Obama, Biden pay visit to Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) - President-elect Barack Obama paid a relaxed, pre-inaugural visit to the Supreme Court Wednesday at the invitation of the man whose confirmation he opposed.

Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden sat in front of a fire on a cold January day in a court conference room with Chief Justice John Roberts and seven other justices.

They chatted for about 45 minutes, then toured the courtroom and justices' private conference room.

Justice Samuel Alito was the only justice absent, although Alito was on the bench for two hours of argument Wednesday morning. Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said she did not know why Alito wasn't there.

Reporters and photographers were not allowed in, so this account comes wholly from Arberg.

Obama and Biden voted against Roberts and Alito when their court nominations were before the Senate in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Roberts will see Obama Tuesday when he administers the presidential oath. Justice John Paul Stevens, who will mark his ninth inauguration on the court, will swear in Biden.

Last month, the chief justice sent a letter inviting Obama and Biden to drop by before the inauguration and promised them a "warm welcome."

Roberts' Dec. 5 letter noted that justices had occasionally met with incoming presidents and vice-presidents in the past. "The associate justices and I would be pleased to see that sporadic practice become a congenial tradition," Roberts said.

Court staffers were kept well away from Obama and Biden, who spent about an hour at the court. When employees glimpsed Obama on his way out, a loud cheer went up in a building that exudes decorum.

Eight years ago, President George W. Bush did not visit the court before he took office, but the circumstances were - to put it mildly - unusual.

In December 2000, the court decided the case of Bush v. Gore by a 5-4 vote, ending the legal battle over the contested Florida election and effectively sealing the presidency for Bush.

In December 1992, Bill Clinton and his vice president-elect, Al Gore, called on the court. In November 1980, Ronald Reagan and his vice president-elect, George H. W. Bush, visited with justices.

In contrast to Wednesday's visit, Clinton and Gore made a highly visible stop at the court. They walked up the front steps and reporters were allowed to observe their greeting from then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. A planned half-hour visit stretched to an hour.

Obama and Biden entered the building through the garage, a decision made for security reasons.