WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is shutting its front entrance to the public, and revealing new divisions among the justices themselves.
In a move to tighten security, court officials announced Monday the public will no longer be permitted to enter through the building's majestic front entrance. Instead, starting Tuesday, visitors will be shunted around to the sides.
Court officials explained the move as prudent and necessary, in keeping with security recommendations first made in 2001 and reiterated last year. The security reports, which themselves remain secret, urged setting up new public screening areas.
"The entrance provides a secure, reinforced area to screen for weapons, explosives, and chemical and biological hazards," the court declared in a public statement.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, though, denounced the long-anticipated detours as a bad signal from a public body that's already famously buttoned-up.
"I think the change is unfortunate," Breyer wrote, adding that "to many members of the public, this court's main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself."
Visitors will still be allowed to leave the court through the front doors.
The court's rerouting of the public follows the lead taken by Congress and the White House, where security considerations already shape the visitor experience. Most tourists, for instance, now must enter the Capitol via an underground screening facility and visitors center completed at a cost of some $621 million.
The strategy for both the Capitol and the Supreme Court is to keep the screening as far as possible from the people and facility being protected.
Unlike the Capitol, however, where C-SPAN cameras capture the action and reporters wander relatively freely, the Supreme Court remains largely cloaked from public view.
Justices, without explanation, denied seven separate media requests since October for same-day release of audiotapes from high-profile oral arguments. In a related vein, justices appear disinterested in perennial congressional efforts to open the Supreme Court to television cameras.
"Not a chance," Justice Antonin Scalia said in a 2006 CNBC interview. "We don't want to become entertainment. I think there's something sick about making entertainment out of other people's legal problems."
In voicing their dissatisfaction with the decision to shut the front entrance, Sotomayor and Breyer described the 44 marble steps leading up to the entrance as an integral part of architect Cass Gilbert's widely acclaimed design.
The four-story marble building opened in 1935, across the street from the Capitol and next to the Library of Congress. Last year, 392,488 public visitors entered the court building.
"Gilbert's plan leads visitors along a carefully choreographed, climbing path that ultimately ends at the courtroom itself," Breyer wrote, and "writers and artists regularly use the steps to represent the ideal that anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this court."
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. is accustomed to ideological and jurisprudential divisions. Five decisions so far this term have been reached on the narrowest possible margins, and some of the toughest cases remain unfinished.
However, there's no public record of a formal vote held by the court's nine justices concerning the public entrance decision.
A three-member building committee has been overseeing a court modernization project formally begun in 2003. The wide-ranging project, with a price tag initially estimated at $122 million, includes enhanced security.
Justices have been keeping members of Congress apprised of the modernization project, including plans to shift entrances, and so far lawmakers have largely shrugged.
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