Supreme Court in Session

German-born pioneer of photography, Dr. Erich Salomon was one of only two known persons to have photographed a session of the U.S. Supreme Court. Salomon, the father of ‘candid photographs’ had an eye for photo opportunities–a hollowed out book on mathematics enabled him to take pictures of gambling rooms in Monte Carlo; a floral arrangement at a Washington banquet gave him a close-up of Herbert Hoover; a hole in his bowler or fedora enabled him to take photos inside Berlin courtrooms. He was daring too; he used a window washer’s ladder to spy an international conference in the Hague, while for the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, he simply walked into the signing room and took the vacant seat of the Polish delegate as well as several photos. For the Supreme Court, he faked a broken arm and a sling over it concealed his camera well.


The photo appeared in 1932 Fortune magazine (above). The Supreme Court at the time was made up of four conservatives (McReynolds, Butler, van Devanter, Sutherland), three liberals (Brandeis, Stone, Cardozo) and two moderates (Chief Justice Hughes, Roberts). 

Absent from the photo above was James McReynolds, one of the most cantankerous men to sit on the Court. It was customary for McReynolds to be dismissive or absent whenever there was someone he disagreed with presenting or speaking. When an African American or female lawyer appeared before the Court to argue, he would often leave the bench or turn his chair backward so he could not see them — similar actions he directed at fellow justices. McReynolds refused to speak to Justice Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the Court, for the first three years of Brandeis’s tenure, and often left the room whenever Brandeis spoke. When Benjamin Cardozo was nominated for the court, McReynolds joined Justices Butler and Van Devanter in urging the White House not to “afflict the Court with another Jew”. During Cardozo’s swearing-in ceremony, McReynolds pointedly read a newspaper and held a brief in front of his face whenever Cardozo delivered an opinion from the bench.


Five years later, another concealed picture of the Supreme Court (this time in its new chambers) was taken. It was “by an enterprising amateur, a young woman who concealed her small camera in her handbag, cutting a hole through which the lens peeped, re sembling an ornament. She practiced shooting from the hip, without using the camera’s finder which was inside the purse, before achieving this result.”

The photo contained all nine justices — the same nine as five years before. But it was their ‘Farewell Appearance’, as Time magazine noted in their June 7, 1937 edition when they published the photo above. “Nine historic oldsters for the last time this season parted the heavy curtains, filed between the marble columns, took their seats with a rustle of gowns in their leather chairs behind the mahogany bench in their temple-like Chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States. …. all eyes were on Justice Willis Van Devanter, whose retirement was to become effective next day.”

Time noted about the photo:

“The Justices relax in characteristic attitudes. At the left Justice Roberts, whose recent swing to the liberals has resulted in a series of decisions upholding the New Deal, pays close attention to the white-haired attorney (centre) arguing before the Court. Next comes conservative Justice Butler, hunched in his little chair studying a document. Liberal Justice Brandeis, 80, most ancient member of the Court, looks gauntly on. Conservative Justice Van Devanter, hearing one of his last cases, has his fingers before his mouth. The Chief Justice fingers his snowy mustache. Conservative Justice McReynolds stares meditatively at the fine ceiling of the court room (not shown in the picture). Conservative Justice Sutherland lounges at one side of his chair. Liberal Justice Stone has his hand partly before his face. Liberal Justice Cardozo leans wearily upon one elbow. It is 2:52 p.m.”

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