Today, the first Monday in October, marks the start of a new term for the U.S. Supreme Court. Until 1935, the court had no building of its own, instead meeting inside the Capitol. Only in the depths of the Great Depression, during the era of grand make-work projects, did Congress allocate money to build the Supreme Court its own building.
On its first floor is the Great Hall, where visitors can peruse displays dedicated to Supreme Court history. It was there that I came upon a larger than life size bust of a balding man. It was carved from white marble, imitating the style with which the ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated their gods and heroes. But this massive head belonged not to Zeus or Hercules, Julius Caesar or Cicero, but to Jimmy Byrnes.
Byrnes was serving as a senator from South Carolina when President Franklin Roosevelt tapped him for the Supreme Court in 1941. He possessed in spades the two attributes all presidents look for in Supreme Court nominees: political reliability (he was a committed New Dealer) and confirmability (he was popular among his colleagues in the Senate).
But the backslapping politico wasn’t well-suited for the cloistered life of a Supreme Court justice. Less than 16 months after joining the court he quit to take up high-level administrative positions in the executive branch, leading the Office of War Mobilization during World War II. By all accounts he was a gifted administrator. His biography, by David Robertson, is titled “Sly and Able.”