Since its creation by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has handed down decisions that have shaped American history, from civil rights to election issues to the powers of business and government. Known as the court of last resort, the Supreme Court has the final authority to interpret constitutional questions and federal law and to uphold or reverse decisions made by lower courts. To date, there have been 112 justices (including 17 chief justices) in the court’s history, 108 men and four women. Find out some surprising facts about the job (hint: there are no official qualifications) and learn about how the nation’s highest court works and has changed over the years.
The court convened for the first time in February 1790 in New York City, then the nation’s capital. From 1791 to 1800, it assembled in Philadelphia, which served as the capital while Washington, D.C., was under construction. Starting in February 1801, the court began meeting in Washington, where it occupied various sites in the Capitol building for more than a century. (After the British burned the Capitol in 1814, the court even temporarily met in a private home.) In 1929, at the urging of Chief Justice William Taft, Congress authorized some $9.74 million to erect a building the court could call its own. The marble structure, in use since 1935, was designed by architect Cass Gilbert Sr., whose projects included New York City’s Woolworth Building (the world’s tallest skyscraper from 1913 to 1930), along with several state capitols and other public works. Today, the building features its own police force as well as a top-floor gym, with a basketball court nicknamed “the highest court in the land.” Shooting hoops and lifting weights are banned while court is in session, however.
The U.S. Constitution established the Supreme Court but left it to Congress to decide how many justices should make up the court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number at six: a chief justice and five associate justices. In 1807, Congress increased the number of justices to seven; in 1837, the number was bumped up to nine; and in 1863, it rose to 10. In 1866, Congress passed the Judicial Circuits Act, which shrank the number of justices back down to seven and prevented President Andrew Johnson from appointing anyone new to the court. Three years later, in 1869, Congress raised the number of justices to nine, where it has stood ever since. In 1937, in an effort to create a court more friendly to his New Deal programs, President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to convince Congress to pass legislation that would allow a new justice to be added to the court—for a total of up to 15 members—for every justice over 70 who opted not to retire. Congress didn’t go for FDR’s plan.
The Constitution spells out age, citizenship and residency requirements for becoming president of the United States or a member of Congress but mentions no rules for joining the nation’s highest court. To date, six justices have been foreign born; the most recent, Felix Frankfurter, who served on the court from 1939 to 1962, was a native of Vienna, Austria. The youngest associate justice ever appointed was Joseph Story, who was 32 years old when he joined the bench in 1811. Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served from 1902 to 1932, retired at age 90, making him the oldest person ever to sit on the court. One thing every justice who’s served shares in common is that all were lawyers prior to joining the court. During the 18th and 19th centuries, before attending law school was standard practice, many future justices got their legal training by studying under a mentor. James Byrnes, who served on the court from 1941 to 1942, was the last justice who didn’t attend law school (Byrnes, who also didn’t graduate from high school, worked as a law clerk and later passed the bar exam.) Harvard has produced more members of the court than any other law school; to date, 20 justices have attended or graduated from the venerable institution, which was established in 1817 and is America’s oldest continually operating law school.
Associate Justice William O. Douglas put in 36 years and 7 months on the bench, from April 1939 to November 1975, the longest tenure of any justice in the court’s history. Douglas’ successor, John Paul Stevens, was part of the court from December 1975 to June 2010, making him the third-longest serving justice. (Steven Johnson Field, who served from 1863 to 1897, comes in second.) Although they are appointed for life, more than 50 have chosen to retire or resign; that number has included the likes of John Jay, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Evan Hughes, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and, more recently, William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor. Only one justice ever has been impeached: Samuel Chase, in 1804. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase, an outspoken figure accused of acting in a partisan way during various court proceedings; however, the U.S. Senate acquitted him in 1805 and he remained on the bench, where he had served since 1796, until his death in 1811.
Taft served as America’s 27th president, from 1909 to 1913, during which time he appointed five associate justices and one chief justice. After losing his bid for re-election, Taft, a graduate of Yale University and Cincinnati Law School, and a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals prior to his presidency, went on to teach law at Yale and serve as head of the American Bar Association, among other activities. In 1921, following the death of Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, whom Taft had appointed when he was in the White House, President Warren Harding nominated Taft as White’s replacement. As the court’s 10th chief justice, Taft successfully advocated for passage of the Judiciary Act of 1925, which enabled the justices to choose which cases they wanted to hear (today, the court follows the so-called rule of four, by which at least four justices must vote to grant a petition to review a case before it can be heard by the court). Taft served as chief justice until February 1930, when he resigned due to poor health; he died the following month.
The president of the United States has the sole power to nominate Supreme Court justices whenever there are openings on the court, and each nomination must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. George Washington made 11 appointments to the court, while Franklin Roosevelt made the second highest number of appointments, nine. Only three presidents besides Andrew Johnson did not make appointments: William Henry Harrison (who died in 1841, a month after his inauguration), Zachary Taylor (who passed away in 1850, 16 months after taking office) and Jimmy Carter. To date, presidents have submitted 160 nominations, including nominations for chief justice. Of that total, 124 were confirmed, with seven of them opting not to take the job. America’s 10th president, John Tyler, who assumed office after the death of William Henry Harrison, made nine nominations while in office from 1841 to 1845, but the politically unpopular Tyler managed to get just one of those nominations confirmed by the Senate.
The justices usually only take on cases involving significant legal principles or cases in which lower courts have disagreed about the interpretation of federal laws. Most of the court’s cases come to it on appeal from lower federal courts and state courts; however, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction (the right to hear a case for the first time, before any appellate review) in a few instances, such as cases involving ambassadors or disputes between two or more states. Because the justices primarily hear cases on appeal, it’s uncommon for witnesses or evidence to be presented in court. Instead, attorneys submit written legal arguments (briefs) in advance and justices typically listen to oral arguments, in which each side has 30 minutes to make a presentation, during which the justices can ask questions. (The courtroom is open to the public during oral arguments, which are not allowed to be televised or photographed; since 1955, the court has made audio recordings of oral arguments, which are released after the arguments are over.) The justices later meet in private to discuss and vote on each case. In the event of a tie vote, the decision of the lower court is upheld.