If President Barack Obama really wants to test his skill, he should take it to the nation’s high court. Not the Supreme Court of the United States. The basketball court above it.
Playing ball an experience at the highest court
Washington » If President Barack Obama really wants to test his skill, he should take it to the nation’s high court.
Not the Supreme Court of the United States. The basketball court above it.
Obama is not shy about pitching himself as a basketball-loving commander-in-chief, and recently invited ESPN to the White House to see him fill in his bracket for college basketball’s Big Dance. And since the president’s new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. doesn’t have a built-in basketball court, the chief executive has to take his game on the road.
What better place to shoot hoops than at the Supreme Court, which houses a gym just above the big hall where the justices hear arguments on the nation’s most important cases.
“Why not? You’ve got to play at the ‘Highest Court in the Land,’ ” says Jay Jorgensen, a Brigham Young University Law School graduate who clerked for former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Jorgensen has played ball there, as have many of the law clerks who toiled endless hours at the building a block from the U.S. Capitol. Obama may well be able to dominate the clerks — “We tend to be very bookish,” Jorgensen jokes — but not the well-fit security officers who also use the facility.
The basketball court, on the top floor of the 1935 marble building, wasn’t planned for gym rats. The original use was attic storage for the law library and extra chairs, tables and files.
But sometime in the 1940s, the justices converted it into a gym, with a weight room and basketball court with standards on each end of the concrete floor. Several of the high court’s members have used the space: former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor organized an exercise class every morning, and current Chief Justice John Roberts often played Rehnquist when Roberts clerked for him.
Former Justice Byron Raymond White, a former All-American football star who was played in the NFL, was an avid fan of basketball as well, and he loved challenging his clerks to games.
BYU law school professor Tom Lee clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas starting in the summer of 2004, right about the time Thomas injured his Achilles tendon during a game. Since the jurist couldn’t play a pick-up game, he would play a version of the game H-O-R-S-E.
“We invited him to play a game of H-O-R-S-E,” Lee said, “and Thomas said, ‘You know, Supreme Court justices don’t play H-O-R-S-E, they play habeas corpus.’ “
Lee’s brother, Mike, who clerked for Justice Samuel Alito in 2006, says that because the courtroom is right above the court’s chambers, a player dribbling the ball up there translates into big booms downstairs.
“People don’t realize this but it’s immediately on top of the courtroom, and there are signs everywhere, all over the place as you enter the court, on the walls of the court, as you enter the stairs, [that read], “Do not assume court is over. No basketball while court is being held.’ “
Playing ball at the higher-than-the-high-court court can also lead to some interesting conversations. Law clerks take their work seriously, and sometimes will litigate every foul.
And even when they’re just playing for fun, the clerks never really leave work, adds Tom Lee.
“Almost everything you did [as a clerk], you were living and breathing the Supreme Court while you were there,” he says. “Even when you’re playing basketball, you’d end up talking about the cases.”