It was while debating the separation of powers between the legislative and executive departments that delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention established the parameters for the national judiciary. Creating a "third branch" of government was a novel idea; in the English tradition, judicial matters had been treated as an aspect of royal (executive) authority. Early on, the delegates who were opposed to having a strong central government argued that national laws could be enforced by state courts, while others, including James Madison, advocated for a national judicial authority consisting of various tribunals chosen by the national legislature. It was also proposed that the judiciary should have a role in checking the executive's power to veto or revise laws. In the end, the framers compromised by sketching only a general outline of the judiciary, vesting federal judicial power in "one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish". They delineated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the judicial branch as a whole.
The Royal Exchange
, New York City, first meeting place of the Supreme Court
The 1st United States Congress provided the detailed organization of a federal judiciary through the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Supreme Court, the country's highest judicial tribunal, was to sit in the nation's Capital and would initially be composed of a chief justice and five associate justices. The act also divided the country into judicial districts, which were in turn organized into circuits. Justices were required to "ride circuit" and hold circuit court twice a year in their assigned judicial district.
Immediately after signing the act into law, President George Washington nominated the following people to serve on the
court: John Jay for chief justice and John Rutledge, William Cushing, Robert H. Harrison, James Wilson, and John Blair Jr. as associate justices. All six were confirmed by the Senate on September 26, 1789. Harrison, however, declined to serve. In his place, Washington later nominated James Iredell.
The Supreme Court held its inaugural session from February 2 through February 10, 1790, at the Royal Exchange in New York City, then the U.S. capital. A second session was held there in August 1790. The earliest sessions of the court were devoted to organizational proceedings, as the first cases did not reach it until 1791. When the national capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Supreme Court did so as well. After initially meeting at Independence Hall, the Court established its chambers at City Hall.
Earliest beginnings through Marshall
Chief Justice Marshall (1801–1835)
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. As the Court initially 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. 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 adoption of the Eleventh Amendment.
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).
New Deal era
The Hughes Court
in 1937, photographed by Erich Salomon
. Members include Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes
(center), Louis Brandeis
, Benjamin N. Cardozo
, Harlan Stone
, Owen Roberts
, and the "Four Horsemen" Pierce Butler
, James Clark McReynolds
, George Sutherland
, and Willis Van Devanter
, who opposed New Deal
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 Supreme Court with President George W. Bush
(center), 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 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).