The Thinking 

Justice With — and Without — a Smile

June 22, 2012



FRED OWENS writes:

Compare the photos. The first one shows the Supreme Court Justices in 1917, with stern and serious faces — one would even describe them as being “judgmental.”

Of course, we don’t see the justices of 1917 in their private moments, and no doubt they smiled, joked, and laughed at certain moments in their lives, but they reserved their serious faces for their serious work of judgment.

But we’ve come a long way, baby. Now we serve up justice with a smile in this 2012 photo of the Supreme Court. Let’s be lighthearted, joyful and casual — not “judgmental” or, God forbid, serious.

— Comments —

Kimberly writes:

The women in the 2012 Supreme Court Justice photo make it look so… awkward! They are clearly not cut from the same mold. And the differences in the positions of the hands in each photo is a striking contrast, although I don’t know what it indicates.

 Laura writes:

Hmm, the hands look similar to me.

A group of men projects more authority than a group of men and women.

Mary writes:

I took a tour of the White House with my family a few years back. This caught my eye, as the one and only First Lady portrait with “teeth”:

Laura writes:

This reminds me of James Kalb’s point that modern bureaucratic tyranny is not brutal but soft. It smiles.

Hannon writes:

In the newer photo most of the justices appear to be delighted at the thought that liberalism has killed and buried that earlier image of justice. Or maybe they simply feel the need to look dopey to their adoring fans?

Kimberly responds:

Oh, well, I guess my “photographic memory” isn’t so good! Maybe it is the feet I noticed. You hardly see the feet of the men in the first photo, but in the second they’re obvious. Something about it seems more respectable.

The difference in the hands is not striking like I said, but when I looked back closely, it did seem to me that there is something more uncomfortable about the way the mens’ hands in the second picture are spread, almost to straight-fingered, where the men that have their hands showing in the 1917 photo seem more relaxed, as if they have more peace about getting their photos taken.

Andrea writes:

Enjoying your site again today. But you know what? I think most of the justices in the old picture look like they’re smiling, not broadly but very mildly and with a twinkle in the eye – esp. the first three from the left in the back row and the second and fourth from the left in the front row. There is only one who looks out-and-out stern to me and that is the short man on the right in the back row.

Carolyn writes:

These photos are typical of their respective eras–not just for members of the judiciary, but for everyone. Ninety-five years ago, people typically appeared stern and serious in photos, regardless of how they were really feeling. Nowadays, people typically appear lighthearted and joyful in photos, regardless of how they’re really feeling. The surface fashion (serious v. smiling) has changed, but the fundamental fashion (submitting to the surface fashion of the moment) has remained remarkably constant.

Laura writes:

I don’t think these photos represent merely the surface or appearances. People were more serious and judgmental then and they are more tolerant and open now. Seriousness was the norm in photos because seriousness was prized.

Drina writes:

I found Fred Owens’s comparison of the photos of Supreme Court Justices interesting. As an admirer of Clarence Thomas, I was quick to look at him and notice he wasn’t smiling along with the rest. Have you read “My Grandfather’s Son”? Very interesting autobiography.

Laura writes:

No, I have not read it. Here is a better view of the photo of the current justices.

Jane S. writes:

C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that nice people make the worst tyrants of all. A despot may have a point where he becomes satiated with evil. There may have been things that were too evil, even for Hitler. Saddam Hussein might have had days when he didn’t feel like being evil.

But nice people will torture you endlessly, with a clear conscience, because they are doing it for your own good.

And I agree with Andrea: at least some of those men are wearing a smile behind the solemn faces. They don’t look stern or forbidding to me. They look magnanimous, good-humored, wise, and kind.

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