A Brief History of the US Supreme Court or SCOTUS

People protesting in front of U.S. Supreme Court building
Activists Rally In Front Of U.S. Supreme Court Building. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

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 the 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.

And Congress Got Right to It

As the very first bill considered by the very first United Sates 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 JusticeYear Appointed**Appointed By
John Jay1789Washington
John Rutledge1795Washington
Oliver Ellsworth1796Washington
John Marshall1801John Adams
Roger B. Taney1836Jackson
Salmon P. Chase1864Lincoln
Morrison R. Waite1874Grant
Melville W. Fuller1888Cleveland
Edward D. White1910Taft
William H. Taft1921Harding
Charles E. Hughes1930Hoover
Harlan F. Stone1941F. Roosevelt
Fred M. Vinson1946Truman
Earl Warren1953Eisenhower
Warren E. Burger1969Nixon
William Rehnquist
(Deceased)
1986Reagan
John G. Roberts2005G. 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.

Current Supreme Court Justices

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

JusticeAppointed InAppointed ByAt Age
John G; Roberts 
(Chief Justice)
2005G. W. Bush50
Elena Kagan2010Obama50
Samuel A. Alito, Jr.2006G. W. Bush55
Vacant **   
Anthony Kennedy1988Reagan52
Sonia Sotomayor2009Obama55
Clarence Thomas1991Bush43
Ruth Bader Ginsburg1993Clinton60
Stephen Breyer1994Clinton56

** The vacancy on the court is due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 16, 2016, at age 79.

Contact the Supreme Court

The individual justices of the Supreme Court do not have public email addresses or phone numbers. However, the court can be contacted by regular mail, telephone, and email as follows:

U.S. Mail:

Supreme Court of the United States
1 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20543

Telephone:

202-479-3000
TTY:202-479-3472
(Available M-F 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. eastern)

Other Helpful Telephone Numbers:

Clerk's Office: 202-479-3011
Visitor Information Line: 202-479-3030
Opinion Announcements: 202-479-3360

Court’s Public Information Office

For time sensitive or urgent questions please contact the Public Information Office at the following number:

202-479-3211, Reporters press 1

For general questions that are not time sensitive, email: Public Information Office

Contact the Public Information Office by US Mail:

Public Information Officer
Supreme Court of the United States
1 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20543