The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer Getty Images
By Claire Zillman
February 16, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death on Saturday has created a series of unusual circumstances—the need for a Democratic president to fill the vacancy of a staunchly conservative judge as his term in the White House winds down and as the campaign to elect his successor heats up. But as unique as the current political and judicial predicament is, the Supreme Court has returned to a 143-year tradition in how it will honor the deceased justice.

The Court’s public affairs office on Tuesday announced that it will drape Justice Scalia’s bench chair and the bench directly in front if it with “black wood crepe in memoriam.” A black drape will also be hung on the courtroom doors.

That tradition reaches back to 1873 when Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase died while serving on the bench. Since then, the bench chair and bench have been draped in black wool every time a sitting justice dies, and the courtroom door has been adorned with black cloth after the death of each justice—no matter if they are sitting or retired.

The nation’s high court also announced that the flags on its plaza will be flown at half-staff for 30 days.

It’s become increasingly rare for the Supreme Court to honor a sitting justice in this way. Scalia’s death was only the second time in more than 60 years that an active justice has died. Chief Justice William Rehnquist passed away from thyroid cancer at age 80 in 2005 while still serving on the bench.


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