The Supreme Court’s Newest Justice Must Help Run The Cafeteria

Image courtesy of Adam Fagen

The junior person in a workplace often gets stuck with tasks that no one else wants to do, in a form of occupational hazing. In the U.S. Supreme Court, one hallowed tradition is that the newest addition to the bench must take on a task that nothing in law school or in a Senate confirmation hearing has prepared them for: He or she must serve on the committee in charge of the building’s cafeteria.

The weird tradition began in 1981, when the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, arrived on the Supreme Court. We don’t know what message then-Chief Justice Warren Burger was trying to send by putting her on the building’s cafeteria committee, though we have some guesses.

Every new justice since then, male or female, has served on the committee alongside regular federal employees, helping to set the menu and the prices. They also deal with complaints from the cafeteria’s customers, who are mostly Supreme Court employees.

Most justices arrive in Washington with little to no food service experience, The Wall Street Journal explains. Do you remember any questions about salad bars or vegan entrées during the recent confirmation hearings of Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch?

There were no new justices appointed from 1994 to 2006, which meant that Justice Stephen Breyer has had the longest tenure on the committee. The cafeteria did expand its salad bar during that time, but his tenure was otherwise undistinguished.

“It’s not a very good cafeteria, so this is really just the opportunity they have to kind of haze you all the time,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan said in a speech at Princeton. Justice Kagan, for what it’s worth, distinguished herself in this task more than any other judge in recent memory: During her time on the committee, the cafeteria acquired a frozen yogurt machine.

Justice Samuel Alito helped with the landmark decision of changing coffee vendors during his tour of duty in the cafeteria, but also had to deal with complaints about the disappearance of pudding parfaits. The next justice appointed, Sonia Sotomayor, tried to change the coffee provider back, but the rest of the building overruled her.