Supreme Court of the United States
The ratification of the United States Constitution established the Supreme Court in 1789. Its powers are detailed in Article Three of the Constitution. The Supreme Court was the only court specifically established by the Constitution while all other federal courts were created by Congress. Congress is also responsible for conferring the title of "justice" to its members, who are known to scold lawyers for inaccurately referring to them as "judge," even though it is the term used in the Constitution.
The Court first convened on February 2, 1790, with six judges where only five of its six initial positions were filled. According to historian Fergus Bordewich, in its first session: "[T]he Supreme Court convened for the first time at the Royal Exchange Building on Broad Street, a few steps from Federal Hall. Symbolically, the moment was pregnant with promise for the republic, this birth of a new national institution whose future power, admittedly, still existed only in the eyes and minds of just a few visionary Americans. Impressively bewigged and swathed in their robes of office, Chief Justice John Jay and three associate justices — William Cushing of Massachusetts, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, and John Blair of Virginia — sat augustly before a throng of spectators and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. They had no cases to consider. After a week of inactivity, they adjourned until September, and everyone went home."
The sixth member, James Iredell, was not confirmed until May 12, 1790. Because the full Court had only six members, every decision that it made by a majority was also made by two-thirds (voting four to two). However, Congress has always allowed less than the Court's full membership to make decisions, starting with a quorum of four justices in 1789.
Earliest beginnings to Marshall
Under Chief Justices Jay, Rutledge and Ellsworth (1789–1801), the Court heard few cases; its first decision was West v. Barnes (1791), a case involving procedure. The Court lacked a home of its own and had little prestige, a situation not helped by the era's highest-profile case, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), which was reversed within two years by the Eleventh Amendment's adoption.
The Court's power and prestige grew substantially during the Marshall Court (1801–35). Under Marshall, the Court established the power of judicial review over acts of Congress, including specifying itself as the supreme expositor of the Constitution (Marbury v. Madison) and making several important constitutional rulings that gave shape and substance to the balance of power between the federal government and states (notably, Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden).
The Marshall Court also ended the practice of each justice issuing his opinion seriatim, a remnant of British tradition, and instead issuing a single majority opinion. Also during Marshall's tenure, although beyond the Court's control, the impeachment and acquittal of Justice Samuel Chase in 1804–05 helped cement the principle of judicial independence.
From Taney to Taft
The Taney Court (1836–64) made several important rulings, such as Sheldon v. Sill, which held that while Congress may not limit the subjects the Supreme Court may hear, it may limit the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts to prevent them from hearing cases dealing with certain subjects. Nevertheless, it is primarily remembered for its ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which helped precipitate the Civil War. In the Reconstruction era, the Chase, Waite, and Fuller Courts (1864–1910) interpreted the new Civil War amendments to the Constitution and developed the doctrine of substantive due process (Lochner v. New York; Adair v. United States).
Under the White and Taft Courts (1910–30), the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment had incorporated some guarantees of the Bill of Rights against the states (Gitlow v. New York), grappled with the new antitrust statutes (Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States), upheld the constitutionality of military conscription (Selective Draft Law Cases) and brought the substantive due process doctrine to its first apogee (Adkins v. Children's Hospital).
The New Deal era
During the Hughes, Stone, and Vinson Courts (1930–53), the Court gained its own accommodation in 1935 and changed its interpretation of the Constitution, giving a broader reading to the powers of the federal government to facilitate President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (most prominently West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, Wickard v. Filburn, United States v. Darby and United States v. Butler). During World War II, the Court continued to favor government power, upholding the internment of Japanese citizens (Korematsu v. United States) and the mandatory pledge of allegiance (Minersville School District v. Gobitis). Nevertheless, Gobitis was soon repudiated (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette), and the Steel Seizure Case restricted the pro-government trend.
Warren and Burger
The Warren Court (1953–69) dramatically expanded the force of Constitutional civil liberties. It held that segregation in public schools violates equal protection (Brown v. Board of Education, Bolling v. Sharpe and Green v. County School Bd.) and that traditional legislative district boundaries violated the right to vote (Reynolds v. Sims). It created a general right to privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut), limited the role of religion in public school (most prominently Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp), incorporated most guarantees of the Bill of Rights against the States—prominently Mapp v. Ohio (the exclusionary rule) and Gideon v. Wainwright (right to appointed counsel),—and required that criminal suspects be apprised of all these rights by police (Miranda v. Arizona). At the same time, however, the Court limited defamation suits by public figures (New York Times v. Sullivan) and supplied the government with an unbroken run of antitrust victories.
The Burger Court (1969–86) marked a conservative shift. It also expanded Griswold's right to privacy to strike down abortion laws (Roe v. Wade), but divided deeply on affirmative action (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) and campaign finance regulation (Buckley v. Valeo). It also dithered on the death penalty, ruling first that most applications were defective (Furman v. Georgia), then the death penalty itself was not unconstitutional (Gregg v. Georgia).
Rehnquist and Roberts
Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2005
The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005) was noted for its revival of judicial enforcement of federalism, emphasizing the limits of the Constitution's affirmative grants of power (United States v. Lopez) and the force of its restrictions on those powers (Seminole Tribe v. Florida, City of Boerne v. Flores). It struck down single-sex state schools as a violation of equal protection (United States v. Virginia), laws against sodomy as violations of substantive due process (Lawrence v. Texas), and the line item veto (Clinton v. New York), but upheld school vouchers (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) and reaffirmed Roe's restrictions on abortion laws (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). The Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, which ended the electoral recount during the presidential election of 2000, was especially controversial.
The Roberts Court (2005–present) is regarded by some as more conservative than the Rehnquist Court. Some of its major rulings have concerned federal preemption (Wyeth v. Levine), civil procedure (Twombly-Iqbal), abortion (Gonzales v. Carhart), climate change (Massachusetts v. EPA), same-sex marriage (United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges) and the Bill of Rights, notably in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (First Amendment), Heller-McDonald (Second Amendment) and Baze v. Rees (Eighth Amendment).