CJ Warren Delayed Delivery Of Opinions of Brown v. Board Until After It Had Been Read In Full In Court

January 1st, 2015

In the Chief Justice’s year-end report, we glean this fascinating trivia bit. From the Court’s opening in 1935, until the 1971, as a Justice was announcing an opinion, the Clerk would (literally) hand-down a copy of the opinion to the journalists waiting in front of the bench. Then the journalists would zip the opinion down the pneumatic tubes to the press room on the first floor, where they could hit the (literal) wire.

When the Court opened the doors of its new Courtroom in 1935, it also revised its procedure for issuing decisions. Under the new “hand-down” protocol, immediately before a Justice announced a decision in the Courtroom, the Clerk of the Court directed messengers to hand copies to a small group of journalists stationed in front of the bench. The journalists then dispatched the copies through the pneumatic tubes to their colleagues in the press booths one floor below, saving the messengers dozens of steps and precious minutes in communicating the news of Court actions.

The idea of the clerk handing out printed decision to scurrying journalists while the Court is in session is hard to imagine. Today, everyone has to sit so respectfully and quietly as the Justices announce their decision. Reports have to quietly excuse themselves through the side.

But one case was different from all others: Brown v. Board of Education.

For thirty-six years, virtually all of the Court’s decisions reached the press through those portals. A notable exception was the Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Chief Justice Warren made a point of delaying delivery of his short opinion until he had read it in full in open Court.

This is a fascinating history. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was only 13 pages long in the U.S. Reports (347 U.S. 483-496), so it couldn’t have taken too long to read. But, Chief Justice Warren wanted to avoid the confusion of the media reporting on an incomplete version of the account. He also avoided the mess resulted after the decision in NFIB v. Sebelius were released well before Chief Justice Roberts finished reading his opinion. I’ve heard some grumblings that decisions should not be handed out until the oral pronouncement finishes, but I think this tradition is too hard to break.

The tradition of the upstairs-hand-down ended with the installation of the Court’s curved bench in 1971.

But not even things gray can stay, and the venerable steel hardware ultimately outlived its usefulness. In 1968, John P. MacKenzie, the Supreme Court reporter for the Washington Post, described the Court’s process of transmitting decisions as “perhaps the most primitive . . . in the entire communications industry.” The Court’s pneumatic age ended in 1971, when Chief Justice Burger authorized the removal of the pneumatic tube system at the same time that he introduced the Court’s familiar curved bench.

Well done Chief Justice Burger.