Basic Facts and History of the us Supreme Court

Created in 1787 and established in 1789, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. Nominated by the President and approved by Congress, the role of Supreme Court Justices is to ensure compliance of state and federal laws, and interpret the Constitution.

Because this branch of government was not specifically outlined in the Constitution, it was up to Congress and the Justices to organize the Supreme Court. On March 4, 1789, Congress enacted the Judiciary Act formally establishing the Court according to a basic outline provided in Article III section I which stated, 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”. This Act was signed by George Washington who, that same day, nominated John Jay of New York as Chief Justice. On October 19, 1789 he was sworn in as the first Chief Justice. Five associate justices were also nominated to serve alongside Justice Jay.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 called for six justices, however, geographical growth of the United States meant more justices were needed. The Court grew to seven members in 1807, nine in 1837 and finally ten in 1863. In 1869, the number was set at nine. Until 1935 when it was moved to its current location in Washington DC, the Supreme Court did not have a permanent meeting place. One was not needed for the first century of its service because the justices were required to meet in the nation’s capital a few weeks each year plus ride the circuit and hold court twice a year in each of the thirteen districts. The practice of riding circuit was reduced to once a year in 1793 and finally abolished in the Judiciary Act of 1891.

During its early years, the Supreme Court worked to not only define itself but to handle the powers of the federal and state government which were often in conflict with each other. Following the Civil War, the landscape of the nation changed and so did the Court. From 1865 to 1920, the reconstruction of the southern states and the rights of African Americans became the focus of the Court. During the years from 1930 to 1960, the Supreme Court was faced with problems on many fronts. It dealt with those problems arising from a failed economy and the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. It was during this time that the Civil Rights movement began to gain momentum.

Throughout the many years since its creation, the focus of the Supreme Court has changed many times. Among the most notable cases decided by the Court are Marbury v. Madison (1803) which established the power of Judicial Review, McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) which gave Congress more lenience when it came to making laws, Wheaton v. Peters (1834) when the Court held that there was not a federal common law that superseded state law in the matter of criminal jurisdiction, Jones V. Van Zandt (1847) in which the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was upheld, Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) in which the Court decided that Congress could not authorize the abolition of Slavery in the territories, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in which the Court ordered the desegregation of schools, and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) which made the reading of the Miranda warnings mandatory upon arrest.  

A statute, adopted in 1917, set the beginning of a term as the first Monday in October. The term usually ends in late June of the following year. The terms are separated into sittings are recesses that alternate every two weeks. Approximately 100 cases are heard each term and 7,000 requests for certiorari are received each year by the Court. Since its creation, 112 justices including 17 Chief Justices have served on the Supreme Court.