This Day in History: The first Supreme Court Justices
On this day in 1789, George Washington signs the Judiciary Act, which established the structure for the Supreme Court of the United States and a system of lower courts. It also gave Washington the authority to nominate six United States Supreme Court Justices.
Washington nominated John Jay as the first Chief Justice of the United States on the same day that he signed the Judiciary Act. Can you believe that Jay was confirmed by the Senate only two days later?
Wow. How things change?!?
Jay was a lawyer who had previously served as the President of the Continental Congress. He was Secretary of Foreign Affairs and a Minister to Spain. He was one of three men to author the Federalist Papers, written as the states considered whether to ratify the Constitution.
The first meeting of the Supreme Court was set for February 1, 1790. As with so many other events, 18th-century transportation problems caused that meeting to be delayed for a day. Indeed, transportation issues would dominate the life of our first Supreme Court justices in a way that we cannot imagine today. The Judiciary Act required Justices to travel the circuit and hold circuit court twice a year. 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. It’s a concern that modern Americans seem to have forgotten.
The Justices apparently hated the traveling requirement. Jay, for instance, 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 are not required to travel at all.
As Chief Justice, Jay was also asked to travel to Britain and negotiate a trade treaty in 1794. Negotiations were difficult, and the treaty Jay brought home was widely disliked. Jay soon resigned. He had been elected Governor of New York! As Governor, he may be best known for his efforts to end slavery in that state. Jay finally succeeded and signed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1799.
Jay later declined a second appointment to the bench in 1800.
So, to summarize, Jay was nominated to the Court and confirmed within two days. He got tired of being a Justice and resigned, at least in part so he could spend more time closer to home. Then he turned down a second appointment to the very job that all of D.C. is fighting tooth and nail over today.
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)