Supreme Court - A Brief History
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:
John Jay, from New York
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.