History of the Supreme Court ~ Part 1

As we all sit waiting for the Supreme Court to hand down it’s ruling on President Obama’s health care bill. I thought it would be a great time for a history lesson.  I will break it up into parts. I know history can get boring. I will bet that most of us do not know all this history.

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate (but largely discretionary) appellate jurisdiction over all federal courts and over state court cases involving issues of federal law, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases. The Court, which meets in the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, justices have life tenure unless they resign, retire, or are removed after impeachment.

The First Meeting of the US Supreme Court took place on February 2, 1790, in New York City’s Royal Exchange Building. Also called the Merchant Exchange, the Court’s first home was located at Broad & Water streets. The Exchange was “a very curious structure, for its ground floor was open on all sides, & in tempestuous weather the merchants, who gathered there for business, found it extremely uncomfortable. It had a 2nd story which was enclosed & consisted of a single room. By 1791, the court had moved to Philadelphia, where the government had taken residence. 1791 until 1800 it was in Philadelphia.

 

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA

 

 

After the government moved to Washington, D.C., the Court occupied various spaces in the United States Capitol building until 1935, when it moved into its own purpose-built home. The four-story building was designed by Cass Gilbert in a classical style sympathetic to the surrounding buildings of the Capitol and Library of Congress, and is clad in marble. The building includes the courtroom, justices’ chambers, an extensive law library,various meeting spaces, and auxiliary services including a gymnasium.

The Supreme Court building is within the ambit of the Architect of the Capitol, but maintains its own police force separate from the Capitol Police.

 

Size of the Court

Article III of the United States Constitution leaves it to Congress to fix the number of justices. The Judiciary Act of 1789 called for the appointment of six justices, and as the nation’s boundaries grew, Congress added justices to correspond with the growing number of judicial circuits: seven in 1807, nine in 1837, and ten in 1863.

In 1866, at the behest of Chief Justice Chase, Congress passed an act providing that the next three justices to retire would not be replaced, which would thin the bench to seven justices by attrition. Consequently, one seat was removed in 1866 and a second in 1867. In 1869, however, the Circuit Judges Act returned the number of justices to nine, where it has since remained.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court in 1937. His proposal envisioned appointment of one additional justice for each incumbent justice who reached the age of 70 years 6 months and refused retirement, up to a maximum bench of 15 justices. The proposal was ostensibly to ease the burden of the docket on elderly judges, but the actual purpose was widely understood as an effort to pack the Court with justices who would support Roosevelt’s New Deal. The plan, usually called the “Court-packing Plan”,  failed in Congress and proved a fiasco for Roosevelt.

Nevertheless, the Court’s balance began to shift within months when Justice van Devanter retired and was replaced by Senator Hugo Black. By the end of 1941, Roosevelt had appointed seven justices and elevated Harlan Fiske Stone to Chief Justice.

Appointment and confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States

The President of the United States appoints justices “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Most presidents nominate candidates who broadly share their ideological views, although a justice’s decisions may end up being contrary to a President’s expectations. Because the Constitution sets no qualifications for service as a justice, a president may nominate anyone to serve, subject to Senate confirmation.

Recess appointments

When the Senate is in recess, a president may make temporary appointments to fill vacancies. Recess appointees hold office only until the end of the next Senate session (at most, less than two years). The Senate must confirm the nominee for them to continue serving; of the two chief justices and six associate justices who have received recess appointments, only Chief Justice John Rutledge was not subsequently confirmed.

No President since Dwight Eisenhower has made a recess appointment to the Court, and the practice has become rare and controversial even in lower federal courts. In 1960, after Eisenhower had made three such appointments, the Senate passed a “sense of the Senate” resolution that recess appointments to the Court should only be made in “unusual circumstances.” Such resolutions are not legally binding but are an expression of Congress’s views in the hope of guiding executive action.

Tenure

The Constitution provides that justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior” (unless appointed during a Senate recess). The term “good behavior” is understood to mean justices may serve for the remainder of their lives, unless they are impeached and convicted by Congress, resign or retire. Only one justice has been impeached by the House of Representatives (Samuel Chase, March 1804), but he was acquitted in the Senate (March 1805). Moves to impeach sitting justices have occurred more recently (for example, William O. Douglas was the subject of hearings twice, once in 1953 and again in 1970), but they have not reached a vote in the House. No mechanism exists for removing a justice who is permanently incapacitated by illness or injury, both unable to resign and unable to resume service.

Because justices have indefinite tenure, timing of vacancies can be unpredictable. Sometimes vacancies arise in quick.

So this ends Part 1. Are you with me? Bored yet? I hope not. I believe it is important to know some history of the most important court in the land.

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