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The Supreme Court Historical Society: An interview with the President

The Supreme Court Historical Society is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the collection and preservation of the history of the Supreme Court of the United States. It was founded in 1974 by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and is still in operation today. 

I recently interviewed the President of the Supreme Court Historical Society, Chilton Varner. Ms. Varner is from Atlanta, Georgia where she is a litigator at the law firm King & Spalding. Ms. Varner graciously spoke about the work of the Society and its relation to history. 

Ms. Varner is passionate about the Society. She listed a number of things the Society does for the public, including the creation of various lesson plans, scholarly publications, a lecture series, an annual reenactment of landmark decisions, and a number of lectures open to the public.

Ms. Varner’s favorite activity the Society sponsors is the Supreme Court Summer Institute for Secondary Teachers. This program allows thirty secondary teachers to come to the Court to enhance “the level of their instruction about the court” for their own students. The teachers come to Washington D.C., where they are given a tutorial about the Court, the Constitution, and the Judiciary Branch. They are able to interact with one another and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ms. Varner described how this program leaves the teachers “excited, energized, and armed with new information” which they bring back to the students they teach. 

Ms. Varner also made note of how civic courses have been disappearing from schools around the country. She values these courses and wishes to see more young people educated about the government and its history. She would also like to see more young people sign up for the Historical Society as well because it “keeps them current, teaches them about legal history, and is important for the future.” It is exciting for her when she sees young people from her own law firm join. Ms. Varner expressed the importance of young people learning history. The Supreme Court Historical Society strives not only to keep the history of the Court alive, but to pass it on to the next generation. 

The Supreme Court Justices have been critical in the success of the Historical Society. Ms. Varner was greatly appreciative of all the Justices and what they have done for the Society. From introducing guest speakers to providing various forms of support, they have been key to the function of the Society. Ms. Varner noted the amount of time the Justices give to the Society. She believes they “recognize the importance of their own Court’s history” and the importance of the Society.

Ms. Varner herself is a part of history. In 1983, she became the first woman litigation partner at her firm and was the only woman trial lawyer at the firm for a number of years. Since the start of her time as a practicing attorney, she has seen numerous changes for women in law. Most notably, when she argued in front of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals,  it was in front of a panel of all women. While Ms. Varner says there is “still a way to go and more progress to be made,” today is a very different environment where “nobody blinks an eye now when a women trial lawyer stands up to strike a jury.” Ms. Varner sees trial lawyers like herself as “historians” in both their lives and what they are arguing. 

Throughout my interview with Ms. Varner, she was clear about the importance of history in general and that of the Supreme Court. Ms. Varner highlighted just how important the Supreme Court Historical Society is in preserving this history and educating the public. You can check out the Historical Society's website at https://www.supremecourthistory.org/.