The Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS) is the highest federal court in the country and the head of the judicial branch of government. Established by the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has the ultimate jurisdiction over all laws within the United States and is responsible for evaluating the constitutionality of those laws. If necessary, the court, which is currently made up of nine justices, has the power to check the actions of the other two branches of government—the executive branch of the president and the legislative branch of Congress.
Early Days of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court was established in 1789 by Article Three of the U.S. Constitution, which also granted Congress the power to create inferior federal courts.
The Constitution permitted Congress to decide the organization of the Supreme Court, and the legislative branch first exercised this power with the Judiciary Act of 1789. The act, signed into law by President George Washington, specified that the court would be made up of six justices who would serve on the court until they died or retired.
The Supreme Court was set to first assemble on February 1, 1790 at the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City. But due to some justices’ transportation issues, the meeting had to be postponed until the next day.
Though the court had its first meeting on February 2, 1790, it didn’t actually hear any cases in its first term. The court’s early meetings were concentrated on working out organizational procedures.
The six justices handed down their first decision on August 3, 1791—just one day after the court heard arguments for the case—with West v. Barnes, an unremarkable case involving a financial dispute between a farmer and a family he owed debt to.
For more than 100 years after the foundation of the Supreme Court, the justices were required to hold circuit court twice a year in each judicial circuit—a grueling duty (given the primitive travel methods at the time) that Congress formally abolished in 1891.
Supreme Court Justices
The Supreme Court’s justices are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed (or denied) by the U.S. Senate.
The first Supreme Court was made of up Chief Justice John Jay and Associate Justices John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison and James Wilson (Harrison declined to serve and was replaced by James Iredell).
The highest judicial officer in the nation, the chief justice is responsible for presiding over the Supreme Court and setting the agenda for the justices’ weekly meetings. In cases where the chief justice is a member of the majority opinion, the justice has the authority to assign who will write the court’s opinion. The chief justice is required to sit on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.
The chief justice also presides over trials of impeachment against the President of the United States in the U.S. Senate, as was the case with President Andrew Johnson, President Bill Clinton and President Donald Trump (all three presidents were acquitted).
Current Supreme Court Justices
Though the first court comprised of six justices, Congress altered the number of Supreme Court seats — from a low of five to a high of 10 — six times over the years. In 1869, Congress set the number of seats to nine, where it has remained until today.
As of January 2021, 115 Justices have served on the Supreme Court.
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The current Supreme Court is comprised of chief justice John Roberts, Jr. and associate justices Amy Coney Barrett, Clarence Thomas, Brett M. Kavanaugh, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.
Notable Supreme Court Justices
Many of the Supreme Court justices were distinct for one reason or another.
Chief justice John Marshall, for instance, is widely regarded as one of the influential chief justices, in part for having defined the relationship between the judiciary and the rest of government. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), he established the Supreme Court’s power to review and rule on the constitutionality of federal laws enacted by Congress. Marshall was the fourth chief justice and served in the position for more than 34 years, the longest term of any chief justice.
In the 1930s, chief justice Charles Evans Hughes presided over the court as it transitioned from being the protector of property rights to the protector of civil liberties. Notably, he wrote landmark opinions on the freedom of speech and press.
And chief justice Earl Warren, in the 1950s and 1960s, issued numerous landmark decisions, including ones that banned school segregation (Brown v. Board of Education), put in place Miranda rights or the “right to remain silent” warning given by police (Miranda v. Arizona), and abolished interracial marriage prohibitions (Loving v. Virginia).
The Supreme Court has seen numerous other notable justices, including William Howard Taft, the only person to serve as both President and chief justice; Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice; Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice; and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice.
Supreme Court Cases
In its more than 200-year history, SCOTUS has held a wealth of important cases, which have had lasting impacts on the nation, for better or worse.
For example, before Warren’s pro-civil rights decisions, the court denied citizenship to African American slaves in 1857 (Dred Scott v. Sandford), upheld state segregation laws in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson), and upheld World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans in 1944 (Korematsu v. United States).
Of course, the courts weighed in on more than just civil rights issues.
In 1962’s Engel v. Vitale, SCOTUS ruled that prayer initiated by and within public schools violates the First Amendment (in the 2000 case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, it further ruled that students cannot lead prayer using the school’s loudspeaker system). And in 1963, it found that defendants who cannot afford legal representation must be provided it without charge (Gideon v. Wainwright).
Others important cases include:
- Mapp v. Ohio (1961), which held that evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in criminal cases
- Texas v. Johnson (1989), which found that flag burning and other potentially offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment
- Roe v. Wade (1973), which ruled that women have a right to an abortion during the first two trimesters
- U.S. v. Nixon (1974), which found that the President cannot use his or her power to withhold evidence in criminal trials
- Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down state anti-sodomy laws
- United States v. Windsor (2013), which revoked the U.S. government’s ability to deny federal benefits to same-sex couples
- Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which legalized same-sex marriage across all 50 states
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): Supreme Court of the United States.
The Court as an Institution: Supreme Court of the United States.
About the Supreme Court: United States Courts.
Branches of Government: USA.Gov.
The 21 most famous Supreme Court decisions: USA TODAY.
Supreme Court Landmarks: United States Courts.