Current Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court

A Brief History of the US Supreme Court or SCOTUS

People protesting in front of U.S. Supreme Court building
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The United States Supreme Court—often referred to as SCOTUS—was established in 1789 by Article Three of the United States Constitution. As the highest U.S. federal court, the Supreme Court has discretionary appellate jurisdiction to hear and rule on cases decided by all lower federal courts and state court cases that involve federal law, as well as original jurisdiction over a smaller range of cases. In the U.S. legal system, the Supreme Court is the highest and final interpreter of federal laws, including the Constitution itself.

Under federal law, the full Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices who are all nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. Once seated, Supreme Court justices serve for life unless they retire, resign, or are removed after being impeached by Congress.

Why Nine Justices?

The Constitution did not and still does not specify the number of Supreme Court justices. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number at six. As the nation expanded westward, Congress added justices as needed to deal with cases from the growing number of judicial circuits; from seven in 1807 to nine in 1837 and to ten in 1863.

In 1866, Congress—at the request of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase—passed an act stipulating that the next three justices to retire would not be replaced, thus reducing the number of justices back to seven. By 1867, two of the three justices had retired, but in 1869, Congress passed the Circuit Judges Act setting the number of justices to nine, where it remains today. The same 1869 law created the provision under which all federal judges continue to receive their full salaries after retiring.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a substantial and controversial enlargement of the Supreme Court. His plan would have added one new justice for every existing justice who reached the age of 70 years and 6 months and refused to retire, up to a maximum of 15 justices. Roosevelt claimed he wanted to ease the stress of the Court’s growing docket on elderly justices, but critics saw it as a way for him to load the Court with justices sympathetic to his Great Depression-busting New Deal program. Calling it Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan,” Congress rejected the proposal. Nevertheless, having been elected years before the adoption of the presidential term-limiting 22nd Amendment, Roosevelt would go on to appoint seven justices during his 12 years in office.

Current Supreme Court Justices

The table below shows the current Justices of the Supreme Court.

Justice Appointed In Appointed By At Age
John Roberts (Chief Justice) 2005 G.W. Bush 50
Clarence Thomas 1991 G.H.W Bush 43
Samuel Alito, Jr. 2006 G.W. Bush 55
Sonia Sotomayor 2009 Obama 55
Elena Kagan 2010 Obama 50
Neil Gorsuch 2017 Trump 49
Brett Kavanaugh 2018 Trump 53
Amy Coney Barrett 2020 Trump 48
Ketanji Brown Jackson 2022 Biden 51

A Brief History of the US Supreme Court or SCOTUS

As the final and ultimate legal interpreter of the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS, is one of the most visible and often controversial organizations in the federal government.

Through many of its landmark decisions, like banning prayer in public schools and legalizing abortion, the Supreme Court fueled many of the most passionately heated and ongoing debates in America’s history.

The U.S. Supreme Court is established by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “[t]he 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.”

Other than establishing it, the Constitution spells out no specific duties or powers of the Supreme Court or how it is to be organized. Instead, the Constitution empowers Congress and the Justices of the Court itself to develop the authorities and operations of the entire Judicial Branch of government.

As the very first bill considered by the very first United States Senate, the Judiciary Act of 1789 called for the Supreme Court to consist of a Chief Justice and only five Associate Justices, and for the Court to hold its deliberations in the nation’s capital.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 also provided a detailed plan for the lower federal court system merely alluded to in the Constitution as “such inferior” courts.

For the first 101 years of the Supreme Court’s existence, the justices were required to “ride circuit,” holding court twice a year in each of the 13 judicial districts. Each of the then five justices was assigned to one of three geographical circuits and traveled to the designated meeting places within the districts of that circuit.

The Act also created the position of U.S. Attorney General and assigned the power to nominate Supreme Court justices to the President of the United States with the approval of the Senate.

The First Supreme Court Convenes

The Supreme Court was first called to assemble on Feb. 1, 1790, in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City, then the Nation's Capital. The first Supreme Court was made up of:

Chief Justice

John Jay, from New York

Associate Justices

John Rutledge, from South Carolina
William Cushing, from Massachusetts|
James Wilson, from Pennsylvania
John Blair, from Virginia|
James Iredell, from North Carolina

Due to transportation problems, Chief Justice Jay had to postpone the first actual meeting of the Supreme Court until the next day, Feb. 2, 1790.

The Supreme Court spent its first session organizing itself and determining its own powers and duties. The new Justices heard and decided their first actual case in 1792.

Lacking any specific direction from the Constitution, the new U.S. Judiciary spent its first decade as the weakest of the three branches of government. Early federal courts failed to issue strong opinions or even take on controversial cases. The Supreme Court was not even sure if it had the power to consider the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. This situation changed drastically in 1801 when President John Adams appointed John Marshall of Virginia to be the fourth Chief Justice. Confident that nobody would tell him not to, Marshall took clear and firm steps to define the role and powers of both the Supreme Court and the judiciary system.

The Supreme Court, under John Marshall, defined itself with its historic 1803 decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison. In this single landmark case, the Supreme Court established its power to interpret the U.S. Constitution as the “law of the land” of the United States and to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and the state legislatures.

John Marshall went on to serve as Chief Justice for a record 34 years, along with several Associate Justices who served for over 20 years. During his time on the bench, Marshall succeeded in molding the federal judicial system into what many consider to be today's most powerful branch of government.

Before settling at nine in 1869, the number of Supreme Court Justices changed six times. In its entire history, the Supreme Court has had only 16 Chief Justices, and over 100 Associate Justices.

Chief Justices of the Supreme Court

Chief Justice Year Appointed** Appointed By
John Jay 1789 Washington
John Rutledge 1795 Washington
Oliver Ellsworth 1796 Washington
John Marshall 1801 John Adams
Roger B. Taney 1836 Jackson
Salmon P. Chase 1864 Lincoln
Morrison R. Waite 1874 Grant
Melville W. Fuller 1888 Cleveland
Edward D. White 1910 Taft
William H. Taft 1921 Harding
Charles E. Hughes 1930 Hoover
Harlan F. Stone 1941 F. Roosevelt
Fred M. Vinson 1946 Truman
Earl Warren 1953 Eisenhower
Warren E. Burger 1969 Nixon
William Rehnquist
1986 Reagan
John G. Roberts 2005 G. W. Bush

Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the President of the United States. The nomination must be approved by a majority vote of the Senate. The Justices serve until they retire, die or are impeached. The average tenure for Justices is about 15 years, with a new Justice being appointed to the Court about every 22 months. Presidents appointing the most Supreme Court Justices include George Washington, with ten appointments and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed eight Justices.

The Constitution also provides that “[t]he Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.”

While they have died and retired, no Supreme Court justice has ever been removed through impeachment.

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Longley, Robert. "Current Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court." ThoughtCo, Jul. 10, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 10). Current Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Current Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).