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History of the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S Supreme Court came into existence as per the requirement of the constitution. Article III, section I of the US constitution required that a supreme court is enacted to provide judicial power. The agenda to establish the court was deliberated by the first meeting that was held by the congress on March 4, 1789. Therefore, the congress wanted to fulfill the requirement of the constitution article II, Section 1 that ran as follows, “Judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as the congress may from time to time ordain and establish” (United States Senate, 2012, para. 1).

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To fulfill this requirement, judiciary Act of 1789 was enacted by the congress. Under this act, thirteen district courts were set up in major cities to facilitate provision of judicial services to the citizens. Furthermore, they established three circuit courts. A chief justice was to head the Supreme Court. Five other associate justices were also to be appointed to ensure that the functions and responsibilities of their offices went on smoothly.

To become operational, the judicial act had to be signed by the President. At that time, the president was George Washington. He assented to the act on September 24, 1789 and later nominated the judges as the act required. John Jay of New York was nominated to take the position of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme court. He goes in history book as the first chief justice to serve the Supreme Court of United States after its independence. Other associate justices were also nominated; they included John Rutledge of South Carolina, James Wilson of Pennsylvania Robert Harrison of Maryland, William Cushing of Massachusetts. James Iredell of North Carolina was nominated by the president after Harrison had refused to take the position of an associate justice. It is also documented that the three different chief justices were nominated during the reign of President Washington. Furthermore, it is also during his reign that eight associate justices were nominated to work in the supreme courts.

After he was sworn in on October 19, 1789, John Jay called the members appointed to serve in the court to meet for the first time in the merchants Exchange Building in New York City on February 1, 1790 (United States Senate, 2012, para. 2). However, the meeting was not to take place that day because of transportation process. The associate justices could not find the means of transportation and, therefore, the meeting was to be postponed. All the associate justices were sworn in before taking the mantle to their leadership.

For the need to ensure that the officials in the supreme courts executed their works better, they had to meet on some occasions. The meetings were often held during October and February. The most notably case that was decided on under the Jay court was Chisholm v. Georgia. In this ruling/decision, federal courts were granted a go ahead to hear and issue rulings on those cases that involved states. Federal judiciary courts were not required to hear any cases that involved states. This raised concern from the congress who suggested that certain immunities are granted to the state in certain lawsuits that are brought in the federal lawsuits. This is what resulted to the eleventh amendment. It is also important to indicate under Jay court, its first docket case was between van Staphorst v. Maryland [1791] while its first decision to record was in the case of West v. Barnes [1791] (United States Senate. 2012, para. 2).

The original justices only heard a few appeals. They were involved in other roles such as presiding over circuit courts. The associate justices, under the law had to visit other circuits that were spread in the country at least twice. This was somehow hectic to them since travelling to remote area was cumbersome. This requirement did not resonate with Jay who threatened to resign if it was not abolished. To remedy the situation, the requirement to its circuit courts was revised in 1793. This requirement was abolished by congress in 1989.

When Jay’s tenure elapsed, he was replaced by the chief justice John Rutledge who was then succeeded by Oliver Ellsworth. Under their leadership, there were no substantial rulings that were evident. Oliver was replaced by John Marshall who took the helm of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. One of the landmark cases that were passed under his leadership was Marbury v. Madison [1803] in which he held that in some occasions the supreme court could overturn any law that was passed by the congress if such law contravened the requirement of the constitution (Uzquiano, 2004, p. 135). He, therefore, cemented the power of judiciary as an independent body that was aimed at upholding to the requirements of the law. Furthermore, many different rulings were made by the court that required the government not to engage in certain activities. The ideas for the Supreme court to hear appeals from the state courts were the result of the Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee [1826] and that of Cohens vs Virginia [1821] (Klarman, 2004, p. 5).

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One of the controversial and contentious cases in the history of Supreme Court was the case between Dred Scott and Sanford [1857] (Klarman, 2004, p. 2). In the case, Dred Scott claimed that his master infringed on his freedom when he decided to take him to Illinois where slavery was prohibited for some period of time. When the case was brought before the Supreme Court for a decision, the Supreme Court chief justice Toney dismissed the case and stated that Africans were not genuine citizens of America. He dismissed Scott as having no moral standing and authority to file any lawsuit. This ruling led to tension that contributed to the emergence of civil war between the black Americans and the whites, who were perceived to be superior. This civil war was a success leading to the abolition of slavery.

As civil war ended, president Lincoln Abraham appointed Chase as the Supreme Court chief justice. Chase was opposed to slavery and, as such, worked to ensure that unions were protected (Klarman, 2004, p. 3). It was after the civil war that the congress took place and the state ratified the fourteenth amendment. This amendment aimed at ensuring that all privileges and immunities of citizens were to be respected, and nobody was to be denied a due process of law. The law was to ensure that every individual’s rights and freedoms are upheld. Therefore, many cases that were filed in the Supreme Court were decided based on the civil rights cases [1883].

The Supreme Court in the U.S has undergone many transformation; many cases have been decided and documented. The court has continued to grow and aspire to uphold to equal treatment of its citizens as per the requirement of the constitution. The Supreme Court has embraced diversity in its recruitment of associate justices. So far, since the Supreme Court was established, 112 justices and 17 chief justices (United States Senate. 2012, para. 6) have served it.


Klarman, M. J. (2004). From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Oxford University Press.

United States Senate. (2012). Committee on the Judiciary: The supreme court of the United States History. Web.

Uzquiano, G. (2004). The Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Justices. A Metaphysical Puzzle. Nous, 38(1) 135-153.

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