Today in 1789: Congress creates Supreme Court and federal judiciary

September 24, 2010

Today in Legal History“The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

– U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 1

The Constitution provided a skeletal framework for our federal judiciary branch but left the details for Congress to work out. This job was completed with the Judiciary Act of 1789, the statute that defined our system of multiple district and circuit courts and a single Supreme Court.

The Judiciary Act – the very first bill to be introduced in the Senate – was signed 221 years ago today by President George Washington. On the same day, Washington nominated John Jay, a statesman and diplomat from New York, as the Supreme Court’s first chief justice. The president also nominated the high court’s first five associate justices, the original number established in the Judiciary Act.

A few months later, the first Supreme Court convened at Federal Hall in New York, then the nation’s capital city. Required by law to meet two times each year, the first Supreme Court session had a full gallery of onlookers – and an empty docket, since the lower courts were just getting started as well.

During its first few years, most of the Supreme Court’s work involved establishing rules and procedures, admitting attorneys to the bar, and “riding circuit” – traveling the country to preside over cases in each of the 13 circuit courts. The circuit-riding requirement was particularly arduous, since interstate travel in those days was time-consuming, exhausting, and often downright painful.

During its first six years under Chief Justice John Jay, the Supreme Court decided only four cases, none of which could be described as landmark decisions. In fact, for the first decade or so, the federal courts seemed unsure of the scope of their power and were reluctant to take strong stands or rule on controversial cases.

John Marshall became the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, and under his 34 years at the helm, the federal judiciary expanded in power and scope to the stature it enjoys today. One early case for the Marshall Court – the momentous Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803 – allowed the Supreme Court to firmly establish its power to declare provisions of a statute “unconstitutional.” This power of judicial review is a cornerstone of the concept of checks and balances that we take for granted today.

Oh, and the statute under review in Marbury v. Madison? You guessed it – the Judiciary Act of 1789.