The October Dilemma: Go to Court or Synagogue

When the U.S. Supreme Court begins its term this year it remains to be seen whether both Jewish justices will be sitting in synagogue or court.

For the first time in years, the court will hear oral arguments on Yom Kippur.

Justice Stephen Breyer has indicated that he would attend services in observance of the Jewish holiday, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has not yet resolved her schedule, said a Supreme Court spokesman.

Under the high court’s guidelines, justices are permitted to miss a day’s arguments for religious observance, provided that they bring themselves up to speed by reviewing transcripts.

The court typically follows a present schedule, convening the first Monday in October for three days. This year Yom Kippur falls on Oct. 4, during the court’s first week.

It would be unreasonable to expect the court to call off proceedings for the day, said Jess Hordes, director of the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. But he said the court should bee expected to accommodate religious commitments. Anything less, he added, would be “inappropriate.”

Although some public schools shut down on Yom Kippur, Hordes said there is an important distinction between the practical considerations a school and an institution such as the Supreme Court must weigh.

Many schools with a large Jewish population close for the High Holidays “but they’re not closed simply because it’s a Jewish religious holiday,” Hordes said. “They’re closed because on a practical level, they’re accommodating a large number of Jewish teachers,” whose absence “would make it difficult for the schools to function effectively.”

Congress this year will maintain its longstanding tradition of recessing on Yom Kippur to accommodate Jewish members. Whether they keep their offices open is a matter of individual choice, staffers to Jewish members of Congress said. There are nine Jewish senators and 24 Jewish representatives.

In all, seven Jewish justices have served on the Supreme Court, starting with Louis Brandeis in 1916. Two Jews both sat on the Supreme Court at one other time, between 1932 and 1938, when Benjamin Cardozo and Brandeis served together. Brandeis’ seat, called the “Jewish seat,” was handed over, in succession, to Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Abe Fortas, before President Nixon broke with tradition by appointing Harry Blackmum in 1969.

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