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Songs for the Supremes

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by Publius
Posted May 17, 2013, 10:45 AM

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog reports

WASHINGTON–Supreme Court justices Wednesday heard an alien drug offender’s plea for atheism, the abolition of property and the end of American exceptionalism–and responded with a standing ovation.

The occasion wasn’t a case, of course, but the court’s spring musicale, a private concert for the justices and their guests.

The star, Broadway legend Barbara Cook, closed with “Imagine,” John Lennon’s 1971 song envisioning a world free of nations, religion and property, something strikingly at odds with court precedents granting privileges to religious institutions, enshrining property rights and limiting the reach of international law.

“Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can,” Ms. Cook sang to the justices, seated just a few feet from her in the court’s East Conference Room.

“Imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” she continued, as Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan, along with retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat rapt.

“Who could ask for anything more,” proclaimed Justice Ginsburg, the event’s organizer, at the conclusion, invoking a line from another number Ms. Cook sang, George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

Wednesday’s program was a rare foray into popular song, featuring standards by Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and other 20th century songwriters, for a musicale tradition that has focused on classical works.

In addition to Ms. Cook, a Tony Award-winning singer and 2011 Kennedy Center honoree, the concert featured the husband and wife team of jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and vocalist Jessica Molaskey.

Inaugurated in 1988 by the late Justice Harry Blackmun and produced in cooperation with the Washington Performing Arts Society, the concert offers the justices a respite from jurisprudential rigor as their annual term approaches its June close, and provides arts patrons an unusual setting to enjoy a performance. Previous years have seen jazz singer Bobby Short, pianist Marian McPartland and opera soprano Renee Fleming.

Nevertheless, with love and marriage perennial lyrical subjects, there was no avoiding an occasional, if perhaps unintentional, reminder that two major cases involving same-sex marriage rights hang over the docket.

“Getting Married Today,” from the 1970 Sondheim musical “Company,” featured in the Pizzarelli-Molaskey repertoire. “What’s a wedding, it’s a prehistoric ritual/where everybody promises fidelity forever, which is/maybe the most horrifying word I ever heard of,” the song goes.

And it was fidelity to Sondheim, not the court’s precedents, that clearly weighed on the performers’ minds. At one point, Ms. Molaskey recalled she had sung before the musical genius himself.

“He was sitting about where you guys—” she stopped herself, suddenly unsure of the etiquette for her majestic surroundings. ” ‘You guys’—it’s the Supreme Court!” she said.

Then, to an audience peppered with lawyers who might not agree, she confessed: “It’s a lot more nerve-racking to perform before Stephen Sondheim than the entire Supreme Court.”

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