If Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed in the Supreme Court, she will instantly become one of the most powerful people in the country. And if there’s one thing I’ve observed as I’ve peered through the corridors of influence over the years, it’s that with great power comes great lunches.
At least, that’s what I thought until I heard Conan O’Brien interview Judge Sonia Sotomayor on his podcast. In a discussion about working on the pitch, she said nonchalantly, “I bring my lunch every day. Some of the judges bring lunch from home. And some judges buy lunch in the courthouse cafeteria.”
Bring lunch from home? Why do they do that? It’s not like the President is waking up 20 minutes early to smear mustard on his bologna sandwiches. Jeff Bezos doesn’t cook extra pasta at night so he can slap a Post-it with his name on it and stick it in the Amazon fridge.
Allowing the most powerful legal minds in America to waste their mornings on Tupperware containers is not a good use of their time. If we just had a chef on the Supreme Court, the justices could do so much more. Gay marriage would have been legal in 1985.
To find out what’s going on while there’s still time to warn Jackson, I called Clare Cushman, director of publications for the Supreme Court Historical Society and author of Table for 9: Supreme Court Food Traditions & Recipes.
Cushman confirmed the horror. She said that Sotomayor brings a salad or a sandwich that she makes at home. Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. is also packing his lunch. So did Justice Anthony M. Kennedy before he retired. Judge John Paul Stevens’ wife sent him to work with cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off. That would be a lame thing to eat before social studies class, let alone before deciding if women can have abortions.
The court’s lunchtime problem has been around for a long time. Judge Louis Brandeis regularly brought in a sandwich of raw spinach on whole wheat bread. Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes literally brought a brown bag, and Oliver Wendell Holmes brought his in the ammo box he used during the Civil War, the only grocery conveyor that exudes more insecurity than a New York City tote.
Do the judges have to sew their own robes too? sand their own hammer?
“It’s so modest compared to the presidency,” Cushman said. She is right. It is also so humble compared to a human.
It’s getting weirder. Judge David Souter ate plain yogurt empty. Every day. Often followed by an afternoon apple, which he would eat in its entirety, including the seed, stalk, and core. When Cushman asked Souter to confirm this, he responded with a letter. “My usual (almost always) court lunch (alone or with others) was plain low-fat yogurt. Judge Scalia described it (almost always) as ‘disgusting,'” he wrote. Even the most die-hard liberals would not disagree with Scalia on this point.
Today, most judges who do not cook their own meals get their lunch in the Supreme Court cafeteria. A few years ago, the Washington Post reviewed it and gave it a failing rating: “This food should be unconstitutional.”
“What you need to understand is that most judges seem to have only brains and no stomachs. Judges are generally not foodies,” Cushman said. “It’s cultural. It’s not cool to be a glutton or to be picky about food. It’s about being a Brainiac.”
When Judge Benjamin Cardozo started eating a piece of cake with the lunch he brought to work, he was teased for being a glutton and stopped bringing it.
This tradition of strictness dates back to when judges weren’t even given a break and had to sneak into the room or behind their desks to eat. Even after 1970, when Chief Justice Warren Burger stretched lunchtime from 30 minutes to an hour, they didn’t have much time for a decent meal. On days when they hear or consider cases, justices now eat together in the Supreme Court dining room, where they don’t discuss cases or politics.
“You could have a nice lunch brought to you on Silver. They could be like the President if they wanted to. But mostly they order from the cafeteria list,” Cushman said before turning my understanding of the world on its head. “Besides, they pay for it themselves.”
I definitely had to warn Ketanji Brown Jackson about this.
The more I thought about these smartasses eating the same crazy lunches every day, the more I doubted it was because geniuses don’t care about food. When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was a partner at Hogan & Hartson, there was no way he dipped salt in his cafeteria soup like he does now. Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband was an excellent cook, and Sotomayor lets her staff find her new DC restaurants. And as we all know, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh has a passion for beer.
We’re adapting to our work culture, and the Supreme Court projects a sober, moderate public service. That’s why no kid says, “When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court Justice.”
Bad lunches aren’t even the worst part of the Supreme Court food culture Jackson has to contend with. It turns out that the newest judge on the court has to sit on the cafeteria committee. “It’s like bullying,” Cushman explained. “Although Elena Kagan installed the new frozen yogurt machine and made her a lot of friends as a result.”
My advice to Jackson is to take over the committee and already hire a damn chef.
Joel Stein is the author of In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-03-20/ketanji-brown-jackson-supreme-court-lunches What Ketanji Brown Jackson can expect for lunch if confirmed