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A Look Back at the U.S. Supreme Court

A Look Back at the U.S. Supreme Court
September 25
08:56 2020

By John Christian Hopkins

President Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court has been in the news lately, so it only seems fitting to point out that the first Supreme Court was seated 231 years ago this week.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 – signed into law by George Washington – established the court.

It originally consisted of six members, who were all confirmed on September 26, 1789. John Jay was the first chief justice.

The court’s first meeting was on February 1, 1790.

While originally consisting of six justices, the actual number of seats on the high court fluctuated for its first 80 years. Finally, in 1869, the number of seats was set at nine.

However Congress has the power to change the number of justices at any time – a topic that has been in the news recently.

The court’s initial meeting was held in New York City, but from 1791 to 1800 it called Philadelphia home. It moved to Washington D.C., occupying several different locations. It wasn’t until 1929 that Chief Justice William Howard Taft – the only former president to join the Supreme Court – convinced Congress to allocate funds so the court could have its own venue.

In 1937 Franklin Roosevelt tried to “pack” the court with justices more favorable to his New Deal policies. FDR’s plan was to add a new justice for everyone over 70 who did not retire – up to a maximum of 15 justices.

Congress quickly shut that down.

John Jay

Although the U.S. Constitution spells out the requirements for serving as president or in Congress, it set no rules for becoming a member of the high court. To date, there have been six foreign-born justices.

One thing all members of the court have had in common was that they were lawyers.

In the early years most lawyers earned their credentials by working with a mentor. Justice James Brynes (1941-42) was the last justice who did not attend law school. Byrnes also never finished high school.

Although a justice is appointed for life more than 50 have retired or resigned – including John Jay, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Earl Warren and Sandra Day O’Connor.

The justices can also be impeached. To date that has happened to only one justice – Samuel Chase in 1804 – who was accused by the House of Representatives of acting in a partisan manner.

However the Senate acquitted Chase and he returned to the court until his death in 1811.

A Look Back at the U.S. Supreme Court - overview

Summary: A Look Back at the U.S. Supreme Court


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