From John Jay to Clarence Thomas: A selective Supreme Court history

January 7, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryAs the highest judicial body in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court has a deep and rich history, and it’s often featured in our Today in Legal History blog posts.

We’ve collected 15 Insider posts from 2010 that provide an intriguing (and entirely random) timeline of some of the Supreme Court’s most momentous milestones, along with a few merely memorable moments.

1789: Congress creates Supreme Court and federal judiciary
The Constitution provided a skeletal framework for our federal judiciary branch but left the nitty-gritty 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. At first, the federal courts were reluctant to take strong stands or rule on controversial cases – until 1801, when Chief Justice John Marshall came to town.

1841: Supreme Court frees would-be slaves in Amistad ruling
Five of the nine Supreme Court justices who ruled on this early landmark case were slave-owning southerners. So it came as a shock when the Court decided to free a group of would-be slaves who arrived in America via a hijacked Spanish sailing ship, stating that they were “kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom.” As a result, the growing abolitionist movement got its first big boost from the courts – intentional or not.

1861: Chief Justice Taney overrules Lincoln on habeas
It was a constitutional showdown in the classic Civil War style. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to revoke habeas corpus – and among the first to be denied habeas was John Merryman, a Maryland secessionist accused of burning bridges and disrupting telegraph lines. He was roused in the middle of the night  by Union soldiers and taken into military custody. The very next day, another Maryland native – Chief Justice Roger Taney – came to his defense.

1895: Federal income tax ruled unconstitutional
In 1894, Congress gave us the first peacetime income tax to fund the growing nation’s infrastructure needs. The next year, the Supreme Court declared the federal income tax unconstitutional. Viewed by many as a gift to the rich, the Supreme Court’s unpopular decision led to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, which in no uncertain terms gave Uncle Sam the power to tax incomes “from whatever source derived.”

1937: Senate rejects FDR’s bid to pack Supreme Court
If Franklin Roosevelt had gotten his way, the current Supreme Court could have as many as 13 members. The Senate Judiciary Committee called it “a measure which should be so emphatically rejected that its parallel will never again be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America” – and consequently, the Supreme Court has been composed of nine justices for 142 years and counting.

1948: California Supreme Court voids interracial marriage ban
wedding ringsThe California Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws violate the Fourteenth Amendment – a full 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would reach the same conclusion in Loving v. Virginia, the case that invalidated all such laws nationwide.

1963: Supreme Court expands right to counsel in Gideon v. Wainright
Most of us have heard the Miranda warning recited by TV cops so many times, we know it  by heart. But even though this particular right has its roots in the Constitution, it did not always apply to any defendant accused of a serious crime. Clarence Earl Gideon learned this the hard way.

1967: Senate confirms Thurgood Marshall to Supreme Court
Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice by a Senate vote of 69-11. But despite the lopsided vote, Marshall’s reputation as a skilled and successful fighter for civil rights made him the target of the segregationist faction within the Senate, and his nomination battle dragged on for most of that summer.

1970: Senate votes to confirm Harry Blackmun
Blackmun was thought to be a reliable Republican – but after just three years on the Supreme Court, he penned the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, providing a textbook example of how a person’s judicial philosophy can turn 180 degrees.

1973: Supreme Court expands free speech in Hess v. Indiana
This landmark free-speech case involved a college student who dropped the f-bomb during a campus protest. But while the young man’s choice of words is what got him into trouble, it was the overall intent of his message that brought it to the attention of the highest court in the land.

1977: Supreme Court rules on license plate motto
New Hampshire license plateNew Hampshire resident George Maynard spent 15 days behind bars in 1975 – for putting a piece of tape on his license plates. Maynard took issue with the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, which he said was contrary to his church’s teachings about everlasting life. So he began taping over the “or Die” part. Problem solved…except that New Hampshire has a law against altering license plates.

1981: Reagan picks Sandra Day O’Connor for Supreme Court
In nominating the first woman to the high court, Reagan fulfilled one of his key campaign pledges, but O’Connor rose to the top of a crowded list that included men as well as women. Her resume included five years as an Arizona state legislator, and as a moderate Republican, she had cast votes on both sides of the abortion issue, a perennial hot topic in confirmation hearings.

1986: Supreme Court OKs searches from the air
A man’s home may be his castle, but what about his backyard? Under the Fourth Amendment, a yard that adjoins a house is usually protected from warrantless searches – but in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that an aerial “search” of a fenced-in yard doesn’t require a warrant, no matter how tall the fence. (In this case, the fence was 10 feet high – as were some of the six dozen marijuana plants growing behind it.)

1986: William Rehnquist confirmed as chief justice
William Rehnquist’s ascent to the top spot on the Supreme Court was opposed by many Democratic senators, but it was welcome news to his fellow justices, including the most liberal ones. Thurgood Marshall would later call him a “great chief justice,” and John Paul Stevens praised his “efficiency, good humor, and absolute impartiality” as the leader of the court.

1991: Clarence Thomas narrowly confirmed to Supreme Court
The confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas were contentious even before they began. Conservative senators had girded themselves for a “knock-down, drag-out, bloody-knuckles, grass-roots fight,” and the liberals were also ready to rumble.  Since then, Thomas’s originalist interpretations of high court decisions have made him a favorite of the conservative right.