WASHINGTON -- They are some of the rarest bobblehead dolls ever produced. They're released erratically. They're given away for free, not sold. And if you get a certificate to claim one, you have to redeem it at a Washington, D.C., law office.
The limited edition bobbleheads of U.S. Supreme Court justices are the work of law professor Ross Davies, who has been creating them for the past 10 years. When finished, they arrive unannounced on the real justices' desks, secreted there by unnamed confederates. And fans will go to some lengths to get one.
"I think we take seriously trying to do them well," said Davies, a law professor at Virginia's George Mason University and the editor of an entertaining quarterly legal journal called The Green Bag.
Subscribing to the journal is the most reliable way to get a voucher to claim a bobblehead when they are released, but there's no guarantee. The certificates warn that the bearer "might be able" to exchange it for a bobblehead, and the journal also hands out some bobbleheads to non-subscribers, including law school public interest groups that auction them at fundraisers. Some ultimately wobble their way onto eBay, where they reliably sell for hundreds of dollars.
The justices themselves seem to have been charmed by their caricatures. Antonin Scalia once said in an interview that he understands his is the most popular. Stephen Breyer had four of the figures of his colleagues on display in his chambers during a 2009 C-Span interview. His own is currently in the works. And former Chief Justice William Rehnquist sent a thank-you note for his, which was the first to come out in 2003.
"Thank you for the 'bobble-head' likeness of me which now sits on the mantle of the fireplace in my chambers," Rehnquist wrote. "It is probably a better likeness of me as I was 15 years ago than as I am now, but obviously I won't complain."
Davies said the idea for the bobbleheads came to him in the shower. In the decade since, he has immortalized 16 justices in ceramic, including four of the current court's nine members. Included in that total are a set of miniature bobbleheads representing the first justices appointed to the court. Certificates for the newest tiny justice, John Blair, recently went out.
The dolls, which are produced by Bellevue, Wash.,-based Alexander Global Promotions, are more than straight likenesses of the justices. Each has multiple references to the legal legacy of the person it honors. For example, Justice Louis Brandeis rides a train, a nod to his important opinion in a case involving the Erie Railroad in Pennsylvania. The David Souter bobblehead plays a song by "Modest Mouse," a group he mentioned in a copyright case. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg stands on a replica of the parade ground at the Virginia Military Institute. In 1996 she wrote an opinion striking down the school's all-male admissions policy.
Annotated sheets help collectors decode the details, which fans have been known to memorize and recite for visitors.
"It's like proof of their legal geekdom," said Gregory Jacob, a Washington law firm partner and part of a small group of Green Bag editors who help create the bobbleheads.
No detail is too small. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's bobblehead replicates the shoes she wore on Sept. 25, 1981, the day she was sworn in as the court's first female member. John Paul Stevens stands on a Betamax VCR, a nod to his opinion in a copyright case involving the device. When the VCR wasn't turning out right in production, Davies bought one on eBay and shipped it to China for a bobblehead sculptor to study. So far, Davies has gone through four drafts of the upcoming Breyer bobblehead, which portrays Breyer engaged in a favorite activity, riding his bike.
The attention to detail delights devotees, who have been known to drive hundreds of miles to pick up their bobbleheads. And the figurines often are displayed in a prominent place in their owners' offices.
Charmiane Claxton, a federal judge in Tennessee, said she contemplated insuring her collection, especially since she got her Scalia and O'Connor dolls signed by the justices. And Mark Killenbeck, a University of Arkansas law professor who collects the bobbleheads, says other faculty members have made "veiled threats to steal them."
Robert Henry, a former federal appeals court chief judge who now heads Oklahoma City University, displays his collection in the school's law library. The school is moving to a new building, and he says he plans a prominent spot for the dolls. Henry says he talks to Ross Davies every so often just to make sure his subscription to The Green Bag is paid up so he doesn't miss an issue, or a bobblehead.
"I do not want to miss one," he said.