Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan has heard it over and over in recent weeks: A Supreme Court appointment is for life. What she may not know is that recent high court justices have stuck together -- even in death.
At Arlington National Cemetery, just over the Potomac River from Washington, eight justices rest together in one section -- one justice short of a full court. In all, 12 justices are buried at Arlington, and another 18 lie at other nearby cemeteries.
"The court always had a sense of collegial togetherness," said David N. Atkinson, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has studied and written about the justices' last days.
The chummy nature of the court is most apparent at Arlington, where four former chief justices are buried. Justices interred at the cemetery include U.S. president and Chief Justice William Howard Taft; William O. Douglas, the court's longest-serving justice with 36 years on the bench, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the last justice buried there, in 2005. Martin Ginsburg, husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was buried in the cemetery in June, raising speculation the justice may join him there someday.
Most of the justices were eligible to be buried at Arlington because they met the cemetery's military service requirement, but others were given special permission to be buried there. Tour guides point out the presence of eight justices near the grave of John F. Kennedy, but most visitors make a beeline for the former president.
Visitors who take time to walk down to "Section 5," a hill just below Kennedy's grave with a view of the U.S. Capitol, find an area that one amateur historian has called the Supreme Court neighborhood. It's the section where Ginsburg was buried, for instance. And while all the justices are close together, four of the men have adjoining headstones, as if they were still sitting on the bench: Blackmun. Marshall. Stewart. Brennan.
The four served together on the high court between 1970 and 1981. Their chief, Warren Burger, is buried one row in front of them. All but Stewart have the Supreme Court seal on their tombstones. But because they are buried in an older section of the cemetery, they don't have the white government-issued markers that are so identified with the hallowed grounds of Arlington.
Instead, Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe v. Wade, has his stone inscribed with the words: "Humility Integrity Compassion Courage." Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, has his engraved "Civil Rights Advocate." William J. Brennan Jr. shares a tombstone with his first and second wives, the latter his longtime secretary. And Potter Stewart has on his stone: "A good lawyer who did his best."
Amateur historian George A. Christensen, of Dover, Del., says the men probably were drawn to Section 5 by the grave of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a brilliant writer known as "The Great Dissenter," who was buried in 1935.
"That might have been the attraction that later drew court families to pick that part of the cemetery," said Christensen, who has researched and written about the location of all 100 justices' graves. He has visited 99 of them -- all but Rehnquist, whom he has not yet visited -- keeping photographs of the tombstones in a shoebox.
The others buried in Section 5 are Rehnquist and Douglas. Also buried at Arlington, in other locations: Chief Justice Earl Warren, and justices Hugo Black and Arthur Goldberg.
A number of other justices didn't stray far from the court after death either. Four former court members are buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, four miles north of the court. Three rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland, Md., about a 15-minute ride away. And three others are in Oak Hill Cemetery, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington.
Other justices have strayed farther away in death: Justice Louis Brandeis was cremated and buried beneath the portico of the University of Louisville's law school, where his papers are housed. Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, returned home to Kansas City, Mo., in 1973, and was buried still wearing his judge's robe.
Christensen says that wherever the justices wind up, they probably don't have to worry about being taken care of.
Chief Justice Frederick Vinson, who served on the court from 1946 to 1953, is buried in Louisa, Ky., and has probably the least-visited Supreme Court gravesite, Christensen said.
"Last I was there, the town of Louisa was taking pretty good care of him," he said.