Supreme Court Justices Dining with the President: Not Unusual At All

It was announced this afternoon that President Trump will have dinner with members of the U.S. Supreme Court this coming Thursday. It’s not yet clear if all of the justices will attend.

Some questions were raised via social media regarding how often presidents have dined with Supreme Court justices in the past. Some even suggested it was highly unusual. History proves the opposite. These dinners have been quite common since at least the 19th century.

According to the White House Historical Association, “[d]uring the nineteenth century, a series of ‘state dinners’ were held every winter social season to honor Congress, the Supreme Court and members of the diplomatic community. Note: these dinners were called “state dinners” even though they lacked official foreign representation.

I did some research online, and was able to find a number of other instances of Supreme Court justices dining with presidents. The practice appears quite common.

(1) Supreme Court Justices dined at the White House during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration.

(2) 1890: Here is a New York Times report on President Benjamin Harrison and his wife hosting a dinner with members of the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1890. Members of Congress were also present at the dinner.

(3) 1939: Here is a photograph from the Library of Congress showing Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and his wife leaving for a dinner on January 19, 1939, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt hosted an annual White House dinner honoring members of the federal judiciary.

[UPDATE: Per Smithsonian magazine: FDR dined with Supreme Court Justices just days before announcing his Court packing scheme and during a time when the Justices were hearing challenges to FDR’s New Deal agenda:

The Supreme Court itself had no inkling of what was afoot. When the president entertained the judiciary at a White House dinner on February 2, he told adviser Donald Richberg that “his choice should be whether to take only one cocktail before dinner and have it a very amiable affair, or to have a mimeographed copy of the program laid beside the plate of each justice and then take three cocktails to fortify himself against their reactions.” The banquet was an amiable affair. But as the evening drew to a close, Idaho’s senator William Borah, sensing something as he saw the president chatting with two of the justices, remarked: “That reminds me of the Roman Emperor who looked around his dinner table and began to laugh when he thought how many of those heads would be rolling on the morrow.”

Three days later, on February 5, 1937, Roosevelt shocked Congress, his closest advisers and the country by unleashing a thunderbolt. He asked Congress to empower him to appoint an additional justice for any member of the court over age 70 who did not retire.]

(4) A 1958 issue of Life Magazine about Mamie Eisenhower (clip below) shows her hosting a pre-dinner reception for a state dinner at the White House with Supreme Court Justices.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 3.33.45 PM

(5) President John F. Kennedy hosted a dinner jointly honoring the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

(6) From the Gerald Ford President Library, correspondence regarding the planning of a White House social dinner with Supreme Court Justices.

(7) From the National Archives, a photo of President Jimmy Carter and his wife hosting an informal dinner for members of the Supreme Court and their spouses. (H/T Mitch Harper)

(8) From the Clinton Archives: Following Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation to the Court, White House Counsel Bernie Nussbaum and adviser Ron Klain suggested a dinner at the White House with all of the Justices “and their wives.” They went on to say “The dinner would be a courteous and informal way for the president to strengthen his relations with the members of the court—though, admittedly, the benefits of doing so are difficult to quantify.”

(9) In October 2008, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush hosted a dinner at the White House in honor of the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. 

(10) President Obama often invited Supreme Court justices to state dinners for foreign leaders. Justices Kennedy, Sotomayor, Kagan and Scalia all attended such dinners during his presidency.

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