About the Author
Richard Panchyk is the author of American Folk Art for Kids, Archaeology for Kids, Galileo for Kids, and World War II for Kids and the coauthor of Engineering the City. Senator John Kerry lives in Boston. James Baker III is a former Secretary of State.
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Our Supreme Court
A History with 14 Activities
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2007 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
The Founding of the Court
William Howard Taft was elected the 27th President of the United States in 1908. Though it was an accomplishment anyone should be proud of, Taft was not satisfied. He had greater aspirations. His true ambition, his lifelong dream, was to become a Justice of the Supreme Court. "Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever," he said.
Taft's dream finally came true in 1921, when he became the nation's 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He served nine years on the Court quite happily. One of Taft's biggest accomplishments, however, was not a legal one. He successfully lobbied Congress to get the Supreme Court its very own building. Though he did not live to see the Supreme Court Building completed in 1935, it was thanks to him that the Court got the majestic home it deserved. The huge new building, with its marble columns, looked like a structure out of ancient Greece. It was certainly a far cry from the Court's humble and uncertain beginnings during the country's infancy.
The Constitution and the Birth of the Court System
The Supreme Court was created through the work of 55 distinguished delegates from the former colonies who assembled in 1787 to write the Constitution. The completed Article III of the Constitution said "The 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." While the Constitution established the Supreme Court, it did not say how the Court should be run or how much authority it possessed compared to the President or to Congress.
The drafters of the Constitution had been careful to create a system of "checks and balances" in the new country, where one branch of government could not rule without answering to another branch. Yet the Constitution devoted only a few brief sentences to the Supreme Court, compared to 13 paragraphs about the President's responsibilities and powers. One of the first items of business for the Senate was to put down on paper more details and specifics about the new judicial system.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 divided the country into 13 judicial districts that fell into three larger areas called circuits (Eastern, Middle, and Southern). One important section of the Act said that any case in a state's highest court where a treaty or law of the United States was ruled to be invalid could be appealed to the Supreme Court and "re-examined, and reversed or affirmed." The same was true for any case where the constitutionality of any state's law was in question.
The Judiciary Act also proclaimed what cases the Supreme Court would have jurisdiction, or authority, over. The Court would have exclusive authority to hear most civil cases where a state is a party, and it would have the right to hear appeals from the lower courts around the country.
The Supreme Court was to be located in the capital city of the United States. It was supposed to consist of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices who would be appointed for life. During the drafting of the bill, there had been some argument as to the number of Justices that would be appropriate. Arguments were made for more than six Justices, but some felt that too many Justices would reduce responsibility and complicate things. After 1789, the number of Justices increased several times until 1869, when the number was finally fixed at nine (one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices).
Upon passage of the Judiciary Act on September 24, 1789, President George Washington immediately set out to pick the appointees to the nation's first Supreme Court. He selected John Jay from New York as Chief Justice, and as Associate Justices he chose John Rutledge, from South Carolina; William Cushing, from Massachusetts; James Wilson, from Pennsylvania; John Blair, from Virginia; and Robert Harrison, from Maryland.
Only a few days after being confirmed as an Associate Justice, Robert Harrison received word that he had been chosen to serve as Chancellor of his home state of Maryland. The 44-year-old Harrison chose to serve his state and informed Washington. The President did not give up so easily and asked that Harrison rethink his decision. Harrison could not be swayed, and Washington replaced him with 48-year-old James Iredell of North Carolina, whose commission was dated February 10, 1790.
The First Sessions
When the United States was established, New York City was named as the nation's first capital, over rivals Boston and Philadelphia. The Supreme Court was supposed to hold its very first meeting in the middle of winter, on February 1, 1790, in the Merchants Exchange Building on Broad Street in downtown Manhattan. Except for the native New Yorker John Jay, the other Justices were coming from some distance. Because of transportation problems, they could not reach New York in time for the scheduled meeting, so it was pushed back a day.
Many local dignitaries were on hand for this landmark event. In the evening, a celebration was held at a local tavern in honor of the Court's first day of business.
The business of the Court in its first session was limited to administrative items, including how the official seal of the Supreme Court should look. The Court soon adjourned and did not reconvene until August, the appointed time for its next session. Once again, there were a few administrative matters to be attended to, and then the Court officially adjourned for lack of further business.
President George Washington was very supportive of the young Supreme Court. In fact, he wrote a letter to the Justices explaining how important it was for the judiciary to be independent. He asked them to keep him informed of their progress and any comments they might have.
Each Supreme Court Justice is assigned to cover cases arising in a specific court circuit or region of the country. During the early years of the Supreme Court, Justices were required to "ride circuit" twice a year, as dictated by the Judiciary Act of 1789. In the beginning, there were three circuits covering the United States: Eastern, Middle, and Southern. This meant they had to travel around the country to various courts, meet with judges, and hear cases there. These duties were exhausting and involved travel down country paths by horseback, around winding and rocky roads by stagecoach, and on great rivers by riverboat. They stopped at taverns and inns along the way.
After the Court adjourned in February 1790, the Justices began their first circuit assignments. Chief Justice Jay held the Eastern Circuit (covering New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire; Rhode Island only ratified the Constitution in May 1790 and so was not yet covered) in New York City on April 3, 1790, before moving on to other locations within the circuit. Justices Iredell and Rutledge traveled to the Southern Circuit (South Carolina and Georgia; North Carolina had also not yet ratified the Constitution when the Judiciary Act was written and so was not covered), and Justices Blair and Wilson journeyed to the Middle Circuit (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia).
Riding circuit gave them a chance to spread the ideals of the new nation's justice system to courts throughout the land. When John Jay gave instruction to the first grand jury in New York, he tried to instill a sense of duty and honor in them.
Nonetheless, riding circuit was an exhausting and dangerous affair. In fact, a stagecoach crash injured Chief Justice John Marshall while he was riding circuit in the 19th century and may in fact have led to his eventual death. Before Congress limited the duties to just once a year, Justices may have traveled up to 10,000 miles of rough terrain on many trips.
Only two years into their terms, the members of the Supreme Court were already exasperated with their circuit duties. They wrote a letter to Congress on November 7, 1792, asking for sympathy for their situation. They explained that they thought of the original system as temporary rather than permanent and that it would be revised as soon as possible. The Justices went on to say that they would have written sooner but did not want to interrupt Congress as it dealt with "affairs of great and pressing importance." They finally wrote:
That the task of holding twenty-seven circuit courts a year, in the different states from New Hampshire to Georgia, besides two sessions of the Supreme Court at Philadelphia, in the two most severe seasons of the year, is a task, which considering the extent of the United States, and the small number of judges, is too burdensome.
That to require of the judges to pass the greater part of their days on the roads and at inns, and at a distance from their families, is a requisition, which in their opinion should not be made unless in cases of necessity.
That some of the present judges do not enjoy health and strength of body sufficient to enable them to undergo the toilsome journeys through different climates and seasons, which they are called upon to undertake ...
The Justices asked that the situation be addressed. In 1793, the Justices' circuit trips were reduced to once a year, and the practice of riding circuit was altogether abolished during the 19th century. However, even today Justices are responsible for different circuits around the country. They can issue in-chambers opinions for the circuit that they represent. They can also issue a stay or an injunction on a case in their circuit.
Much of the Supreme Court's first year was spent getting organized and figuring out how to best run this new branch of government. The very early Supreme Court was not nearly as prominent as Congress and the President. Few citizens even knew anything about the Court in the beginning. When the Court was called back into session in August 1790, there were still no cases to be heard. In February 1791, the Court moved to City Hall in the nation's new capital, Philadelphia. John Rutledge resigned in March 1791, after only two years on the Court. President Washington asked Charles Pinckney to consider the position. Pinckney rejected the offer. Washington also asked Edward Rutledge if he would like to be considered as a nominee, but Rutledge also refused. Finally, Thomas Johnson, who had been the first Governor of Maryland, took the seat in August 1791. However, he resigned in 1793 due to failing health and was replaced by a Senator and Governor from New Jersey, William Paterson. The first actual case was not heard until 1792.
Meanwhile, President Washington was still trying to set the young nation on a proper course in the world. He composed a series of questions about international law and treaties with France that he intended to submit to the Justices of the Court for their learned opinion. Chief Justice John Jay and his associates respectfully declined, because they felt it was improper for them to give any official opinion on such matters as might arise later in a case before them. This was a landmark step for the Court, maintaining the importance of its separation from the executive branch of the government. This action also established a key rule. The federal courts, per Article III of the Constitution, would not give their opinions about important questions of the day unless those questions were brought to them in the form of actual legal disputes. The Court had in effect declared its neutrality and limited its own powers.
While on a mission in London, Chief Justice Jay was elected by the people of his home state of New York to serve as their Governor. When he returned to the United States, he could not refuse this honor, and resigned his position as Chief Justice. He was replaced by John Rutledge, who reigned only during the summer of 1795. The Senate refused to permanently appoint Rutledge to the position of Chief Justice because of his outspoken opposition to the treaty former Chief Justice John Jay had negotiated with Great Britain that year. Oliver Ellsworth, a Senator from Connecticut who had been one of the primary authors of the Judiciary Act of 1789, followed Rutledge as Chief Justice. John Blair also resigned in 1795. He was replaced by Samuel Chase of Maryland.
The number of cases heard by the Supreme Court was slowly rising during the early years. Between 1791 and 1798, the Court heard only a few cases each year. In 1800 the Justices heard 10 cases. In 1805 they heard 24 cases, in 1810 they heard 39 cases, and in 1814 they heard 48 cases. As they ruled on more cases, word spread throughout the country of their authority. The Attorney General of the United States (who occupied a cabinet-level position in the executive branch of government) was called upon to argue cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the government. The Solicitor General was also called upon to argue cases after that position was created in 1870.
Many cases heard during the early years of the Supreme Court were concerned with property rights, breach of contract, fraudulent contracts, deeds and titles, taxes and duties, wills, insolvency, inheritances, and colonial laws. Because the country was still very young, there were many questions and disputes over land. As people explored and settled in the westernmost states and territories, there were conflicts over who was entitled to what land, which deed superceded which, and who had rights to the land in question. Some cases concerned surveys that were made many years before and the problems that arose with the language of these early surveys. (An example: "... beginning at a large black ash and a small buckeye marked thus on the side of a buffalo road leading from the lower blue licks a northeast course, and about seven miles north-east ...") One problem was that landmarks such as trees and roads changed over time, as more and more settlers populated the areas that were once nothing but wilderness. Another problem was that early surveys and land grants sometimes overlapped each other.
Taxes and duties were also a common theme. This issue had been very important during colonial times; taxes were one of the main complaints of the colonists and were a major factor in the discontent that led to the American Revolution. The shipping business was in its heyday during the first half of the 19th century, and the duties charged on imported goods were sometimes an issue.
Another common thread among early cases was maritime concerns. The legality of salvaging ships, seizing ships, and other admiralty cases came up again and again during the early decades of the Court's existence.
As the years went by, the nature of cases heard by the Supreme Court continued to evolve to reflect the legal, social, and political concerns of the times. The nation's view of the Court evolved as well over time. Some were undoubtedly perplexed by the complicated language used and the fine legal issues tackled by the Court. A satirical epic poem written in 1826 and published in Boston said the new Supreme Court term was "Full of strange oaths," calling it "a long dull term of dry and sober fun, the everlasting tournament of brains!"
How the Court Works
Every year, the U.S. Supreme Court receives requests to hear thousands of cases. All across the country, lawyers file official petitions for a writ ofcertiorari (certiorari is Latin for "to be ascertained") with the nation's highest Court. This petition must be filed within 90 days of the ruling from the United States Court of Appeals or the highest state appellate court. The request for certiorari is basically a carefully explained request or petition for the Court to hear the case. The petition contains all the pertinent information, including the legal issues, a summary of the facts of the case, and the lower court rulings attached as appendices. Normally, these petitions are filed through a paid lawyer or legal team. When the petitioner is poor and does not have enough money to pay the Court's filing fee, he or she can file in forma pauperis (Latin for "as a pauper").
Excerpted from Our Supreme Court by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2007 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Senator John Kerry,
Introduction by Nadine Strossen, President, American Civil Liberties Union,
1 The Founding of the Court,
2 Politics and Power,
3 Free Speech,
4 Freedom of Religion,
5 Civil Rights,
6 Criminal Justice and the Right To Privacy,
7 Regulation of Business,
8 Property Rights,
Afterword by James A. Baker III, former U.S. Secretary of State,