'Hazing' Rituals Await Supreme Court's 'Junior Justice' Neil Gorsuch

Tom Porter

He has spent decades establishing himself as one of the foremost legal minds in the U.S and endured several weeks of gruelling interviews and scrutiny, but now Neil Gorsuch faces a series of new tests as the most junior member of the Supreme Court.

According to tradition, the newest member of the U.S’s supreme judicial body must perform a series of tasks to establish themselves alongside their more senior colleagues, which evolved to instill a sense of humility in newcomers as they step into their new role.

In meetings of the nine members of the nation’s highest court, Gorsuch will be assigned the role of note taker, and will answer the door. He will address meetings last. He will also listen to gripes about the institution’s food as member of its cafeteria committee.

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Gorsuch was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court on Monday and will take over the junior justice duties from Justice Elena Kagan, who has held the role since 2010.

The rituals provide a fascinating insight into the tradition-steeped Supreme Court, where seniority holds weight.

In conferences where the nine judges discuss cases, no clerks or assistants are allowed to attend.

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Kagan described her door-opening duties in an address to Princeton in 2014: "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.'"

Describing who might be at the door, she said: "It's like 'knock knock, Justice X forgot his glasses' ... 'knock knock, Justice Y forgot her coffee.'"

"So there I am popping up and down. I think that is a form of hazing, don't you?"

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GettyImages-666931448

Justice Anthony Kennedy administers the oath of office to Neil Gorsuch, left, as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 10, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Gorsuch is to undergo a series of 'hazing' rituals as the newest member of the body Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

As member of the cafeteria committee, Gorsuch will field food complaints from colleagues and help find ways to improve the products available to staffers and visitors. Kagan reportedly gained respect in the role when she used her position on the committee to lobby for a frozen yoghurt machine to be installed. Justice Stephen Breyer was on the committee for 13 years during a particularly long stint between the appointment of new justices.

Kagan said the role involved an important function in grounding junior justices: “I think this is a way to kind of humble people. You think you’re kind of hot stuff. You’re an important person. You’ve just been confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. And now you are going to monthly cafeteria committee meetings where literally the agenda is what happened to the good recipe for the chocolate chip cookies.”

The tasks are all part of the steep learning curve for new members of the body, who rely heavily on the experience of more senior justices to guide and support them.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the court in 1991, has reminisced how late Justice Byron 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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