February 1st 1790: Supreme Court first meets


The current Supreme Court building in Washington DC

On this day in 1790 the highest court in the US, the Supreme Court, met for the first time at the Merchants’ Exchange Building in New York City. The Court is the only one specifically established in the Constitution (in Article III), and was implemented in 1789 with the Judiciary Act. The location of the court moved a number of times, finally gaining its own building in 1935.



Drawing of the building where the Court first met


The Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The first Chief Justice was John Jay. The original role of the Supreme Court was jurisdiction over “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution” (Article III, Section II). The 1803 landmark case Marbury v. Madison formed the basis for the Supreme Court’s exercise of judicial review, when they can invalidate laws by declaring them ‘unconstitutional’.



The first meeting of the Supreme Court


The Supreme Court of the United States is a pivotal institution in modern American politics. It has the power to nullify laws of Congress, and their rulings can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment. Recently, the Court dealt with the constitutionality of Obama’s signature health care reform bill (the Affordable Care Act). They upheld it, but had they struck it down Obama would be in an unstable position, having lost his main achievement. The balance of the Court is currently more tilted towards the right, and this is reflected in some of its decisions, such as the limits recently placed on the Voting Rights Act. One of the most striking cases of Court partisanship was 2000’s Bush v. Gore; Republican appointees voted to end the recount (thus handing the presidency to Bush), and Democratic appointees voted for the recount and thus for Gore. However the Court does manage to maintain some impartiality (beyond the formality that they must sit stoically and not clap during the State of the Union). Last year’s case which dismissed California’s Proposition 8 appeal was supported by an unusual coalition which included the very conservative Antonin Scalia and liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Court will deal with more important cases in the coming year, including one concerning presidential recess appointments, so it’s definitely something to keep an eye on in 2014.


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