Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

10 fascinating facts about the Supreme Court on its birthday

September 24, 2018 by NCC Staff


It was back on this day in 1789 that Congress passed the act that officially created the federal judiciary system that included the Supreme Court and other federal courts.

The Supreme Court itself was part of the Constitution. Article III said “judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court.” The details were left to Congress, which debated the Judiciary Act for several months and passed the final measure on September 24, 1789.

The early days of the Court were certainly low-key. The justices, when they met, were in the Old City Hall in Philadelphia and then the Capitol building’s basement in Washington.

The Supreme Court then became more of an institution we’d recognize today with Chief Justice John Marshall’s term as the court’s leader for more than three decades.

Here are some interesting facts about the court over the years:

1. Marshall is only one of two justices to appear on U.S. currency. Marshall was on the $500 bill, while Salmon P. Chase was on the $10,000 bill. Neither bill is in circulation today.

2. The court really didn’t have a fully functional home until 1935. The court was in various locations before the Civil War, and it was housed in the Old Senate Chamber from 1861 to 1935. The chamber wasn’t spacious; the justices ate lunch in the robing room. Chief Justice William Howard Taft led the drive for a Supreme Court building.

3. Yes, Taft was the only president who sat on the court, but not the only presidential candidate. Taft died before the new Supreme Court building was opened and he is still the only president who later became a justice. But Charles Evans Hughes came very close to defeating Woodrow Wilson in 1916 for the White House. Hughes resigned from the court to run against Wilson, and he later rejoined the court in the 1930s as its chief justice, replacing Taft.

4. The justices really did “ride the circuit” and hear cases around the country. That was a sticking point with some justices, who didn’t like to travel extensively. The requirement meant justices of the Supreme Court were mandated to preside once a year over the circuit courts located throughout the country. The requirement wasn’t technically lifted until 1891.

5. There have been 17 chief justices and hence, 17 courts. Supreme Court historians categorize eras in court history by the name of the chief justice presiding over the court and its sessions. The Roberts Court is the 17th on the books; the Jay Court was the first. The Marshall Court was in session for 34 years, from 1801 until 1835. Chief Justice Roberts was 50 years of age when he took the oath in 2005, while Marshall was 45 years old when he became chief justice.

6. The second chief justice only lasted a few months on the job. John Rutledge was a recess appointment to the court in 1795, to replace John Jay. However, Rutledge criticized Congress in a public speech, and a few months later, the Senate rejected his permanent nomination to the bench.

7. There was a Supreme Court justice who was born in Turkey. Justice David J. Brewer’s family were missionaries, and he was born in the Ottoman Republic in 1837. His mother’s brother, Steven Johnson Field, lived with the family. Both Brewer and Field became Supreme Court justices and served together on the bench.

8. There was also a justice’s grandson on the court. John Marshall Harlan II served from 1955 to 1971. His grandfather was the legendary John Marshall Harlan, who served on the court from 1877 to 1911. The elder Harlan was known as the Great Dissenter for his opposition to rulings that promoted Jim Crow laws in the South.

9. What happens when two justices take their oath on the same day? On January 7, 1972, Lewis F. Powell Jr., and William H. Rehnquist were sworn in during a special sitting of the court. When two justices join the court on the same day, seniority is determined by age.

10. Seven future Supreme Court justices clerked at the Supreme Court. Byron R. White, William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Stephen G. Breyer, John G. Roberts, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch were all clerks.


Sign up for our email newsletter