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A Brief History of the US Supreme Court

Other than establishing it, Article III of the U.S. Constitution spells out neither the specific duties, powers nor organization of the Supreme Court. 

"[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

Instead, the Constitution left it to Congress and to the Justices of the Court itself to develop the authorities and operations of the entire Judicial Branch of government.

The very first bill introduced in the United States Senate was the Judiciary Act of 1789. It divided the country in 13 judicial districts, which were further organized into the Eastern, Middle, and Southern "circuits." The 1789 Act called for the Supreme Court to consist of a Chief Justice and only five Associate Justices, and for the Court to meet, or "sit" in the Nation's Capital. For the first 101 years of its service, Supreme Court Justices were required to "ride circuit," holding court twice a year in each of the 13 judicial districts. The Act also created the position of U.S. Attorney General and assigned the power to nominate Supreme Court justices to the President of the United States with the approval of the Senate.

The First Court
The Supreme Court was first called to assemble on Feb. 1, 1790, in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City, then the Nation's Capital. The first Supreme Court was made up of:

Chief Justice:
John Jay, from New York

Associate Justices:
John Rutledge, from South Carolina
William Cushing, from Massachusetts
James Wilson, from Pennsylvania
John Blair, from Virginia
James Iredell, from North Carolina

Due to transportation problems, Chief Justice Jay had to postpone the first actual meeting of the Supreme Court until the next day, Feb. 2, 1790.

The Supreme Court spent its first session organizing itself and determining its own powers and duties. The new Justices heard and decided their first actual case in 1792.

Lacking any specific direction from the Constitution, the new U.S. Judiciary spent its first decade as the weakest of the three branches of government. Early federal courts failed to issue strong opinions or even take on controversial cases. The Supreme Court was not even sure if it had the power to consider the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. This situation changed drastically in 1801 when President John Adams appointed John Marshall of Virginia to be the fourth Chief Justice. Confident that nobody would tell him not to, Marshall took clear and firm steps to define the role and powers of both the Supreme Court and the judiciary system.

The Supreme Court, under John Marshall, defined itself with its historic 1803 decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison. In this single landmark case, the Supreme Court established its power to interpret the U.S. Constitution and to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by congress and the state legislatures.

John Marshall went on to serve as Chief Justice for a record 34 years, along with several Associate Justices who served for over 20 years. During his time on the bench, Marshall succeeded in molding the federal judicial system into what many consider to be today's most powerful branch of government.

Before settling at nine in 1869, the number of Supreme Court Justices changed six times. In its entire history, the Supreme Court has had only 16 Chief Justices, and over 100 Associate Justices.

Chief Justice Year 
Appointed**
Appointed By
John Jay 1789 Washington
John Rutledge 1795 Washington
Oliver Ellsworth 1796 Washington
John Marshall 1801 John Adams
Roger B. Taney 1836 Jackson
Salmon P. Chase 1864 Lincoln
Morrison R. Waite 1874 Grant
Melville W. Fuller 1888 Cleveland
Edward D. White 1910 Taft
William H. Taft 1921 Harding
Charles E. Hughes 1930 Hoover
Harlan F. Stone 1941 F. Roosevelt
Fred M. Vinson 1946 Truman
Earl Warren 1953 Eisenhower
Warren E. Burger 1969 Nixon
William Rehnquist
(Deceased)
1986 Reagan
John G. Roberts 2005 G. W. Bush

Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the President of the United States. The nomination must be approved by a majority vote of the Senate. The Justices serve until they either retire, die or are impeached.  The average tenure for Justices is about 15 years, with a new Justice being appointed to the Court about every 22 months. Presidents appointing the most Supreme Court Justices include George Washington, with ten appointments and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed eight Justices.

Current Supreme Court
The table below shows the current Justices of the Supreme Court. Click on a name for a short biography.

Justice Appointed
In
Appointed 
By
At Age
John G; Roberts 
(Chief Justice)
2005 G. W. Bush 50
Elena Kagan 2010 Obama 50
Samuel A. Alito, Jr. 2006 G. W. Bush 55
Antonin Scalia 1986 Reagan 50
Anthony Kennedy 1988 Reagan 52
Sonia Sotomayor 2009 Obama 55
Clarence Thomas 1991 Bush 43
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 1993 Clinton 60
Stephen Breyer 1994 Clinton 56

Also See: Duties of the Chief Justice

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