Supreme Court History in the United States
- 1 Supreme Court History in the United States
- 1.1 Supreme Court History: The First Assembly
- 1.2 Supreme Court of the United States: History
- 1.3 Supreme Court Historical Role
- 1.4 Supreme Court of the United States: History Commerce, Slavery, and Civil War
- 1.5 Supreme Court History: the 1830s
- 1.6 Supreme Court of the United States: History From Reconstruction to the New Deal
- 1.7 Supreme Court History in 1860-1940
- 1.8 Supreme Court of the United States: History Individual Rights in the First Half of the 20th Century
- 1.9 Supreme Court History in 1920-1950
- 1.10 Supreme Court of the United States: History The Mixed Legacy of the 1970s and 1980s
- 1.11 Supreme Court History: 1969 – 2003
- 1.12 Supreme Court of the United States: Conservative Inclinations Under Rehnquist
- 1.13 Supreme Court History: 1986 – 2012
- 1.14 The Supreme Court History: Expanding Civil Rights
- 1.15 Resources
Supreme Court History: The First Assembly
On February 1, 1790, the U.S. Supreme Court assembled for the first time in New York City, then the nation’s capital. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Court but left its specific duties vague, so the justices spent their first session organizing the Court and didn’t hear their first case until the following year.
One duty that the Judiciary Act of 1789 had established, however, was that the six-member Court “ride circuit” within the 13 districts. This demanded that the justices travel to each district twice a year to hold court, which is how “circuit courts” got their name. In the frontier environment, where travel was a challenge, the practice could prove hazardous and even deadly.
President George Washington appointed the first Court of Chief Justice John Jay and five associate justices, including James Iredell, who died in 1799, primarily from the rigors of riding circuit.
From its inception, the number of justices on the Supreme Court changed six times, including the addition of a tenth circuit justice in California in 1863, Stephen Field. While riding circuit in Lathrop in 1889, Field survived an assassination attempt by fellow former California Chief Justice David Terry. (See In re Neagle, 135 U.S. 1 (1890).)
The Judiciary Act of 1869 established intermediary Circuit Courts to reduce the burden on justices riding circuit, and the practice was formally abolished by the Judicial Code of 1911.
In early 2012, the Minnesota Law Review championed a return of circuit riding since transcontinental travel is now considerably less dangerous and offers many perceived benefits, such as exposing the justices to a wider array of legal issues and the laws of various states.
Supreme Court of the United States: History
Supreme Court Historical Role
Since the early 19th century the Supreme Court has played a central role in resolving many of the United States’ most difficult problems. The Court has dealt with the issue of slavery and racism, the power of the federal government over the states, the role of the government in the economy, abortion, the rights of people accused of crimes, and many other complex issues. The Court’s decisions have often stirred controversy, and those who disagree with its rulings have sometimes called its authority into question. Still, through most of its history the Supreme Court has stood as one of the most respected and trusted institutions in the United States.
Supreme Court of the United States: History Commerce, Slavery, and Civil War
Supreme Court History: the 1830s
By the 1830s the Court was forced to confront the issues raised by the country’s rapid industrialization. As industry replaced agriculture, the Court under the leadership of Roger Brooke Taney sought to define the appropriate economic role for state and federal government. Early in Taney’s term the Court confirmed the power of states to manage industrial development. In the 1837 case Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, the Court ruled that Massachusetts could enact a law that hurt some economic interests if it encouraged long-term economic growth overall. The Court decided in Swift v. Tyson in 1842 that federal courts had authority to develop general commercial law when the citizens of different states had legal conflicts, and the decision stood until 1938 when the Court said such authority belonged only to the states.
In 1848 in West River Bridge v. Dix, the Court upheld the states’ constitutional authority to curb corporations-their power of eminent domain-as long as they paid just compensation for what they took. This case greatly aided the rapid growth of the new railroads. In Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh (1852) the Court reversed a Marshall decision and expanded the reach of federal jurisdiction over the inland waterways. The Court also prevented the states from interfering with the development of steamships.
Although the Supreme Court’s decisions in the first half of the 19th century helped the economy, that Court would forever be condemned in history’s eyes because of its position on slavery. Four of the Court’s nine members were from slave states, and only Justice John McLean clearly opposed slavery. The Court issued several proslavery opinions, including the notorious case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which most historians consider a major step toward the Civil War (1861-1865). In the Dred Scott case, a slave owner hoped to secure an opinion from the Court declaring that slaves who escaped to free states did not automatically become free.
The Court could have limited its opinion to a narrow reading of Scott’s right to sue in federal court, but instead went much further. First, the Court ruled that the federal government had no authority to control slavery in federal territories before they became states, even though Congress had done just that in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was the first time since Marbury v. Madison that the Court had overturned a federal law as unconstitutional. Second, the Court denied that even free blacks could be citizens of the United States. The Court seemed to say that not even free states could prohibit slavery, thus making political solutions and compromise among the states virtually impossible. Chief Justice Taney thought that he had resolved the issue of slavery once and for all. In a sense the Court had settled the issue, but only by sending the nation into civil war. The northern reaction to the Dred Scott case led directly to Abraham Lincoln’s election as the first Republican president, the South’s secession, and the war that ended slavery. Some blame for the American Civil War certainly falls on the failed political leadership in the White House and Congress, but the Supreme Court merits criticism as well.” (1)
About the Dred Scott Case
- Dred Scott Case,
- Dred Scott Case Background,
- Dred Scott’s Life,
- Dred Scott Case in the Supreme Court,
- Dred Scott Case Dissents and
- Dred Scott Case Significance.
Supreme Court of the United States: History From Reconstruction to the New Deal
Supreme Court History in 1860-1940
Chief Justice Taney died in 1864, leaving the Court just as it faced Reconstruction-the process of rebuilding the South’s tattered economic and political structures. The Congress, dominated by northern Republicans, enacted strong laws that permitted military government in the South until new state governments could be put into place. The Court limited some efforts of the federal government to govern by military tribunals. In Ex parte Milligan in 1866 it refused to permit military trials of civilians as long as the civil courts were open. But the Court also upheld other Reconstruction laws and refused to bar President Andrew Johnson from enforcing them. The Court showed great restraint when Congress stripped it of jurisdiction to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of a Reconstruction act. Even though the case was pending, the Court agreed in Ex parte McCardle in 1869 that if Congress limited the Court’s jurisdiction according to the Constitution, the Court would be powerless to act. This decision alleviated fears that the Court was determined to rule Reconstruction unconstitutional. By supporting Reconstruction, the Court helped the country recover from the social and economic destruction of the Civil War.
By 1870 the Court had to confront the new constitutional issues created by the states’ ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The most pressing issue was: Since these constitutional amendments gave African Americans the right to freedom from slavery, did they also give blacks other civil rights protections? Congress assumed that the amendments did grant African Americans new rights and enacted several laws designed to protect civil rights through the federal courts. These laws seemed to threaten the historic balance between state and federal power, which the Supreme Court was reluctant to upset. In the so-called slaughterhouse cases in 1873, the Court took a narrow view of the 14th Amendment. A broad application of the amendment, the Court reasoned, would make the High Court a “perpetual censor upon all legislation of the states” whenever a civil right was at stake. In this and other decisions, the Court showed that it was unwilling to disrupt the balance of power between state and federal governments despite the 14th Amendment, which commanded change to ensure nationwide racial equality and due process of law. The Court also showed that it was unwilling to disrupt the racial status quo.
The Court’s failure to make good on the Constitution’s promise of equality reflected a widespread persistence of racism in American society and institutions. In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Court ruled that Congress had no authority to impose a national ban on discrimination in public accommodations such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels. The Court did strike down state laws that explicitly discriminated against blacks, as in Strauder v. West Virginia in 1880 when it ruled against juries that excluded blacks. But the Court had backed away from even modest protections by the end of the 19th century. In 1896 the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the racial segregation of public facilities provided that they were “separate but equal,” a notorious position from which it began to retreat only in the 1940s.
By the early 20th century, many American citizens and political leaders backed the reforms of the Progressive movement, which advocated limits on large businesses and more rights for workers and consumers. The Supreme Court, however, sharply reined in the efforts of both the state and federal governments to regulate the economy. Strong pressure for national economic regulation led to some victories for Congress, but the Court generally denied Congress the power to break up certain monopolies and take other steps to improve market competition. In addition the Court adopted a doctrine of economic due process that made it more difficult for the government to regulate business and property rights. In 1905, for example, the Court ruled in Lochner v. New York that the state could not regulate the working hours of bakery workers. The Court reasoned that it could invalidate any “unreasonable” interference with the “liberty of contract.” Lochner and related cases created substantive due process, a new class of basic constitutional rights that was initially used to overturn minimum wage legislation and trade union protections.
The Supreme Court continued to limit state and federal involvement in the economy through the 1920s and into the Great Depression, the economic hard times of the 1930s. The restrictions at first hobbled the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact the New Deal, a program of economic reforms and government projects intended to confront the Depression. Roosevelt tried to get the New Deal through by “packing” the Court-expanding the membership so that he could appoint justices open to his philosophy. Congress refused to expand the size of the Court, but the Court’s justices soon eased restrictions on Roosevelt’s programs. In a sharp about-face, the Court sustained far-reaching trade union and workplace regulations in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel in 1937. The Court soon used the federal commerce power to grant virtually unlimited authority to Congress to regulate whatever affected interstate commerce. The Court also rejected the doctrine of economic due process. By the 1940s, a new set of justices, all but one appointed by Roosevelt, had remade constitutional law dealing with economic matters.” (2)
Supreme Court of the United States: History Individual Rights in the First Half of the 20th Century
Supreme Court History in 1920-1950
From the end of World War I in 1918 until the 1950s, the Supreme Court slowly but inconsistently expanded individual liberties. Though it upheld convictions of alleged subversives and approved many laws that restricted free speech, the Court also laid the groundwork for a revolution in First Amendment and privacy law. The Court expanded the existing doctrine of substantive due process to include personal rights in the 1923 Meyer v. Nebraska, which struck down a Nebraska ban on the teaching of foreign languages in elementary schools. By applying its notion of substantive due process to social concerns, the Court opened up the possibility that it would one day protect individuals in their more intimate relations.
The Court paved the way for expanded civil liberties in the 1925 case Gitlow v. New York, in which it said that the freedoms of speech and press enjoyed 14th Amendment protection against infringement by the state. Under this reasoning, the 14th Amendment “incorporated” most of the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights, and applied those rights to the states. Through this doctrine of incorporation, the Court also began a revolutionary expansion of the rights of the accused. In 1932, for instance, it ruled in Powell v. Alabama that states must provide a fair trial in criminal cases.
The Court remained conservative on most racial issues through the 1940s, and continued to deny minorities protection from racial discrimination in housing, employment, voting, and other areas. A low point came in the Court’s 1944 decision in Korematsu v. United States, in which it refused to stop the government from holding more than 100,000 Japanese-American citizens in prison camps during World War II (1939-1945). Many critics regard the case as the Supreme Court’s worst decision of the 20th century. (In 1988, citing the appalling injustice of the government’s actions, Congress apologized and authorized a token payment to the survivors of the camps.) But the Court did note that laws and policies that turn on race would be examined with “utmost scrutiny,” a standard that the Court later used to reject many discriminatory laws. Beginning in 1938, the Court decided a series of cases that chipped away at the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson standard of separate but equal for racially segregated facilities, insisting that the “equal” has as much meaning as “separate.” In 1948 the Court invalidated all attempts to enforce racially restrictive covenants-clauses in deeds to land that prohibited owners from selling their property to blacks and other minorities.” (3)
Supreme Court of the United States: History The Mixed Legacy of the 1970s and 1980s
Supreme Court History: 1969 – 2003
President Richard Nixon replaced retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren with Warren Earl Burger in 1969. By 1972 Nixon had appointed three more justices. Because Nixon had campaigned vigorously against many of the Warren Court’s decisions, it seemed likely that his appointments would shift the Court in a more conservative direction. The Court did issue conservative decisions in some areas, but it also continued to build on the Warren Court’s legacy of judicial activism.
The Supreme Court’s most explosive decision in this period came in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which ruled state prohibitions on abortion unconstitutional. This decision was based on the right to privacy established by the Warren Court. The Court voted 7 to 2 against outlawing abortion, and three of Nixon’s justices, including Burger, sided with the majority. In the decades that followed, the Court addressed abortion in several more cases, but continued to uphold the essential premise of individual privacy in Roe. This conception of privacy regarded the right to an abortion as part of the right of a person to do with her body as she wants. The Constitution creates no such right explicitly, but the Court found one in the substantive due process rights guaranteed by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Critics charged that the Court majority had written its own values into the Constitution, insisting that the framers never intended to give the word liberty such a broad meaning.
The Burger Court also bolstered women’s rights by striking down several laws that discriminated against them based on their sex. The Court reasoned that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibited such discrimination. The landmark extension of the Equal Protection Clause to women came in the 1976 case Craig v. Boren, in which the Court ruled that gender-based discrimination must “be substantially related” to important legislative goals. This standard, although less rigid than the “strict scrutiny” test applied to racial discrimination, elevated gender to a protected constitutional category. The case also led the Court to be more receptive to claims from other types of groups that they had faced unconstitutional discrimination.
The Supreme Court entered the debate on affirmative action in the 1970s, approving several plans under federal law designed to end discrimination in hiring. In 1978 in the widely discussed reverse-discrimination case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court upheld the claim of a white applicant to a public medical school that he had been unconstitutionally denied admission solely on the basis of race. Yet in that same case, the sharply divided Court approved the use of race as one of the criteria in selecting applicants. In several later cases, it upheld affirmative action hiring plans designed to foster racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace. It limited affirmative action programs in some others, however. In 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court reaffirmed the Bakke decision, ruling that society has a “compelling interest” in assuring racial diversity on college campuses. It was the Court’s first major ruling on affirmative action since Bakke.
Under Chief Justice Burger, the Supreme Court showed a conservative streak only in cases involving the procedural rights of criminal suspects and defendants. But even in these cases the Court rarely overruled the Warren Court’s expansion of these rights. Instead, the Court either refused to extend the logic of the prior cases to new areas, or it limited the scope of the protections that had been granted. In some instances it seemed even more willing to restrict the power of the states. In Furman v. Georgia in 1972, for example, the Court temporarily struck down the death penalty based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But the Court soon overturned its moratorium on capital punishment after states enacted laws with safeguards against arbitrary sentencing decisions.” (4)
Supreme Court of the United States: Conservative Inclinations Under Rehnquist
Supreme Court History: 1986 – 2012
The Supreme Court moved in a generally conservative direction after President Ronald Reagan promoted William H. Rehnquist from associate to chief justice in 1986. With three other Reagan appointees usually voting with him, Rehnquist was able to overturn some important precedents. Under Rehnquist, the Court served notice that it would take a dim view of most affirmative action policies. In 1995, for example, it ruled in Adarand Constructors v. Peña that the strict scrutiny test should apply to all race-based legislation, including affirmative action laws that favored disadvantaged groups.
The Rehnquist Court also curtailed the possibilities of habeas corpus appeals, making it much more difficult for state prisoners to take appeals on constitutional grounds to the federal courts. The Court continued to limit the procedural rights of individuals accused of crimes and to accord law enforcement officials broad discretion. In the area of personal liberty, in the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick the Court refused to extend the right to privacy and approved a Georgia ban on sodomy. This decision was later overturned in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas. In State of Washington v. Glucksberg in 1997 the Court determined that the federal constitution does not guarantee an individual the choice to end his or her life and upheld a state law prohibiting assisted suicide. In the politically charged debate over census-taking methods, in 1998 the Court ruled that, for purposes of apportioning congressional seats among the states, federal law prohibited the Census Bureau from supplementing its traditional door-to-door surveys with statistical sampling methods.
But during the 1980s and 1990s, the Court also surprised many observers with some relatively liberal opinions. Despite its narrow interpretation of privacy in Bowers v. Hardwick, in 1992 the Court reaffirmed the right to an abortion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. Under the doctrine of separation of powers, it decided in the 1988 case of Morrison v. Olson to uphold the federal law permitting the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate federal officials (see Independent Counsel Act).
The Court also extended the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex and sexual preference. The Court ruled in United States v. Virginia in 1996 that the Virginia Military Institute, a prestigious public military academy, had to admit women. The Court also staked out potential new ground in Romer v. Evans in 1996 when it rejected an amendment to the Colorado state constitution that politically discriminated against lesbians and gays. However, two years later the Court refused to hear a challenge to a voter initiative that barred the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, from passing legislation to protect gays from discrimination.
In 1998 the Court issued a series of rulings regarding sexual harassment that broadly defined an employer’s liability (financial responsibility) when supervisory employees harass subordinates. Also that year and in subsequent terms, the Court considered several cases related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. The Court’s decisions in these cases narrowed the class of people who may be considered disabled under the ADA, clarified what constitutes discrimination under the law, and limited the ability of disabled state workers to sue states for employment discrimination under the ADA.
Under Rehnquist, the Court generally looked unfavorably on federal laws that imposed a burden on the states. In the 1990s and 2000 the Court issued a series of controversial decisions that curtailed federal power and boosted states’ rights. In 1992, in New York v. United States, the Court ruled unconstitutional a federal law requiring states to regulate radioactive waste generated within their borders. In 1997, in Printz v. United States, the Court said that the federal government could not compel local law-enforcement officials to conduct background checks of handgun purchasers.
In 1999 the Court issued its most sweeping decisions to date on states’ rights. In three related cases, the Court decided that states retain a “residuary and inviolable sovereignty” that gives them broad immunity, in both state and federal courts, from lawsuits brought against them under federal law. In these cases-Alden v. Maine, Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, and College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board-the Court found that states cannot be sued for violations of federal laws regulating overtime wages, patent infringement, and false advertising. The three cases, each decided by the same 5 to 4 majority, exposed a deep rift between the Court’s conservative and liberal members.
In 2000 and 2001 the Court continued its shift toward states’ rights by ruling that states cannot be sued for violating a federal law barring age discrimination and by shielding states from certain employment-discrimination lawsuits based on the ADA. However, the Court also ruled that Congress has the authority to prohibit states from selling personal information on drivers’ licenses.
In 2000 the Court became embroiled in one of the closest and most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history. In the hours and days following Election Day, November 7, neither Democratic candidate Al Gore nor Republican candidate George W. Bush could claim victory due to an extremely close race in the state of Florida. In order to gain the 270 electoral votes necessary to capture the presidency, each candidate needed to win the Florida popular vote and thus the state’s 25 electoral votes. A mandated machine recount of Florida’s votes put Bush in the lead by only hundreds of votes out of about 6 million cast, and Gore requested hand recounts of ballots in four heavily Democratic counties. When some of these counties failed to complete their manual recounts by an election certification deadline, Gore filed an election contest to challenge the official certification of Bush as the winner. On December 8 the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide manual recount of undervotes, or ballots on which machines failed to register a vote for president. Bush appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on December 9 the Court, by a 5-to-4 vote, halted these manual recounts while it considered the case.
On December 12 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Florida court’s decision, effectively sealing Bush’s victory. Seven of the nine justices found the court-ordered recount unconstitutional. They concluded that the use of different standards by different counties to determine a legal vote violates a voter’s right to equal protection-that is, the right for all voters to be treated equally. However, the Court split 5 to 4 on the issue of whether to permit further counting under more uniform standards, with the majority ruling that a recount could not be completed constitutionally before a December 12 deadline for the state to choose its electors. The dissenting justices argued that the Court was wrong to involve itself in a state election dispute and that its split decision risked the credibility of the Court.
In 2003 the Court issued two landmark decisions on affirmative action. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School designed to increase enrollment of minorities. The ruling reaffirmed its finding in the 1978 Bakke case that the state has a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity in higher education. However, in Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court rejected an affirmative action program used in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. The undergraduate program used a point system to weigh applicants, with large numbers of points automatically awarded to minority applicants. In contrast, the Court found that the law school’s admissions policy was “narrowly tailored” and evaluated each applicant as an individual, with race considered as one of many factors. See Affirmative Action.
In another landmark 2003 case, Lawrence v. Texas, the Court overturned a law in Texas that criminalized sodomy (oral and anal sex) among gay couples. The Court reversed its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld a similar statute in Georgia. Five of the justices found that the Texas sodomy law violated the privacy rights of gays under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from depriving people of life, liberty, and property. A sixth justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, concurred with the majority but based her ruling on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, saying that the Texas law discriminated because it was aimed exclusively at gays.
In 2004 the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the government’s policies on detaining terrorism suspects. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 (see September 11 Attacks), the U.S. military detained as “enemy combatants” hundreds of foreign nationals who were captured during hostilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere and held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Two U.S. citizens were also classified as enemy combatants. Acting under the authority of the president, the military claimed the right to imprison and interrogate such individuals indefinitely without access to a lawyer or any court. However, in two key cases-Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush-the Court rejected such expansive presidential powers. Although the Court upheld the president’s authority to classify both citizens and noncitizens as enemy combatants, it ruled that the government must allow them lawyers and the right to challenge their detention in court. O’Connor wrote in Hamdi: “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.”
In June 2005 the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in Gonzales v. Raich that federal antidrug laws take precedence over state laws authorizing the medical use of marijuana. Voters in 11 states had approved so-called medical marijuana laws. The first was California’s Compassionate Use Act in 1996. These laws generally allow patients with diseases such as cancer and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) to grow and use marijuana with a physician’s approval for medical purposes. Although the Court’s ruling in Gonzales v. Raich did not overturn the state laws, it did override any provisions in those laws exempting patients in possession of medical marijuana from federal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act (part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970). In its majority opinion, the Court held that the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana, even if those activities comply with state law for medical use and the drug does not cross state lines. The dissenting justices, including Chief Justice Rehnquist, warned that an expansive interpretation of the commerce clause would allow federal encroachment of states’ rights. (5)
The Supreme Court History: Expanding Civil Rights
For more information, read the entry about the Warren Court (and Individual Rights) in this American Encyclopedia.
In United States Constitution
According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, the only court whose existence is mandated by the Constitution is the Supreme Court.
Notes and References
- Information about Supreme Court History in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia