “because it’s a historical picture no matter what.”

A Supreme Court photographer also takes pictures. Until recently, the justices voted on which of those would be the official photograph.

“It is not clear when the justices began voting for their preferred pose, but the process goes at least as far back as the Taft court” in the 1920s,Franz Jantzen, one of the court’s photographers, wrote in 2015 in The Journal of Supreme Court History. If there were 5-to-4 splits, they have not been reported.

The 2017 official photograph, according to notes to an exhibit at the court, included an innovation. It looks like a class photo, but it is a composite.

“This is the first official color group photograph for which color film was not used,” the notes said, “and the result is the first to combine each of the justices’ individual choices, from several poses, into a single image.” The photo appeared on the court’s website without acknowledgment that it was a composite.

The Supreme Court is resistant to change. For the past 50 years, the elements of the group photographs have been identical. They are taken in the court’s east conference room, in front of red velvet drapes.
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