Food court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor dish on US Supreme Court’s food culture

June 22, 2024 | U.S. Supreme Court justices dish on food (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON — The law isn’t the only thing of importance on the U.S. Supreme Court. It turns out food has a place at the bench, too.

On Wednesday, June 1, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dished on the history and food traditions of the Supreme Court in a panel at the Museum of American History. The event was part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing Food History program.

In a discussion led by Clare Cushman of the Supreme Court Historical Society, Ginsburg and Sotomayor covered everything from mealtime rituals established on John Marshall’s court, to what today’s justices eat for lunch.

They gave examples of how breaking bread has helped bridge the divide among those overseeing the nation’s highest court of law, and how justices have used food to connect outside the courtroom.

The country’s first justices spent many meals together, often deliberating cases. Today’s justices still eat together regularly, only now there are stricter rules for the mealtime meetings.

“We don’t talk about cases. That is our absolute rule,” Sotomayor told the small crowd gathered in the museum’s Warner Bros. Theater. In fact, she said they try to avoid all subjects of controversy.

“The most common conversation [in the lunchroom] is about a fascinating book that one of the justices is reading,” Sotomayor said. Updates on the grandkids and museum exhibits are also welcome.

Ginsburg reminded Sotomayor that she left out one popular topic at the table: sports. “To which I don’t contribute,” she added.

“It’s just the normal type of conversation that people have who want to get to know each other as individuals rather than as justices,” Sotomayor said about lunch at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ginsburg, who isn’t a regular in the lunchroom, said she prefers to keep her midday meals small and simple. Her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, was well-known for his culinary skills, so she grew accustomed to saving her appetite for dinner.

Sotomayor, on the other hand, said she needs variety. Often she’ll pack a salad or a sandwich, and every now and then she’ll order-in from a local sushi or Indian restaurant.

“For me, eating is sacred. You should not waste a meal,” Sotomayor said.

For the most part, meals in the court’s dining room are limited to the justices. However, a few guests have been invited to dine with the nine.

Only two have been repeat guests, including former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan and former president of the World Bank James Wolfensohn.

“And the reason is that those two have an uncanny ability to eat lunch and speak at the same time,” Ginsburg said.

Birthdays are another cause for culinary celebration on the court. Ginsburg explained the Chief Justice typically brings wine for a toast. Often, there’s a birthday cake (Ginsburg’s late husband made many of these), and there’s always singing.

“Truth be told, most of them can’t carry a tune,” Ginsburg said.

“I’m one of them who can’t,” Sotomayor added.

Elaborate dinners are held when a new justice joins the court, and also before each State of the Union. Ginsburg touched on the humorous moment when she dozed off during President Obama’s 2015 address, after which she told reporters she wasn’t “100 percent sober.”

Ginsburg shared that Justice Kennedy brought a couple bottles of Opus One wine to the dinner — and she was a fan.

“That was the first time I fell asleep during the State of the Union,” she said.

When it comes to cooking, both Ginsburg and Sotomayor admit they lack bragging rights. Ginsburg, whose husband used to make dishes such as veal tonnato for the court’s spouse lunches, admits that since her husband’s death, her daughter now sees to it that she’s well-nourished.

Sotomayor said her culinary chops don’t hold a candle to her mother’s and her grandmother’s.

“I’m not a bad cook, but I’m a horrible cook of Puerto Rican food,” she said.

“But I do cook a lot of other things.”

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