Skip to content

The History of the Supreme Court of the United States

When Congress first met on March 4, 1789, one of the first items of business was to fulfill the requirements of Article III, section 1, of the Constitution.  Article III, section 1, provides that the "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."  The First Congress responded by enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established 13 district courts in major cities, three circuit courts, and a Supreme Court comprised of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices.  (See Library of Congress)

President George Washington signed the Judiciary Act on September 24, 1789, and later that day nominated John Jay of New York to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He also nominated James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge of South Carolina, William Cushing of Massachusetts, Robert Harrison of Maryland, and John Blair of Virginia to be Associate Justices.  When Harrison declined to serve, President Washington nominated James Iredell of North Carolina.  During his term in office, President Washington appointed three Chief Justices and eight Associate Justices.  Washington Appointed more Justices to the Supreme Court than any other President in history.  (See U.S. Senate References)

John Jay of New York took the oath as the first Chief Justice on October 19, 1789, and called the Court to assemble for the first time on February 1, 1790, in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City, and then the Nation's Capitol.  (See Supreme Court of the United States)  Due to transportation problems, the Chief Justice postponed the first meeting of the Court until the following day.  At that time, William Cushing of Massachusetts and John Blair of Virginia were sworn in as Associate Justices.  John Rutledge of South Carolina took the oath on February 15, 1790.  James Iredell of North Carolina took the oath on May 12, 1790.  (See Supreme Court of the United States)

The original Supreme Court met for only a few weeks each February and August.  Two notable cases from the Jay Court were Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), which led to the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment, which led to the removal of federal jurisdiction in suits by citizens of on state against another state, and Glass v. Sloop Betsey (1794), which established admiralty jurisdiction in all federal courts.

The fact that the original Justices heard few appeals did not mean that they were not busy.  In fact, they were often exhausted from "riding the circuit," a requirement of the Judiciary Act of 1789.  That requirement meant that Justices of the Supreme Court were mandated to preside twice a year over the circuit courts located throughout the country.  Congress included the provision in the Judiciary Act to ensure that the Justices would be aware of local opinion and state law.  Riding the circuit required each Justice to travel to the lower courts twice a year.Chief Justice Jay found the practice so intolerable that he threatened to resign.  This prompted Congress to reduce the requirement in 1793 to one journey per year.  (See the Supreme Court Historical Society)  Congress ultimately reduced the requirement in 1793 to one journey per year.  It was not until 1891 that Congress abolished the requirement in the Judiciary Act of 1891.

To date, there have been 112 Justices on the Supreme Court, including 17 Chief Justices.