Today in Legal History: First session of first Supreme Court

The first session of the U.S. Supreme Court met on February 1st, 1790. President George Washington’s inaugural nominations were John Jay (Chief Justice), John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson. The Court got off to a faltering start. Robert Harrison refused the nomination, John Jay was abroad attending diplomatic duties during much of his tenure, John Blair’s attendance at court was sporadic because of poor health, and finally John Rutledge, managed to sabotage his nomination to succeed John Jay as Chief Justice with an importune speech that cost him the support of many in Washington’s administration. The fact that he never attended a formal day of court probably didn’t do his nomination any favors either. The inaugural session of the Court was held at the Royal Exchange Building in New York. Unfortunately only Jay, Wilson and Cushing managed to show up. The new Court was hamstrung until Blair arrived the next day, thereby establishing the quorum necessary for conducting business. No cases were heard during that first session, it primarily involved admitting attorneys to practice before it. The inaugural session of the Supreme Court ended on February 10th, 1790. The new Supreme Court continued on its wobbly trajectory until John Marshall became Chief Justice and Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, establishing the Court’s power.

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