I made my way up a spiral staircase constructed of concrete, plain and simple, and painted hospital green. It was so unlike the two elliptical staircases of bronze and marble, one on either side of the center of the building, that visitors see on tour.
I had worked at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., for only a month and was, and always will be, in awe of the court’s grandeur; the marble corridors and coffered ceilings embellished with gold leaf, and the library with its carved oak bookcases.
One of my co-workers had encouraged me to join Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s women’s exercise class. It was 1982 and I learned that the justice had organized the class shortly after she was appointed in 1981.
She was, of course, the court’s first female justice. She had made it clear that any woman who worked in the court was welcome to come as well as the female law clerks and a few women who lived “on the Hill,” as they say in D.C.
They were acquainted with the justice and some of them were wives of congressmen.
My job at the court was as a paralegal in the Reporter of Decisions Office. We were not the kind of reporters that sit in the courtroom during trials and record what is being said. That kind of reporting is done electronically at the Supreme Court. The Reporter of Decisions and his or her assistant are attorney-editors. In fact, the current reporter is a woman; the first woman in the court’s history to hold that position.
The reporters and the staff have the job of getting the justices’ opinions ready to be published in the official U.S. Reports. The reporters write a summary for each opinion called the headnote. The paralegals check all of the citations and edit them to conform to the Supreme Court Style Manual.
Ah, yes, the style manual. The manual is many pages long and covers not only citation style, but preferred spelling, meanings of Latin legal terms, etc. The whole idea is to make the U.S. Reports as consistent and error-free as possible. One former reporter referred to us as a bunch of “peripatetic nitpickers.” What made my day? If I found a spelling or, even better, a grammatical error, it was worth all the reading.
Sitting and reading for long hours and not being able to pass up dessert in the court’s cafeteria had led inevitably to weight gain. I thought, why not give the exercise class a try? It meant that I would have to rush a bit to get to my desk by 9 a.m., and bring my lunch in a brown bag to make up the time. No more cake.
The staircase led to the court’s own gymnasium, which also had a concrete floor painted the same shade of green. The locker room was not much bigger than a walk-in closet and smelled of men’s sweaty socks left too long in the hamper. There were two wooden benches with clothes hooks above, a sink and a couple of uninviting shower stalls from another era. The gym had been used for years by the justices and their male law clerks to play basketball or volleyball. Now, there was a woman on board.
I took off my skirt and blouse and hung them on a hook, changed into shorts and a T-shirt, sat down and waited. Before long, I heard sounds coming from the gym; the women’s voices were amplified by the cavernous space of the gym. They got louder as they approached the locker room.
I was relieved to see my co-worker, who introduced me to the justice and her law clerks. Justice O’Connor was tall and stately. Her blondish hair was beginning to gray and looked naturally curly. She was a very attractive woman maybe a few years older than I was.
Soon, the neighborhood ladies arrived in their shorts and tees and lastly, our teacher, a perky 20-something in shocking pink leotards and tights. She brought her boom box, and we soon got moving with a mix of aerobics and stretching to the tunes of Jimmy Buffet.
The locker room after class was abuzz with feminine chatter. I toweled down with one of the clean towels left by the housekeeping staff. I had about 15 minutes to dress and get to my desk. I put on my blouse and reached for my gray flannel skirt on its hook. Oops, my skirt wasn’t where I had left it.
About two feet away, the justice was trying to wriggle into my size 10 petite skirt. I was speechless. What do you say to an icon? “Pardon me madame, but that’s my skirt you’re wearing.”
But she soon realized that the skirt didn’t fit, and was most apologetic. It seems she had a skirt identical to mine, just a different size. I wish I could have thought of something clever to say, something like, “The ubiquitous gray flannel skirt; everyone’s wearing them nowadays.” Ubiquitous is such a great word.
When she left the locker room, she looked me straight in the eye and told me, “Please come back.” Was that a court order, I wondered? Well, the class was a good fit and I did come back for all of the nearly 18 years I worked at the court.
The Justice, as we called her, was good at getting things done. The concrete gym floor was soon recovered with a softer, gentler surface, easy on the joints, and even better, the women got their own locker room; color coordinated, spacious, and definitely sweeter smelling.
The talented cast of characters in our 8 a.m. class changed through the years except for a small core of regulars.
Each year we chose a slogan with a legal twist to be printed on T-shirts. “The Right to Bare Arms” and “Exercise Your Constitution” are a couple I remember. The T-shirts were awarded by our instructor at our annual potluck luncheon in the spring. Everyone brought a favorite recipe, including Justice O’Connor, who is a fabulous cook.
One of my favorite memories is the morning the justice brought her then-3-year-old granddaughter to exercise with us. The grandchild played with a basketball and kicked it a few times until it rolled and it rolled, and it rolled to the far end of the gym. “Grandma,” she squealed, “Go get the ball!” The justice, of course, like any grandma, obeyed and hurried to retrieve the ball. It had been so ordered.
Maureen Pearce and her husband retired and moved to Mount Pleasant from Annapolis, Md., in 2001. She has a degree in English from Nazareth College and earned a paralegal certificate at the University of Maryland. Pearce worked at the U.S. Supreme Court for 18 years.