This Day in History: The first Supreme Court Justices
On this day in 1790, the United States Supreme Court meets for the first time. Okay, technically, it tried to meet. Three of the then-new Justices had assembled, but they were forced to delay due to a lack of a quorum.
There is quite a bit that could be said about the Supreme Court, isn’t there?! So, for now, let me focus on a few trivia items that you may not know.
George Washington appointed John Jay as the first Chief Justice of the United States on September 24, 1789. (Yes, this is the same John Jay who wrote a handful of the Federalist Papers.) His appointment was confirmed with a speed that can only be envied by modern-day Justices. A mere two days later, on September 26, the Senate confirmed Jay’s appointment.
The first Supreme Court consisted of 5 associate justices, plus the Chief Justice. Jay called for this Court to meet in New York on February 1, 1790. As with so many other events, 18th-century transportation problems caused that meeting to be delayed, as referenced above. Fortunately, a quorum was reached the next morning.
Transportation issues would dominate the life of our first Supreme Court justices in a way that we cannot imagine today. The Judiciary Act of 1789 required Justices to travel the circuit and hold circuit court twice a year in each district. The idea was to enable Justices to be familiar with local concerns and local laws.
Once again, the founding generation showed its concern regarding faraway governmental officials and looked for ways to keep them accountable to the citizens.
The Justices apparently hated the traveling requirement. As Jay once wrote, “Circuits press hard on us all.” He traveled 7 months out of the year, which was hard with young children at home. By 1793, the law had changed and Justices were required to travel the circuit only once in a year. The traveling requirement was not completely eliminated until 1891. Today, of course, the Justices simply hear cases in D.C., and they are not required to travel at all.
Jay served as Chief Justice until 1795. In 1800, President John Adams asked him to resume the role, but Jay declined.
Hard to imagine too many jurists turning down such an appointment today, isn’t it?! Oh, to be back in the days when a job as a Supreme Court Justice was viewed as a bit of a chore—a sacrifice to be made for your country for a few years before resuming normal life?!!
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Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (2004)
Letter from John Jay to George Washington (Jan. 27, 1792) (see also footnotes by the editors at the Papers of George Washington)
Sandra Day O'Connor, Foreword: The Changing Role of the Circuit Justice (Toledo Law Review; Spring 1986)
The Jay Court, 1789-1795 (The Supreme Court Historical Society website)
The Supreme Court of the United States–History (Senate Committee on the Judiciary website)