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Tradition is a long-held value at the US Supreme Court, where the nine justices’ adherence to a myriad of historic rules makes the inner workings of America’s highest court reliably consistent even as its decisions sometimes send shock waves through the country.
Some of those treasured rules will soon be on display as the court’s newest member, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, takes her seat on the bench for oral arguments. Although Jackson was administered her official oaths last spring, her investiture ceremony sealed her position on the bench days before the court’s new term begins on Monday, October 3.
The addition of Jackson will cause the court to invoke one of its closely held traditions: the rearrangement of where the justices are seated on the bench when a new justice joins its ranks.
In the courtroom, justices are seated by seniority, with the chief justice in the middle. “The senior associate justice sits to his right, the second senior to his left, and so on, alternating right and left by seniority,” according to the court.
This means that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas will occupy the same seat this term that they did last term. But the remaining justices will be shuffled around, with Jackson seated to Roberts’ left on the end, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court in late 2020, seated on the opposite end, and the other five justices taking new seats depending on when they joined the court.
On Friday, Jackson also participated in other court traditions, including sitting in the historic John Marshall Bench Chair at the beginning of the ceremony, as is customary for all new justices.
President Joe Biden attended the Friday morning ceremony. It is customary before the event for the president to chat privately with the justices in a conference room and to sign the court’s oversized guest book.
After the ceremony, Jackson took the traditional walk down the 36 marble steps at the front of the columned building accompanied by the chief justice.
Although the justices will take new seats this term, much of the public won’t ever see them in those positions because photography is not allowed in the courtroom. But Roberts has announced that after more than two years of pandemic-related restrictions, members of the public will be allowed back into the courtroom, though he has yet to lay out details.
Before October, the justices will likely discuss whether the court will continue to allow a live audio feed of oral arguments, a practice that began during the pandemic that enables the public to follow along in real time.
Continuing that practice could allow court watchers across the country to get an understanding of Jackson’s style on the bench as she participates in oral arguments during her first term.
In the new term, the justices will consider issues including voting rights, immigration, affirmative action, environmental regulations and religious liberty — areas where the solid conservative majority can easily control the outcomes.