In 2003, Yom Kippur fell on October 6. That year, October 6 was also the first Monday in October, which – by federal law – is when the U.S. Supreme Court term commences. And since 1975, the Court has opened each term with oral argument presentations.
Not in 2003, though. That year, in deference to Yom Kippur and in no small part due to the efforts of the recently-departed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court officially deferred oral arguments until Tuesday, October 7. We know that it happened, but how did it happen?
Justice Ginsburg told me the story and here it is, as I heard it from her (I asked her about it following a program at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 sponsored by the American Friends of Hebrew University):
“Several years ago,” she began, “Yom Kippur fell on the first Monday in October. Justice Breyer and I went to the Chief Justice [i.e., Justice Rehnquist] and pointed that out. We said that the Court should delay the opening in deference to the Holiday.
“The Chief was not persuaded. He said, ‘Why should we delay? We always hold our Friday conferences on Friday, even if it is Good Friday.’
“So I replied to him, ‘So move that conference to Thursday; that would be fine for us.’ The Chief was still not persuaded.
“Do you know what persuaded him?” Justice Ginsburg asked, looking right at me. “I explained to him that lawyers wait their entire career to appear before the Supreme Court. For many of them, it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to argue in the Supreme Court. What if a Jewish lawyer wanted to appear in court? We should not make that lawyer choose between observing his or her faith and appearing before the Court.
“That persuaded him and we changed the calendar.”
Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch in a 1965 World Series game that was taking place on Yom Kippur was a courageous act and statement of faith. Following his example, Justice Ginsburg could have easily said, “Go ahead and hold the oral arguments; but I won’t be able to attend because it’s Yom Kippur.”
But she didn’t do that. She had the oral arguments themselves rescheduled. The equivalent would be Sandy Koufax getting the World Series rescheduled.
Interestingly, the argument Justice Ginsburg advanced that persuaded the chief justice wasn’t based on the needs of a specific lawyer who was arguing a specific case or even the needs of a specific Jewish justice. It was an argument on behalf of all Jewish lawyers who then existed or may exist in the future.
And so an official precedent was set: Even the storied “First Monday in October” could be set aside for a higher purpose.