History of the Supreme Court of the United States

History of the Supreme Court of the United States

The following is a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, organized by Chief Justice. The Supreme Court of the United States is the only court specifically established by the Constitution of the United States, implemented in 1789; under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Court was to be composed of six members—though the number of justices has been nine for almost all of its history, this number is set by Congress, not the Constitution. The court convened for the first time on February 2, 1790. [http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=105_cong_documents&docid=f:sd011.105]

The Jay, Rutledge, and Ellsworth Courts (1789–1801)

The first Chief Justice of the United States was John Jay. Perhaps the most controversial of the Supreme Court's early decisions was "Chisholm v. Georgia", in which it held that the federal judiciary could hear lawsuits against states. Soon thereafter, responding to the concerns of several states, Congress proposed the Eleventh Amendment, which granted states immunity from certain types of lawsuits in federal courts. The Amendment was ratified in 1795.

Jay was succeeded as Chief Justice by John Rutledge, and then by Oliver Ellsworth. No major cases came before the Supreme Court during this time.

The Marshall Court (1801–1835)

One of the most significant periods during the history of the Court was the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801 to 1835). In the landmark case "Marbury v. Madison" (1803), Marshall held that the Supreme Court could overturn a law passed by Congress if it violated the Constitution, legally cementing the power of judicial review. The Marshall Court also made several important decisions relating to federalism. Marshall took a broad view of the powers of the federal government—in particular, the interstate commerce clause and the necessary-and-proper clause. For instance, in "McCulloch v. Maryland" (1819), the Court ruled that the interstate commerce clause and other clauses permitted Congress to create a national bank, even though the power to create a bank is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Similarly, in "Gibbons v. Ogden" (1824), the Court found that the interstate commerce clause permitted Congress to regulate interstate navigation.

The Marshall Court also made several decisions restraining the actions of state governments. The notion that the Supreme Court could consider appeals from state courts was established in "Martin v. Hunter's Lessee" (1816) and "Cohens v. Virginia" (1821). In several decisions, the Marshall Court confirmed the supremacy of federal laws over state laws. For example, in the aforementioned decision in "McCulloch v. Maryland", the Court held that a state could not tax an agency of the federal government. At the same time, however, the Marshall Court held in the landmark case "Barron v. Baltimore" (1833) that the Bill of Rights restricted the federal government alone, and did not apply to the states. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court would in later years hold that the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying the Bill of Rights to the states.

The Taney Court (1836–1864)

In 1836, Marshall was succeeded as Chief Justice by Roger B. Taney, who had a somewhat more limited view of the powers of the federal government. At a time when sectional tensions between the North and South were high, many of the Supreme Court's decisions—particularly those relating to slavery—met with controversy and contention. Most controversial was the Taney Court's decision in "Dred Scott v. Sandford" (1857). Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, sued for his freedom on the grounds that his master had taken him into Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin, both of which prohibited slavery, for extended periods of time. Taney, however, ruled that members of the African race, "beings of an inferior order," were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Consequently, he ruled that Scott therefore had no standing to file the lawsuit. Moreover, he held that the Missouri Compromise, under which Congress prohibited slavery in certain territories that formed part of the Louisiana Purchase, was unconstitutional. The controversial decision met with vigorous opposition from abolitionists, and contributed to the tensions that led to the Civil War during the next decade. The Civil War culminated in a victory for the Union and in the abolition of slavery (see the Thirteenth Amendment).

The Chase, Waite, and Fuller Courts (1864–1910)

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice. Chase had strong anti-slavery credentials and had previously served Lincoln as Secretary of the Treasury. His post-Civil War tenure featured several key decisions affirming the indestructibility of the Union. Chase was considered highly ambitious, even for a politician. In 1872, Chase, while serving on the Supreme Court, also attempted a run for the Presidency, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Chase continued to serve as Chief Justice until his death in 1873.

In the aftermath of the Civil War Congress passed and the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which, among other things, prevented states from abridging the "privileges and immunities of citizens," from denying due process of law, and from denying equal protection of the laws to any person. Many cases that came before the Court in the post–Civil War era involved interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the "Civil Rights Cases" (1883), the Court under Chief Justice Morrison Waite held that Congress could not prohibit racial discrimination by private individuals (as opposed to governments) on the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment. Later, in "Plessy v. Ferguson" (1896), the Court under Chief Justice Melville Fuller determined that the equal protection clause did not prohibit racial segregation in public facilities, as long as the facilities were equal (giving rise to the infamous term "separate but equal"). The sole dissenter in that case was John Marshall Harlan.

The White and Taft courts (1910–1930)

In the early twentieth century, the Supreme Court established that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the "liberty of contract." On the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment and other provisions of the Constitution, it controversially overturned many state and federal laws designed to protect employees. The first important decision of the era was "Lochner v. New York" (1905), in which the Court overturned a New York law limiting the number of hours bakers could work each week. In "Adair v. United States" (1908), the Court overruled a federal law which forbade "yellow dog contracts" (contracts that prohibited workers from joining unions). "Adkins v. Children's Hospital" (1923) involved a decision that a District of Columbia minimum wage law was unconstitutional.

In 1925, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in "Gitlow v. New York", establishing the doctrine of incorporation, under which provisions of the Bill of Rights were deemed to restrict the states. Originally, as Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in "Barron v. Baltimore" (1833), the Bill of Rights restricted only the federal government; however, during the twentieth century, the Supreme Court held in a series of decisions the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying some (but not all) provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. The first such decision was "Gitlow", in which the Supreme Court incorporated the protection of freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment. Important decisions relating to incorporations were made during later decades, especially the 1960s.

The Hughes, Stone, and Vinson courts (1930—1953)

During the 1930s, the Supreme Court continued to enforce a Federal "laissez-faire" approach, overturning many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, which were designed to combat the Great Depression, by 5–4 margins. Most notably, the National Industrial Recovery Act was overturned in "Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States" (1935), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act was struck down in "United States v. Butler" (1936). In response, President Roosevelt proposed the Judiciary Reorganization Bill (called the "court-packing bill" by its opponents), which would have increased the size of the Supreme Court and permitted the appointment of additional (presumably pro-New Deal) Justices. The bill, however, had many opponents (including John Nance Garner, Roosevelt's Vice President), and was defeated in Congress.

Soon after the proposal of the court-packing plan, however, the Supreme Court ended the trend that had prevailed since "Lochner". Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously voted with the conservative bloc in invalidating New Deal legislation, began to vote on the opposite side. Roberts' decision spelled the end of the Lochner era; Roberts' switch from the conservative to the liberal side, perhaps motivated by Roosevelt's threats to pack the Court, has been dubbed the "switch in time that saved nine." The four conservative Justices who continued to vote to overturn New Deal programs—James McReynolds, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter and Pierce Butler—were known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Their foremost liberal opponents on the bench were the "Three Musketeers": Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Harlan Stone. As the Horsemen retired, Roosevelt, the longest-serving President in history, obtained opportunities to replace them with more liberal Justices. In 1945, eight of the nine sitting Justices had been appointed by President Roosevelt, the sole exception being Owen Roberts.

The Warren Court (1953–1969)

In 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, who was then governor of California, to the position of Chief Justice. Warren's term, which lasted until 1969, was arguably one of the most significant in the history of the Court. Under him, the Court made a long series of landmark decisions. Notable members of the liberal wing of the Court aside from Warren included Hugo Black, William O. Douglas (the longest-serving Justice in the Court's history) and William J. Brennan. The foremost conservative members of the Court were Felix Frankfurter and John Marshall Harlan II (grandson of the first Justice Harlan). The first important case of Warren's tenure was "Brown v. Board of Education" (1954), in which the Court unanimously declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, effectively reversing the precedent set earlier in "Plessy v. Ferguson" and other cases.

The Warren Court also made several controversial decisions relating to the Bill of Rights. The doctrine of incorporation, which had first taken root in "Gitlow v. New York", was applied fully to most provisions of the Bill of Rights. In "Engel v. Vitale" (1962), the Court declared that officially sanctioned prayer in public schools was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Similarly, in "Abington School District v. Schempp" (1963), it struck down mandatory Bible readings in public schools. The Court also expanded and incorporated the rights of criminal defendants, on the basis of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. In "Mapp v. Ohio" (1961), the Court incorporated the Fourth Amendment and ruled that illegally seized evidence could not be used in a trial. "Gideon v. Wainwright" (1963) established that states were required to provide attorneys to indigent defendants. "Miranda v. Arizona" (1966) held that the police must inform suspects of their rights (including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) before being interrogated. (The decision is the source of the famous Miranda warning.) Another significant and controversial decision made by the Warren Court was "Griswold v. Connecticut" (1965), which established that the Constitution protected the right to privacy.

The Burger Court (1969–1986)

Chief Justice Earl Warren was succeeded by Warren E. Burger, who served from 1969 to 1986. The Burger Court is best remembered for its ruling in "Roe v. Wade" (1973), which held that there is a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion in some circumstances. The Court also made important decisions relating to the First Amendment. In "Lemon v. Kurtzman" (1971), it established the "Lemon" test" for determining if legislation violates the establishment clause. Similarly, it established the "Miller" test" for laws banning obscenity in "Miller v. California" (1973).

Other rulings include "Landmark Communications v. Virginia" in which the court ruled for fining a newspaper for revealing the identity of a judge under investigation by a state commission (H. Warrington Sharp.) The Burger Court also established a moratorium on capital punishment in "Furman v. Georgia" (1972), holding that states generally awarded death sentences arbitrarily and inconsistently. The moratorium, however, was lifted four years later in "Gregg v. Georgia" (1976). Also in "United States v. Nixon" (1974), the court ruled that the courts have the final voice in determining constitutional questions and that no person, not even the President of the United States, is completely above law.

The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Chief Justice William Rehnquist served from Burger's retirement in 1986 until his own death on September 3, 2005. The Rehnquist Court generally took a limited view of Congress's powers under the commerce clause, as exemplified by "United States v. Lopez" (1995). The Court made numerous controversial decisions, including "Texas v. Johnson" (1989), which declared that flag burning was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment; "Lee v. Weisman" (1992), which declared officially-sanctioned, student-led school prayers unconstitutional; "Stenberg v. Carhart" (2000), which voided laws prohibiting late-term abortions; and "Lawrence v. Texas" (2003), which struck down laws prohibiting sodomy. (Some commentators see these decisions as part of the "culture wars.") Another controversial decision of the Rehnquist court in 2003 was Gratz v. Bollinger which upheld affirmative action. Perhaps the most controversial decision made by the Court came in "Bush v. Gore" (2000), which ended election recounts in Florida following the presidential election of 2000, allowing George W. Bush to become the forty-third U.S. President.

Rehnquist led a remarkably stable Court - for the eleven years preceding Rehnquist's death, the composition of the Court remained unchanged - the longest such stretch in over 180 years.

O'Connor's retirement

On July 1, 2005, Justice O'Connor announced that she would retire from the Supreme Court upon the confirmation of her successor. President Bush originally nominated United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge John G. Roberts to replace O'Connor on July 19, 2005. However, following the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist on September 3, Bush re-nominated Roberts as the new Chief Justice. The President subsequently nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice O'Connor on October 3, 2005, but Miers withdrew her nomination on October 27, 2005 after controversy arose ostensibly from a Congressional request into notes about her role as White House Counsel. On October 31, 2005, President Bush nominated United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice O'Connor. On January 24, 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the nomination of Alito to the 100-member Senate. On January 31, 2006, the Senate confirmed Alito, 58-42, at which point O'Connor's retirement became effective.

The Roberts Court (2005–)

Chief Justice John G. Roberts was confirmed by the Senate on September 29, 2005 and presided over the Court for the first time on October 3, 2005, the day the 2005-2006 session opened. On October 31, President Bush announced that he was nominating Samuel Alito to O'Connor's seat, and he submitted the nomination to the Senate on November 10, 2005. Under Roberts the Court has drifted primarily to the right in areas like free speech ("Garcetti v. Ceballos"), the death penalty ("Kansas v. Marsh"), abortion ("Gonzales v. Carhart") and the right to privacy ("Hudson v. Michigan"). On November 20, 2007, the Court agreed to hear a case, District of Columbia v. Heller, that is likely to be regarded as the first important and historically significant constitutional decision on the Second Amendment to the Constitution's Bill of Rights since 1875. On March 18 2008 the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the constitutionality of a District of Columbia ban on handguns. [http://edition.cnn.com/2008/US/03/18/scotus.guns/index.html] On June 26, 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." [http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf]


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