History of the Supreme Court
|“|| The judges … are held in very high esteem. Being entirely dependent on public opinion, they need to make continual efforts to keep this esteem…. I look on the judges … as the regulators of the irregular movements of our democracy, and as those who maintain the equilibrium of the system.
--Albert Gallatin, in a conversation with Alexis de Tocqueville
The United States Supreme Court was established under Article III of the Constitution of the United States. The Article also granted United States Congress the authority to establish courts of lesser import, as needed. It wasn't until the Judiciary Act of 1789, which specified the jurisdiction of the lesser courts, that the role of the judicial branch took on greater meaning.
The law [Article III] created 13 district courts in principal cities, with one judge apiece, and three circuit courts to cover the other areas of the eastern, middle and southern United States. Above these it set a Supreme Court, with a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices, as the only court of appeals.
The Initial Years: The Jay Court (1789-1795)
On February 2, 1790 the Supreme Court convened at the Royal Exchange Building in New York for its very first session.
President Washington appointed these men based upon legal capabilities, while also hoping to off-set regional jealousies and establish sectional neutrality by choosing minds from across the new country.
The Supreme Court's role for the next eleven years was subdued, as leading statesmen tested the waters of checks and balances established within the new republic. Unfortunately, thanks to a haphazard order of operations, misleading court accounts, and the War of 1812, much of what we know about the court's first decade is paltry.
In 1795, the courts began requiring lawyers to submit the "material points" of their arguments. Until then, cases were argued verbally, and documentation was sparse-to-none. The justices themselves did not issue written judgments, but rather announced their decisions from the bench.
There was no official reporter, just a freelance Philadelphia lawyer named Alexander James Dallas, whose courtroom accounts often proved misleading. For example, in the 1798 case of Wilson v. Daniel, Dallas reported that the Supreme Court affirmed a prior trial court's ruling; in reality, the Court had done just the opposite.
It wasn't until John Marshall joined the bench in 1801 that the court took on a more orderly shape, and became a significant participant in American democracy.
The Marshall Court (1801-1835)
The appointment of John Marshall as the fourth Supreme Court Chief Justice (preceded by John Jay, John Rutledge, and Oliver Ellsworth) can be considered a turning point for the American judiciary. Prior to his appointment, the court was easily--and understandably--the weakest member of America's tribune government. An eleventh hour appointment by then-President John Adams, Marshall's nomination was confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1801. His tenure as Chief Justice would last until 1835 - the longest in Supreme Court history. According to the Supreme Court's biography, "Chief Justice Marshall's vigorous and able leadership in the formative years of the Court was central to the development of its prominent role in American government."
As Chief Justice, Marshall presided over some of the most storied and formative legal cases in American history. Among them were: Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia, and Gibbons v. Ogden.
- History of the Supreme Court
- Members of the Supreme Court of the United States
- The Court and Constitutional Interpretation
- The Court and Its Traditions
- The Court and Its Procedures
|Former chief justices||White|
|Former associate justices||
Baldwin • Barbour • Black • Blackmun • Blair • Blatchford • Bradley • Brandeis • Brennan • Brewer • Brown • Burton • Butler • Byrnes • Campbell • Cardozo • Catron • Chase • Clark • Clarke • Clifford • Curtis • Cushing • Daniel • Davis • Day • Douglas • Duvall • Field • Fortas • Frankfurter • Goldberg • Gray • Grier • Harlan I • Harlan II • Holmes • Hunt • Iredell • H. Jackson • R. Jackson • T. Johnson • W. Johnson, Jr. • J. Lamar • L. Lamar • Livingston • Lurton • Marshall • Matthews • McKenna • McKinley • McLean • McReynolds • Miller • Minton • Moody • Moore • Murphy • Nelson • Paterson • Peckham • Pitney • Powell • Reed • Roberts • W. Rutledge • Sanford • Shiras • Stewart • Story • Strong • Sutherland • Swayne • Thompson • Todd • Trimble • Van Devanter • Washington • Wayne • B. White • Whittaker • Wilson • Woodbury • Woods