Under the Robes: Secrets of the Supreme Court

The nine members of this secretive gang make fun of one another, call one another by nicknames, indulge vices like pornography and alcohol, maintain enemies lists, break the law, have odd habits and are prone to crying jags.

The Supreme Court Justices. They're just like us!

That is, if a new book on the Court is to be believed.

Although they present a somber exterior when the Court's in session, the black-robed members of the nation's High Court have plenty of personality quirks and get into more drama than characters on a daytime soap opera. Jeffrey Toobin, a New Yorker writer and CNN legal analyst, takes a peek underneath the robes in "The Nine," his new book about the Supreme Court.

In addition to arguing that the current Court under Chief Justice John Roberts is living up to the ideals of the conservative movement far more successfully than it did under former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Toobin includes some revelations about the justices and their personal lives:

Justice David Souter was so shattered by the Court's decision in the 2000 Florida recount case that he came close to resigning:

"He came from a tradition where the independence of the judiciary was the foundation of the rule of law. And Souter believed Bush v. Gore mocked that tradition. His colleagues' actions were so transparently, so crudely partisan that Souter thought he might not be able to serve with them anymore. Souter seriously considered resigning. For many months, it was not at all clear whether he would remain as a justice. … At the urging of a handful of close friends, he decided to stay on, but his attitude toward the Court was never the same. There were times when David Souter thought of Bush v. Gore and wept."

When she was being vetted as a nominee back in 1981, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor lied to (or at least misled) then-Justice Department aide Kenneth Starr, telling him that she had never cast a vote on an Arizona measure to liberalize abortion. In fact, as a state senator, she'd voted April 29, 1970, to end criminal prohibitions on abortions in the state.

O'Connor supported George W. Bush's election, but she quickly lost her affection for the new president and some of his officials, especially Attorney General John Ashcroft, who "embodied everything that O'Connor disdained about the modern Republican Party. He was extreme, polarizing and moralistic -- unattractive."

When she found out that one of her former law clerks was taking a job with Ashcroft, she said, "Working with Ashcroft, he's ruining his career."

Along with Ashcroft's hiring, "the politicized response to the affirmative action case, the lawless approach to the war on terror, and the accelerating disaster of the war in Iraq" (which she called a "mess") appalled her.

The decision to rush the swearing-in of Justice Clarence Thomas spared the controversial nominee the publication of more embarrassing personal revelations than Anita Hill's notorious testimony. That same day, three Washington Post reporters were set to write a story about Thomas' extensive taste for pornography, including accounts from eyewitnesses such as the manager of his local video store. "But since Thomas had been sworn in, the Post decided not to pursue the issue and dropped the story."

Thomas has such a libertarian view of the original intent of the framers of the Constitution that he prepares his new clerks by requiring them to watch the 1949 movie version of Ayn Rand's classic homage to individualism, "The Fountainhead."

Although they shared similar judicial philosophies, Justice Antonin Scalia thought that Thomas was more extreme than he was. Asked to compare his views to those held by Thomas, Scalia once said, "I am an originalist but I am not a nut."

Although he personally abhorred homosexuality, Thomas became friendly with one of the Court's clerks, a lesbian, whose partner was a professional snowboarder. "He liked the two of them so much that for a while he kept a photograph of the snowboarder on his desk."

Even though they disagree on most issues, Thomas has a very friendly relationship with Justice Steven Breyer. They passed notes on the bench, mocking each other's positions. "State's right uber alles," Breyer would jot and Thomas would retort, "Always for the criminal, eh?"

Despite his tough stance on criminals and his emphasis on self-sufficiency, Thomas adopted his 6-year-old grandnephew, Mark Martin Jr, because the boy's father was in jail on cocaine trafficking charges and his mother was struggling to raise four children on her own.

Thomas' pride and joy is his custom-made 40-foot Prevost motor coach, with leather furniture, satellite television and onboard galley, in which he and his wife travel around the country, parking near NASCAR races and Wal-Mart parking lots. A photo of the RV sits proudly on his desk alongside photos of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and Winston Churchill.

Thomas doesn't forget his enemies -- for years, he kept a list in his desk of the roll-call vote in his 52-48 confirmation. Also on his enemies list: is most of the press corps ("the happiest day of his life was when he canceled his subscription to The Washington Post") and his alma mater, Yale Law School (he keeps a "Yale Sucks" bumper sticker on the mantel of his chambers because he believes the school treated him paternalistically and he has never returned to the school for moot court or speeches; in general his rule with speaking engagements is "I don't do Ivies").

Thomas wasn't always such an ultra-conservative. During his college days at Holy Cross, he was an "overall-wearing Black Panther devotee with inchoate dreams of changing the world." Now he jokes about his Afrocentric worldview in those days, which inspired the name of his son. "We called him Jamal, so you can see where my head was in those days."

Thomas has earned more financial benefits from his job than any of the other justices, largely due to the generosity of his conservative fans. Though Rupert Murdoch's Harper Collins paid him $500,000 as part of a $1.5 million book advance, Thomas had still not delivered a manuscript after three years. Among the gifts he's received from admirers: a Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass, tires and $5,000 for his grandnephew's education.

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger, an Anglophile who collected antiques and fine wines, was so vain that "he placed a large cushion on his center seat on the bench, so he would appear taller than his colleagues."

In contrast, Rehnquist had a single beer and one cigarette at lunch every day and sported an outrageous sense of fashion. When he was introduced to President Nixon, Rehnquist wore a pink shirt that clashed with a psychedelic tie and Hush Puppies." When he left, Nixon quipped, "Is he Jewish? He looks it … That's a hell of a costume he's wearing, just like a clown."

Rehnquist was not impressed with Bill Clinton and his wife. When told that the newly elected president was thinking of nominating Hillary as attorney general, the chief justice quipped, "They say Caligula appointed his horse counsel of Rome."

Until the end of his life, Rehnquist retained his acerbic sense of humor. On his final visit to the emergency room, when he asked who his primary care physician was, he joked, "My dentist."

When Rehnquist ordered the other justices to show up in Court for arguments in the case of Clinton v. Jones on the morning of a freakish snowstorm that dumped 21 inches on Washington, chaos ensued. Running late, Scalia ordered his driver to break the law: "By the power invested in me, I authorize you to run these lights!"

The snow was so high that the driver, picking up Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Breyer had to physically lift up Ginsburg, who was wearing a skirt and heels, and carry her into the car (she later repaid the favor by writing "the fellow a letter of recommendation for law school"). Souter, who prides himself on being a self-sufficient New Englander, said he would drive himself to work but promptly stalled in a snowbank and had to be rescued by Supreme Court police officers.

O'Connor had no patience for distractions. When the celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz came to a meeting of the Iraq Study Group to take a group portrait for Men's Vogue, O'Connor "refused to participate in such silliness. 'That's not what I'm here for,' she growled, and her colleagues sheepishly followed her lead. Years earlier, O'Connor had sat for a Liebovitz portrait and found the experience tedious."

O'Connor's husband, John, sometimes embarrassed her with his crude sense of humor. He introduced himself to legendary Justice Harry Blackmun by handing him a business card that listed his skills as "Tigers Tamed, Bars Emptied, Orgies Organized."

The justices each decorate their offices according to their particular tastes -- O'Connor favored Native American blankets and curios, Ginsburg has opera mementos, Justice John Paul Stevens has the box score from the famous World Series game in 1932 when Babe Ruth hit his "called shot." Kennedy has a plush red carpet festooned with gold stars, "garish touches that made the office a sort of comic tourist attraction for law clerks and other insiders." Scalia, a hunting enthusiast, has a gigantic elk head hanging on the wall of his office. (Ginsburg once said that a "deer killed by Scalia made for delicious venison at their families' traditional New Year's feast.")

They also pick clerks according to their own tastes -- O'Connor liked Arizonans, Rehnquist tennis players, Ginsburg musicians and Souter quirky intellectuals.

Sometimes, they didn't get along. In 1999-2000, "there was one notorious incident when a clerk pushed another into one of the Court's fountains." As the clerks pored over the opposing briefs in the titanic post-election recount battle between George Bush's lawyers and Al Gore's lawyers; many of them were slightly drunk because one of the clerks had thrown a party at a bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. "Alcohol made a contentious environment even more volatile," with clerks on the right outraged that the Florida Supreme Court was trying to steal the election for Gore.

Almost everyone Souter knew in Washington, from O'Connor to first lady Barbara Bush, had tried to get the single man married off. None of them succeeded, even O'Connor's hosting a party that promised "fajitas and frivolity." After one first date, the woman said she thought the evening went well until the end, when Souter took her home and said, "Let's do this again next year." He was so distant from popular culture that while presiding over a 2003 wedding, he first learned the name of a singing group familiar to his colleagues -- The Supremes.

Souter couldn't be reached in time to make Rehnquist's funeral because he is a technophobe -- he has a telephone and a fountain pen but "no answering machine, fax, cell phone or e-mail" (he was once given a television but never plugged it in).