History Of The Supreme Court ~ Part 2

We will all have to wait until June to get the Supreme Courts ruling on the President’s health care man date. Until then, I will take you further into the making of the Supreme Court and why the Founding Fathers thought that this country was in need on one. I hope you enjoyed my last post on the Supreme Court. Go back to Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet.



In their wisdom, the founding fathers, based the government of this new nation on a fundamental law that embodied the ideals and process by which society itself would be held together. This Fundamental Law is the U. S. Constitution, which was ratified by the states in 1788. It is a written document for the entire world to see, and it contains within it the procedures by which the document itself can be changed by the people as they see the need for change.

The delegates, who went to Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to make the Articles of Confederation more workable, eventually drafted a document that replaced the Articles with a new and more powerful central government. The Constitution, which was the basis for this new order of government, separated the legislative, judicial, and executive powers, without fully spelling out the powers of each branch, especially those of the Supreme Court. Many of the founding fathers, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, believed that each of the branches of government should be “supreme” within their own spheres. Much of American history since 1788 is about how these three branches have exercised their individual supremacy subject to the decisions of the Supreme Court, which assumed early in the Nineteenth century the authority for reviewing all government actions and laws in the context of their constitutionality. This means that the Court has functioned over time as the principal interpreter of the meaning of the Constitution.

In undertaking this responsibility of interpreting the Constitution, the Court was helped immensely by the fact that the Constitution is a written document–indeed, the first written Constitution in the history of the world. Being written, the Court has a text, which can be analyzed and studied. In general, the Court has looked at the Constitution from the following perspectives: the “original intent” of the creators and ratifiers of the Constitution at the time of its framing; how an average citizen would today interpret the words or text of the Constitution; the decision that would most obviously flow from the structure of relationships between the various, separate branches of government as implied by the Constitution; the wisest and most prudent decision to make when all the costs and benefits to the general welfare are taken into consideration; the use of precedents from earlier cases that have provided accepted and workable general rules; and the ethical considerations that are embedded in the moral ethos of the Constitution.

The history of the Supreme Court and the decisions it has made over time can be divided into four segments: firstly, from 1797 to 1865, when the Court struggled to define itself and to deal with the conflicting powers of the state and the federal government as the nation rushed toward Civil War; 1797-1865

John Marshall: Chief Justice (1801-1835)

The delegates who wrote the Constitution created a Supreme Court in Article III, but left its powers and role somewhat unclear. The First Congress established, in the Judiciary Act of 1789, that the Court would consist of six judges working within a system of district courts and circuit courts. Three circuits, consisting of one district court judge and two Supreme Court justices, heard criminal cases and civil suits as well as appeals from the district courts. The Court also dealt with treaties and those cases in which a state was a party to the case. This meant that the Court was given exclusive jurisdiction over all civil suites between a state and the United States and in cases between two states. All other cases were tried in state courts, with the question of their appeal to federal courts being left uncertain except where clear federal law was involved. All criminal cases, except those involving federal crimes, were adjudicated in the state courts.

In 1807, Congress increased the size of the Supreme Court to seven, principally because of population growth in the western states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. The Court’s size rose to nine in 1837 and to ten during the American Civil War, with a new circuit made up of California and Oregon. By 1860 there were ten circuit courts within the federal system. The number of justices was changed back to eight in 1866, and then to nine again in 1869, where it has since stood. Today, the Court oversees 13 Courts of Appeal (Circuit Courts) and 94 District Courts in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. These courts, along with specialized legislative courts, make up the federal court system.

Stay tune for Part 3


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