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History of the Supreme Court of the United States


History of the Supreme Court of the United States

The Judiciary Act of 1789 implemented the entire federal judicial branch, including the Supreme Court. It was also the first act by Congress to be partially invalidated by the Supreme Court.

The following is a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, organized by Chief Justice. The Supreme Court of the United States is the only court specifically established by the Constitution of the United States, implemented in 1789; under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Court was to be composed of six members—though the number of justices has been nine for almost all of its history, this number is set by Congress, not the Constitution. The court convened for the first time on February 2, 1790.[1]

The Old Royal Exchange, in New York City, where the first meeting of the Court was held in February 1790.


  • The Jay, Rutledge, and Ellsworth Courts (1789–1801) 1
  • The Marshall Court (1801–1835) 2
  • The Taney Court (1836–1864) 3
  • The Chase, Waite, and Fuller Courts (1864–1910) 4
  • The White and Taft courts (1910–1930) 5
  • The Hughes, Stone, and Vinson courts (1930—1953) 6
  • The Warren Court (1953–1969) 7
  • The Burger Court (1969–1986) 8
  • The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005) 9
  • The Roberts Court (2005–) 10
  • References 11

The Jay, Rutledge, and Ellsworth Courts (1789–1801)

Image of two story brick building.
The Court lacked its own building until 1935; from 1791 to 1801, it met in Philadelphia's City Hall.

The first Chief Justice of the United States was Eleventh Amendment, which granted states immunity from certain types of lawsuits in federal courts. The Amendment was ratified in 1795.

Jay was succeeded as Chief Justice by John Rutledge, and then by Oliver Ellsworth. No major cases came before the Supreme Court during this time.

The Supreme Court met in windowless chambers in the Capitol from 1819 until 1860. The room has been restored and is now known as the Old Supreme Court Chamber.

The Marshall Court (1801–1835)

One of the most significant periods during the history of the Court was the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801 to 1835). In the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall held that the Supreme Court could overturn a law passed by Congress if it violated the Constitution, legally cementing the power of judicial review. The Marshall Court also made several important decisions relating to federalism. Marshall took a broad view of the powers of the federal government—in particular, the interstate commerce clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. For instance, in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Court ruled that the interstate commerce clause and other clauses permitted Congress to create a national bank, even though the power to create a bank is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Similarly, in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Court found that the interstate commerce clause permitted Congress to regulate interstate navigation.

The Marshall Court also made several decisions restraining the actions of state governments. The notion that the Supreme Court could consider appeals from state courts was established in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) and Cohens v. Virginia (1821). In several decisions, the Marshall Court confirmed the supremacy of federal laws over state laws. For example, in McCulloch, the Court held that a state could not tax an agency of the federal government. At the same time, however, the Marshall Court held in the landmark case Barron v. Baltimore (1833) that the Bill of Rights restricted the federal government alone, and did not apply to the states. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court would in later years hold that the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying most provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states.

Marshall's forceful personality allowed him to steer his fellow Justices; only once did he find himself on the losing side in a constitutional case. In that case (Ogden v. Saunders in 1827), Marshall set forth his general principles of constitutional interpretation:[5]

Marshall was in the dissenting minority only eight times throughout his tenure at the Court, partly because of his influence over the associate justices. As Oliver Wolcott observed when both he and Marshall served in the Adams administration, Marshall had the knack of "putting his own ideas into the minds of others, unconsciously to them".[6] However, he regularly curbed his own viewpoints, preferring to arrive at decisions by consensus.[7] He adjusted his role to accommodate other members of the court as they developed.

Marshall had charm, humor, a quick intelligence, and the ability to bring men together. His sincerity and presence commanded attention. His opinions were workmanlike but not especially eloquent or subtle. His influence on learned men of the law came from the charismatic force of his personality, and his ability to seize upon the key elements of a case and make highly persuasive arguments. Together with his vision of the future greatness of the nation, these qualities are apparent in his historic decisions and gave him the sobriquet, The Great Chief Justice.[8][9][10]

Marshall ran a congenial court; there was seldom any bickering. The Court met in Washington only two months a year, from the first Monday in February through the second or third week in March. Six months of the year the justices were doing circuit duty in the various states. Marshall was therefore based in Richmond, his hometown, for most of the year. When the Court was in session in Washington, the justices boarded together in the same rooming house, avoided outside socializing, and discussed each case intently among themselves. Decisions were quickly made usually in a matter of days. Marshall wrote nearly half the decisions during his 33 years in office. Lawyers appearing before the court, including the most brilliant in the United States, typically gave oral arguments and did not present written briefs. The justices did not have clerks, so they listened closely to the oral arguments, and decided among themselves what the decision should be. The court issued only one decision; the occasional dissenter did not issue a separate opinion.[11]

While Marshall was very good at listening to the oral briefs, and convincing the other justices of his interpretation of the law, he was not widely read in the law, and seldom cited precedents. After the Court came to a decision, he would usually write it up himself. Often he asked Justice Story, a renowned legal scholar, to do the chores of locating the precedents, saying, "There, Story; that is the law of this case; now go and find the authorities."[12]

The Taney Court (1836–1864)

In 1836, Marshall was succeeded as Chief Justice by Roger B. Taney, who had a somewhat more limited view of the powers of the federal government. At a time when sectional tensions between the North and South were high, many of the Supreme Court's decisions—particularly those relating to slavery—met with controversy and contention. Most controversial was the Taney Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, sued for his freedom on the grounds that his master had taken him into Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin, both of which prohibited slavery, for extended periods of time. Taney, however, ruled that members of the African race, "beings of an inferior order," were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Consequently, he ruled that Scott therefore had no standing to file the lawsuit. Moreover, he held that the Missouri Compromise, under which Congress prohibited slavery in certain territories that formed part of the Louisiana Purchase, was unconstitutional. The controversial decision met with outrage from abolitionists, and contributed to the tensions that led to the Civil War during the next decade.

The Chase, Waite, and Fuller Courts (1864–1910)

First photograph of the U.S. Supreme Court, by Mathew Brady, 1869 (courtesy of National Archives).

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice. Chase had strong anti-slavery credentials and had previously served Lincoln as Secretary of the Treasury. His post-Civil War tenure featured several key decisions affirming the indestructibility of the Union. Chase was considered highly ambitious, even for a politician. In 1872, Chase, while serving on the Supreme Court, ran for the Presidency, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Chase continued to serve as Chief Justice until his death in 1873.

In the aftermath of the Civil War Congress passed and the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which, among other things, prevented states from abridging the "privileges and immunities of citizens," from denying due process of law, and from denying equal protection of the laws to any person. Many cases that came before the Court in the post–Civil War era involved interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court under Chief Justice Morrison Waite held that Congress could not prohibit racial discrimination by private individuals (as opposed to governments) on the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment. Later, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court under Chief Justice Melville Fuller determined that the equal protection clause did not prohibit racial segregation in public facilities, as long as the facilities were equal (giving rise to the infamous term "separate but equal"). The sole dissenter in that case was John Marshall Harlan.[13]

The White and Taft courts (1910–1930)

In the early twentieth century, the Supreme Court established that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the "liberty of contract." On the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment and other provisions of the Constitution, it controversially overturned many state and federal laws designed to protect employees. The first important decision of the era was Lochner v. New York (1905), in which the Court overturned a New York law limiting the number of hours bakers could work each week. In Adair v. United States (1908), the Court overruled a federal law which forbade "yellow dog contracts" (contracts that prohibited workers from joining unions). Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923) involved a decision that a District of Columbia minimum wage law was unconstitutional.

In 1925, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in Gitlow v. New York, establishing the doctrine of incorporation, under which provisions of the Bill of Rights were deemed to restrict the states. Originally, as Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), the Bill of Rights restricted only the federal government; however, during the twentieth century, the Supreme Court held in a series of decisions the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying some (but not all) provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. The first such decision was Gitlow, in which the Supreme Court incorporated the protection of freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment. Important decisions relating to incorporations were made during later decades, especially the 1960s.

The Hughes, Stone, and Vinson courts (1930—1953)

U.S. Supreme Court, 1932.

During the 1930s, the Supreme Court contained both a solid liberal bloc and a conservative bloc of Justices. The four conservative Justices, known as "Willis Van Devanter and Pierce Butler. Their liberal opponents on the bench—Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Harlan Stone—were conversely known "The Three Musketeers", while Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justice Owen Roberts controlled the balance by serving as the swing votes. Hughes, as a progressive Republican, tended to side with the Four Horsemen, as he did in Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States, whilst Roberts was also swayed to the side of the conservatives.

As a result, The Court continued to enforce a Federal John Nance Garner, and was defeated in Congress.

Soon after the proposal of the court-packing plan, however, the Supreme Court ended the trend that had prevailed since Lochner. Justice Roberts, who had previously voted with the conservative bloc in invalidating New Deal legislation, began to vote on the opposite side. Roberts' decision spelled the end of the Lochner era and has been dubbed the "switch in time that saved nine." As the Horsemen retired, Roosevelt, the longest-serving President in history, availed repeatedly of opportunity to replace them with more liberal Justices. After Hughes retired, Stone—The last remaining "Musketeer"—was appointed by Roosevelt to be elevated to the position of Chief Justice. In 1945, eight of the nine sitting Justices had been appointed by President Roosevelt, the sole exception being Owen Roberts.

The Warren Court (1953–1969)

In 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, who was then governor of California, to the position of Chief Justice. Warren's term, which lasted until 1969, was arguably one of the most significant in the history of the Court. Under him, the Court made a long series of landmark decisions. Notable members of the liberal wing of the Court aside from Warren included Hugo Black, William O. Douglas (the longest-serving Justice in the Court's history) and William J. Brennan. The foremost conservative members of the Court were Felix Frankfurter and John Marshall Harlan II (grandson of the first Justice Harlan). The first important case of Warren's tenure was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the Court unanimously declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, effectively reversing the precedent set earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson and other cases.

The Warren Court also made several controversial decisions relating to the Bill of Rights. The doctrine of incorporation, which had first taken root in Gitlow v. New York, was applied fully to most provisions of the Bill of Rights. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Court declared that officially sanctioned prayer in public schools was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Similarly, in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), it struck down mandatory Bible readings in public schools. The Court also expanded and incorporated the rights of criminal defendants, on the basis of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court incorporated the Fourth Amendment and ruled that illegally seized evidence could not be used in a trial. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) established that states were required to provide attorneys to indigent defendants. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) held that the police must inform suspects of their rights (including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) before being interrogated. (The decision is the source of the famous Miranda warning.) Another significant and controversial decision made by the Warren Court was Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which established that the Constitution protected the right to privacy.

The Burger Court (1969–1986)

Chief Justice Earl Warren was succeeded by Warren E. Burger, who served from 1969 to 1986. The Burger Court is best remembered for its ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973), which held that there is a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion in some circumstances. The Court also made important decisions relating to the First Amendment. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), it established the "Lemon test" for determining if legislation violates the establishment clause. Similarly, it established the "Miller test" for laws banning obscenity in Miller v. California (1973).

Other rulings include United States v. Nixon (1974), the court ruled that the courts have the final voice in determining constitutional questions and that no person, not even the President of the United States, is completely above law.

The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

U.S. Supreme Court, 1998.

Chief Justice U.S. President.

Rehnquist led a remarkably stable Court - for the eleven years preceding Rehnquist's death, the composition of the Court remained unchanged - the longest such stretch in over 180 years.[14]

The Roberts Court (2005–)

Chief Justice Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Bush submitted the nomination to the Senate on November 10, 2005. Under Roberts the Court has drifted primarily to the right in areas like the death penalty (Kansas v. Marsh), abortion (Gonzales v. Carhart), the exclusionary rule for Fourth Amendment violations (Hudson v. Michigan), and campaign-finance regulation (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). On November 20, 2007, the Court agreed to hear a case, District of Columbia v. Heller, that was regarded as the first important and historically significant decision on the Second Amendment to the Constitution since 1875. On March 18, 2008, the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the constitutionality of a District of Columbia ban on handguns.[15] On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."[16]

On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic-American to serve on the Supreme Court after being nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate to replace the retiring Justice David Souter. On May 10, 2010, President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. She was confirmed on August 7, 2010. This marks the first time in the history of the Court that three women are serving as Justices and that no Protestants are serving (instead, there are six Roman Catholics and three Jews).


  1. ^ "The Constitution of the United States with Index and the Declaration of Independence".  
  2. ^ U.S. Supreme Court Records of Earliest caselaw PDF (accessed April 24, 2009)
  3. ^  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Currie, David. The Constitution in the Supreme Court: The First Hundred Years, 1789-1888, pages 152-155 (Univ. of Chicago 1992).
  6. ^ George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams, (1846), vol. II, p. 350.
  7. ^ Expanding Democracy, Biographies of the Robes, John Marshall.Fox, John, Public Broadcasting Service.
  8. ^ Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall (1996) pp. 351-2, 422, 506
  9. ^ Albert Jeremiah Beveridge, The life of John Marshall: Volume 4 (1919) p. 94
  10. ^ Charles F. Hobson, The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law (1996) pp 15-16, 119-23
  11. ^ G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change: 1815-1835 (abridged ed. 1991) pp 157-200
  12. ^ A reliable statement of the quote was recounted by Theophilus Parsons, a law professor who knew Marshall personally. Parsons, "Distinguished Lawyers," Aug. 20, 1870, pp 126-7 onlineAlbany Law Journal. Historian Edward Corwin garbled the quote to: "Now Story, that is the law; you find the precedents for it," and that incorrect version has been repeated. Edward Corwin, John Marshall and the Constitution: a chronicle of the Supreme Court (1919) p 119.
  13. ^ Klarman, Michael J. (2004). From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality.  
  14. ^ Tushnet, Mark V. (2005). A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law.  
  15. ^ Mears, Bill (2008-03-18). "Supreme Court hears arguments on gun ownership".  
  16. ^ "October, 2007 Term Syllabus" (PDF).  
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