WASHINGTON — To reach the Supreme Court cafeteria, you have to pass through a metal detector, walk down a marble corridor and stroll by a portrait of the late Justice Antonin Scalia hanging right next to the lunchroom. The painting depicts Scalia, the first Italian American to sit on the high court, in a casual pose, with his black robe unzipped, revealing a girth that has known the pleasures of the table. The justice looks all but ready to dig into, say, a Hawaiian calzone with pineapple, mozzarella and ham (a featured dish this week at the cafe) before returning to oral arguments.
Were he still alive, Scalia, I suspect, would take Justice Brett Kavanaugh to task for the pizza that the court’s newest member recently added to the first-floor cafeteria. I mean, if these new pies were cases before the court, the justices would rule them unconstitutional. (Well, at least eight of them would.) They’d dismiss them with extreme prejudice. They’d send them back to a lower court for further deliberation or, even better, an extreme makeover.
But hold on. I’m getting ahead of myself.
As Robert Barnes, The Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, has pointed out on numerous occasions, the court’s junior member sits on the cafeteria committee until the next new justice is sworn in. The duty is something akin to frat-house hazing for folks dressed in Darth Vader robes.
A few years back, not long before Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as the newest member on the court, Justice Elena Kagan laid out the razzing that Gorsuch would soon face as the court’s representative to the cafeteria committee. The insults would fly, she suggested, whenever the justices sat down over a meal in the SCOTUS cafe.
“Somebody will say, ‘Who’s our representative to the cafeteria committee again?’ Like they don’t know, right?” Kagan said, recalling her time as the junior member. “And then they’ll say, ‘This soup is very salty.’ And I’m, like, supposed to go fix it myself?”
Yet there is a perk to the position, too: The junior justice can tinker with the menu at will. Kagan, for instance, had a frozen yogurt machine installed. Justice Stephen Breyer reportedly expanded the salad bar and encouraged the cafe to serve Starbucks coffee.
Which brings us to Kavanaugh, the justice who, during his heated confirmation hearing, testified to his affection for beer as a teenager. “I still like beer,” he added. Kavanaugh also likes beer’s preferred running mate, pizza. Last year, in his first speech since the rancorous hearing, Kavanaugh spoke to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, about securing his legacy with the high court. His tongue, perhaps covered with pizza sauce, was pressed firmly against his cheek.
“When I arrived, I noticed the cafeteria did not serve pizza. I thought, ‘What an outrage,’ “ Kavanaugh said to the society. “My legacy is secure. It’s fine by me if I’m ever known as the pizza justice.”
Rest assured, no one will call Kavanaugh the pizza justice after tasting one of these pies.
There are three personal-size pizzas available: a simple cheese ($7), pepperoni ($8) and a vegetarian ($6.50). I ordered the first two and watched as an employee pulled the premade rounds from a refrigerated case and, one by one, placed them into the TurboChef Fire, a ventless countertop oven that promises “hearth-style pizza” in as little as 90 seconds.
My two pies were to wood-fired pizza what a Pinto is to a Porsche.
As I sat down in the dining room, an expanse of governmental finery borrowed from another era, I started to scan the space for its distinguishing features. I noticed the electric chandeliers overhead. The large panels on the wall, each offering a detail of the Supreme Court building, just in case its marble imperiousness didn’t intimidate you enough already. I noted the wood chairs. The wood-edged tables with the inlays of . . . is that Formica? The room has the luxury-on-a-budget ambiance of an ‘80s-era fern bar.
Kavanaugh’s pizzas fit right in. These are pies that cling to the era of American convenience, when we’d stuff any old pizza in our face as long as we could dislodge it from the freezer, remove its plastic wrapper and shove it into the oven during a commercial break for “Dallas.” These are the kind of pies we endured before the Neapolitan invasion. These are the pies that fed Kavanaugh and his artisanal-starved generation.
I grew up with this style of manufactured pizza, too. My youth passed before me in a single cheese slice: the sweet pizza sauce with its snootful of dried oregano. The shredded mozzarella that melts into a jaundiced goo. The browned and slight charred edges, which you lift to reveal an undercarriage as soft as cookie dough. The pepperoni round was baked a beat or two longer than its cheesy cousin, which you could tell because the bottom looked like salmon skin, the result of the hot mesh screen on which the pie was cooked. I found some pleasure in its mild pepperoni spice, a small cry of protest in this silent hall of justice.
I left most of my pizzas untouched, and unloved, I couldn’t help but wonder what Scalia would have thought of this mess. A man of particular appetites — he favored the pizza at the late A.V. Ristorante Italiano — Scalia would have, no doubt, taken a single bite, looked at Kavanaugh and said for all the cafeteria to hear, “You like pizza, Brett. But do you know anything about it?”