Since there is a very brief lull in Court opinions, I decided that I would start a new series on various times in the Court’s history. This post is about the appointment of the very first Supreme Court.

Per the Judiciary Act of 1789, George Washington was charged with the task of appointing five associate justices and one chief justice as well as a number of minor justiceships to the federal district courts. Washington had long decided that he would appoint not only competent lawyers, but farsighted statesmen who also tended to agree with him on matters pertaining to the development of the union (not unlike what presidents do today.) Washington first appointed John Jay to the position of Chief Justice. Jay had a distinguished career in public service; serving as President of the Continental Congress during the Revolution, Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, and Chief Justice of New York immediately prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court. After writing a number of the Federalist Papers in support of a strong federal judiciary, Washington could hardly question Jay’s support for a strong national government. The remaining five appointees to the Court had equally distinguished careers. Just after nominating Jay, Washington nominated a close friend, Robert Harrison of Maryland, to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Harrison declined this seat in favor of the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court of Maryland because of the extensive circuit riding duties. In his place, Washington appointed James Iredell of North Carolina. Iredell, the former Attorney General of North Carolina, would go on to be an influential justice until his death in 1799. Washington next appointed James Wilson of Pennsylvania, arguably one of the most well-known and celebrated lawyers in the new nation. Former Governor of South Carolina John Rutledge was nominated to fill the next seat.

William Cushing and John Blair, the Chief Justices of Massachusetts and Virginia respectively, were nominated to fill the two remaining seats. The distinction that the members of the inaugural Court held in the new nation can hardly be compared to the relatively unknown nature of today’s justices. Three of the first six Justices had been members of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 and James Wilson himself was a member of the Committee of Style and Arrangement that created the first draft of the Constitution. The other three Justices had served as prominent proponents of the Constitution in their respective State Conventions.

In the coming years, turnover on the Court resulted in a rapidly changing Court, but these first six justices had an intregal part in establishing quite a bit of procedural and jurisprudential precedent that has survived until today.


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