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Lying in State: The History Behind the Solemn Tradition

September 23, 2020 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

The tradition, bestowed as a final tribute, began in 1852, with the death of Henry Clay.

Since 1852, 35 individuals have received the high honor of lying in state: 12 presidents, two vice presidents, plus members of Congress, unknown soldiers, military heroes, a city planner, and U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Bestowed as a final tribute to distinguished government officials and military officers, a lying in state ceremony requires the approval of a concurrent resolution by Congress in order to take place in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A service, accompanied by full military honors, is followed by an invitation for the public to pay its respects.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: First Woman to Lie in State

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18, 2020, will become the first woman to be recognized with the tribute (and the second Supreme Court justice—honoree President William Howard Taft served as chief justice after his presidency). Ginsburg will be placed in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. (Statuary Hall is controlled by the House, so Senate approval was not needed.)

“The Rotunda is part of the Capitol that belongs to everybody, it’s not a House room or a Senate room,” says Jane Campbell, president and CEO of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “The place where you lie in state is actually right in the center of Washington, and so you’re technically in all four quadrants at the same time.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brooklyn’s Own Supreme Court Justice (TV-PG; 2:31)

WATCH: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brooklyn’s Own Supreme Court Justice

Henry Clay, Then Abraham Lincoln: First to Lie in State

Kentucky Senator and Speaker of the House Henry Clay was the first to be honored with the recognition in 1852, followed by President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865. The original platform on which Lincoln’s casket rested, called a catafalque and constructed of simple pine boards draped in black cloth, has been preserved and used in most of the nation’s lying-in-state services ever since.

The catafalque, which can be seen at the Capitol Visitor Center when not in use, has been reinforced over the years, according to Campbell. President Ronald Reagan, for example, had a heavy, marble-lined coffin that needed extra support. Also, the black fabric draping that covers the catafalque has been replaced several times. It’s also been lent out to the U.S. Supreme Court and other branches of …read more


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Why Do 9 Justices Serve on the Supreme Court?

September 23, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

The Constitution doesn’t stipulate how many justices should serve on the Court—in fact, that number fluctuated until 1869.

Only since 1869 have there consistently been nine justices appointed to the Supreme Court. Before that, Congress routinely changed the number of justices to achieve its own partisan political goals, resulting in as few as five Supreme Court justices required by law under John Adams to as many as 10 under Abraham Lincoln.

The U.S. Constitution is silent about how many justices should sit on the Supreme Court. In fact, the office of Chief Justice only exists because it’s mentioned in the Constitution under Senate rules for impeachment proceedings (“When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside…”).

It’s Congress, not the Constitution, that decides the size of the Supreme Court, which it did for the first time under the Judiciary Act of 1789. When George Washington signed the Act into law, he set the number of Supreme Court justices at six.

WATCH: Washington on HISTORY Vault

Split Decisions Were Less of a Concern

Why six? Because Supreme Court justices in those days were also appointed to sit on federal circuit courts, of which there were 13 in 1789, one for each state. Each circuit court would be presided over by three judges: one district court judge from the state and two Supreme Court justices.

“The justices had to spend almost the entire year traveling,” says Maeva Marcus, a research professor at the George Washington University Law School and director of its Institute for Constitutional History. “And the traveling conditions were horrendous.”

To limit the geographical area traveled by the justices, the Judiciary Act of 1789 divided the circuit courts into three regions: Eastern, Western and Southern. The reason that the first Supreme Court had six justices was simple—so that two of them could preside in each of the three regions.

Marcus said that no one at the time quibbled about the fact that six is an even number, which leaves open the possibility of 3-3 split decisions.

“They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” says Marcus. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Supreme Court (TV-PG; 1:57)

WATCH: The Supreme Court

Adams Shrinks the Court to Snub Jefferson

The …read more