Supreme Court Trivia: Why No One Wears Wigs

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With the confirmation hearings of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court arriving, host Scott Simon talks to trivia man A.J. Jacobs about some of the lesser-known facts about the nation's highest court.


Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan are set to begin next week. We thought what better time to call in the supreme master of all insignificant knowledge about important things - our friend A.J. Jacobs. Of course he is the author of "The Know-It-All," for which he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, back and forth. He joins us from New York.

A.J., obviously people talk about some of the great justices of the past. What about some of the not-so-great?

Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Author, "The Know-It-All"): Actually, the University of Chicago Law School did an in-depth study on this important matter. And they concluded that it is probably a man named Gabriel Duvall(ph), who is so obscure we don't even know how to spell his last name. We're not sure whether it's one L or two Ls.

But he was on for about 23 years, in the early 1800s, and he was able to muster the energy to issue one opinion on constitutional matters. It was: I dissent. So he was a man of few words.

SIMON: You know, A.J., perhaps you didn't know this, but our family, we're actually descended from Gabriel Duvall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

We're very proud of him, A.J., yes?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, you know, he was right to dissent on that one, I thought.

SIMON: Now, there was no dress code for the Supreme Court when it was established?

Mr. JACOBS: That's right. Early on, people didn't know what to wear. And one justice made the mistake of coming in a white powdered wig like the British. And this caused quite a ruckus. Apparently kids on the street were pointing at him and mocking him.

And he was eventually shamed into ditching the wig, partly by Thomas Jefferson, who said of wigs, he said, For heavens sake, discard the monstrous wig, which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum. Oakum, a kind of rope.

SIMON: Okay. Thanks.

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, I had to look that one up. It should be said that Thomas Jefferson answered the White House door in a bathrobe. So he was not one for formality.

SIMON: How did they get the robes that they wear?

Mr. JACOBS: How do they get the robes? That one - can I get back to you?

SIMON: I've asked you a question you can't handle, haven't I?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: I think they get it at Men's Warehouse.

SIMON: The late Chief Justice Rehnquist customized, if you please, his robe.

Mr. JACOBS: That's right. He was the only one to change the robe. He pimped his robe. He went to a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. And he was so inspired by one of the character's costumes that he put four gold bars on the sleeves of his robe. And I was always hoping that Justice Souter would dress up as the Magical Mister Mistoffelees, but that never came to pass.

SIMON: A.J., it was almost a pleasure to talk to you. I came very close to learning something.

Mr. JACOBS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs, our favorite know-it-all. His latest book is "My Life as An Experiment."

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