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10:15 a.m. September 11, 2001: Supreme Court Is Evacuated

The Supreme Court building.The Supreme Court building. [Source: Supreme Court of the United States]The Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, is only evacuated more than half an hour after the attack on the Pentagon, even though it is a potential target for terrorists. At 9:30 a.m., Chief Justice William Rehnquist was convening a meeting of the Judicial Conference at the Supreme Court. [Washington Post, 4/12/2002; Gellman, 2008, pp. 125-126] The Judicial Conference of the United States is the principal policy-making body for the federal court system. It meets twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system. [United States Courts, 9/19/2001] Twenty-six judges from around the country were with Rehnquist for today’s meeting. [Washington Post, 4/12/2002] Rehnquist learned of the first attack on the World Trade Center as the judges were preparing to convene. [Rehnquist, 1/1/2002] Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had come to attend the meeting, heard something on the radio about an explosion and the WTC while he was being driven to the Supreme Court. When Rehnquist arrived in the conference room, Leahy whispered to him, “Before we start, I believe we have a terrorist attack.”
Judges Heard the Explosion from the Pentagon - Then, at 9:37 a.m., those in the conference room heard a muffled boom, which came from the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from the Supreme Court, when it was attacked (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). However, no attempt was made to evacuate the building at the time. Instead, agitated security personnel started coming in with notes for Rehnquist. [Time, 9/14/2001; Washington Post, 4/12/2002; O'Harrow, 2005, pp. 12-13] Peter Bowal, a law professor on a fellowship at the Supreme Court, will later recall that while attendees at the conference talked, he “noticed aides entering, handing the chief justice notes, and taking his quickly scratched answers away.” [LawNow, 12/2001 pdf file]
Judges Suggested Having a Short Recess - Rehnquist was apparently soon informed that the boom heard by those in the conference room was due to an attack at the Pentagon. When Representative Howard Coble (R-NC), who had come to address the Judicial Conference, was approaching the podium, Rehnquist handed him a note that read, “The Pentagon has been bombed.” [US Congress. Senate, 9/6/2005] However, even though Supreme Court police officers in the hallway could be heard shouting, “There’s a plane in the air now and it’s heading for us!” the meeting continued. A few judges only suggested, “Should we have a short recess?” [LawNow, 12/2001 pdf file]
Judges Are Escorted out of the Building - Rehnquist finally announces that the Judicial Conference session is being suspended and the Supreme Court building is going to be evacuated at 10:15 a.m., more than half an hour after the attack on the Pentagon occurred. [United States Courts, 9/19/2001; Washington Post, 4/12/2002] This is the first time a Judicial Conference meeting has been canceled since the conference was created, in 1922. [Rehnquist, 1/1/2002] Rehnquist is quickly escorted away to a secure location. The other judges at the meeting are then instructed to leave the building by members of the Supreme Court police, who usher them out the side entrance. Once outside, however, they are left to fend for themselves, wandering the sidewalks of Capitol Hill. Some of them walk back to their hotels. [LawNow, 12/2001 pdf file; Washington Post, 4/12/2002]
Court Is a Potential Terrorist Target - The failure to evacuate the Supreme Court until long after the attacks on the US began is notable because the court is one of a number of key government buildings in Washington that are potential targets for terrorists, who could have planned to crash a plane into it. Journalist and author Barton Gellman will point out that it is “big and distinctive enough to pick out from the air on a clear, sunny day.” [Gellman, 2008, pp. 125-126] One federal judge will suggest what could have happened to those attending the Judicial Conference meeting if Flight 93, which was heading toward Washington before it went down in rural Pennsylvania (see (10:03 a.m.-10:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001), crashed in the capital. “If the plane had come, we’d have all been blown up and someone would pick up the pieces later on,” he will comment.
Court's 'Continuity Plan' Is Not Activated - The failure to evacuate the Supreme Court until 10:15 a.m. is also notable because the court has a “continuity plan” for dealing with emergencies. The plan, however, is apparently not activated in response to today’s attacks. “September 11 was not a continuity plan,” Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg will comment, adding, “That was more of an emergency evacuation.” [Washington Post, 4/12/2002] Other key government buildings in Washington, such as the Justice Department and the State Department, are also only evacuated after 9:45 a.m. (see Before 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [US News and World Report, 9/14/2001; US Department of State, 8/15/2002]

Entity Tags: Howard Coble, Patrick J. Leahy, Kathy Arberg, Peter Bowal, William Rehnquist

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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