10 Fascinating Facts about the U.S. Supreme Court

It was back in the day when the First United States Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, officially creating the federal judiciary system that included the highest court, the U.S, Supreme Court, as well as other courts.

The US Supreme Court itself was created as part of the Constitution. Article III states: “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.” This article never established the size and the other details of the Supreme Court’s composition and the composition of the lower courts. These matters were up to Congress, who initially established the number of Supreme Court justices at six: one Chief Justice and five Associate Justices. 

From being low-key, the US Supreme Court became more of an institution that we’d recognize today.

Throughout its 233-year history, several interesting personalities and cases have emerged and made what the US Supreme Court is today. To shine a light on its illustrious and colorful history, check out the ten fascinating facts about the US Supreme Court:

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.

1) The U.S. Supreme Court’s home

The U.S. Supreme Court was established in 1789 and held its inaugural session in New York City, then the US capital. The Court later relocated to Philadelphia and finally to Washington, D.C., where it hears cases today.

2) How many justices have served in the US Supreme Court? 

In the Court’s 233-year history, 112 justices have served – 106 being white men (including eight Jewish), six being women, and two being African-American. One of the women justices, Sonia Sotomayor, is a Latina (plus, her appointment as Chief Justice was the first in the Court’s history to be broadcast on television).

3) John Marshall – the longest-serving justice in the Court’s history

John Marshall (1755 – 1835), was a prominent politician and lawyer who served as US Supreme Court’s fourth chief justice for 34 years – from 1801 until his death in 1835. Up to this day, he remains the Court’s longest-serving chief justice. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the U.S. Supreme Court’s history.

Marshall is one of the only justices to appear in a U.S. currency. He was on the $500 bill; another justice, Salmon P. Chase, was on the $10,000 bill. Neither bill is in circulation today.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America, Washington, DC.

4) It wasn’t until the Court had its permanent “home” in its 146th year 

The US Supreme Court didn’t have its own building until 1935, in its 146th year. The Court served in different locations before the Civil War, and the Old Senate Chamber of the US Capitol building stood at its office from 1861 to 1935. The chamber wasn’t that big and spacious, and the justices took their lunches to the robing room. In 1935, the Court finally moved to its own multi-purpose building, which was built in Neoclassical architectural style.

Judge gavel and scale in court. Library with lot of books in background

5) Being a US Supreme Court justice has been regarded as a “lifetime appointment”

However, justices do not generally treat it as such. Of all the 112 justices who have served in the Court, only less than half (50 of them) have died while in office. A majority of the justices have either resigned or retired.

6) President William Howard Taft is the only President thus far to have also served on the Supreme Court

After his presidency in 1913, Taft later served as the Court’s 10th chief justice from 1921 until his resignation in 1930 due to failing health. He resigned only a month before his death.

While Taft was the only President who sat on the Supreme Court, he wasn’t the only Presidential candidate. Taft passed away before the new Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. was opened, and he is still the only President who later served as the Supreme Court Chief Justice. His successor in the Court, Charles Evans Hughes, came very close to becoming US President but was defeated by Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 elections.

7) The Court’s traditions

Many of the US Supreme Court’s traditions date back to the 19th century. As it is customary, the nine justices are seated by seniority on the Bench. The Chief Justice sits at the center chair. The senior Associate Justice sits to the Chief Justice’s right; then the second senior to his left, and the rest of the justices sit right and left alternately, based on seniority.

It has been traditional for the justices to wear black robes while in Court.

Quill pens have been a part of the courtroom scenario. White quills are placed on counsels’ desks each day that the Court is in session.

Harvard T stop in tile near the famed university

8) Ivy League justices

Ivy League law schools have been well represented on the Court. Four justices are alumni from Harvard University; three are graduates from Yale University; and one is a graduate from Columbia University.

9) The second Chief Justice served only for a few months

John Rutledge (1739 – 1800) was made as the new US Supreme Court Chief Justice in August 1795 by recess appointment following the resignation of John Jay, the first Chief Justice.

But Rutledge was also the only Chief Justice to be removed from office against his will. His scathing and controversial public speech criticizing the Congress and denouncing the Washington-endorsed Jay Treaty with Great Britain led to his expulsion the following December. He later attempted to commit suicide by jumping off a pier into Charleston Harbor, but was saved by two slaves before he could drown.

10) The Court’s first remote and “live-streamed” hearing

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the US Supreme Court heard its oral arguments via teleconferences for the first time on May 5, 2020. Additionally, the arguments were broadcast live and in real time. 

If you’re more into fascinating legal trivia, check out the five facts about lawyers who changed the world.