The Slatest

A Dispatch From the Supreme Court, Where Scalia’s Absence Looms Large

The Supreme Court courtroom following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. His spot on the bench is adorned with black memorial draping.

The Curator’s Office of the United States Supreme Court

The eight justices of the United States Supreme Court looked appropriately somber as they took the bench on Monday morning—the court’s first sitting since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13. Typically, the justices emerge in trios from behind the red curtain as they amble to their seats: Three from the left, three from the right, and three from the center. But only Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy walked out from the center on Monday. Scalia’s seat remained empty, a traditional memorial draping of black wool crepe hung over his chair and spot on the bench. Similar draping adorned the courtroom doors.

Roberts memorialized Scalia stoically while the other justices gazed out, impassive. He read a short biography, detailing the highlights of Scalia’s life and career. It was peppered with classic Roberts-isms: The chief noted that Scalia only argued one case at the Supreme Court, which he won, “establishing a perfect record before the court.” He reported that Scalia penned 292 majority opinions during his nearly three decades on the bench, then paused. “He was also known, on occasion, to dissent.” The audience laughed. (Scalia’s ferocious, cuttingly witty dissents are legendary among lawyers and laypeople alike.)

The chief read most of his tribute directly off the page, only occasionally raising his eyes to address the spectators before him. When he finished, he put down his papers and looked out over the courtroom in a brief moment of silence. Justice Clarence Thomas leaned back in his chair, looking more alone than ever. Justice Stephen Breyer, Scalia’s frequent sparring partner, stole a glance toward Roberts—and the empty chair beside him. Justice Elena Kagan, Scalia’s hunting buddy, appeared stoic but sad, her lips pursed, her eyes downcast. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia’s best friend on the bench, stared downward, hunched over as usual, looking all of her nearly 83 years.

Roberts looked down again, gathering his papers.  

“And now,” he said, “we turn to the business of the court.” 

See more of Slate’s coverage of Antonin Scalia.