A comprehensive look at the history of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Created by C-SPAN on Jun 17, 2009
Last updated: 07/25/11 at 02:26 PM
Tags: The Supreme Court SCOTUS Justices Chief Justice
The case arose from a political documentary called Hillary: The Movie. The film's producers lost a Federal Election Commission and lower court decision that prohibited them from distributing it on a video-on-demand service on grounds that it violated a McCain-Feingold ban on corporate money being used for electioneering. The Supreme Court’s decided 5–4 in favor of Citizens United. It upheld that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.
Prior to serving as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John G. Roberts held many distinguished positions in the legal arena. He served as a law clerk under Henry J. Friendly of the United States Court of Appeals, as well as for then-Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court. He was a Special Assistant to the Attorney General, served as an Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan, and also practiced law in Washington D.C. Roberts was nominated as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court under George W. Bush in 2005.
The Supreme Court intervened in the highly contentious 2000 presidential election, ordering the state of Florida to halt its ballot recount. This decision enabled the Florida Secretary of State to certify that George W. Bush was the winner of Florida’s twenty-five electoral votes. Bush was formally named the President of the United States.
In 1989 the Supreme Court found that the burning of a United States flag is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. This 5-4 decision upheld the appeals court decision and affirmed that freedom of speech is a “bedrock principle” that cannot be prohibited.
In a case involving withheld articles from a school’s newspaper at Hazelwood East High School, the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment of the Constitution does not require schools to affirmatively promote specific types of student speech. In this case, the principal was justified in prohibiting the articles from publication because language in the articles was not consistent with “the shared values of a civilized social order.”
William H. Rehnquist served as an Associate Justice and was later named Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 during the Reagan administration. Under Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Supreme Court dealt with a number of First Amendment cases including Texas v. Johnson, the flag burning case, and Bush v. Gore. Under Chief Justice Rehnquist’s leadership, the relationship between the federal government and the state was highly examined. He died in 2005 and was later replaced by Chief Justice John G. Roberts.
Fourteen-year-old T.L.O. was accused of smoking pot and her high school principal questioned and searched her bag, yielding marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The claim was that this violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments, which the Court found it did not. The presence of rolling papers used for smoking marijuana in the purse gave rise to reasonable suspicion on behalf of the principal and was therefore not violating the Constitution.
When President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first female justice, he did so to keep a campaign promise. She was confirmed by the Senate unanimously, and developed for herself the role of a centrist coalition-builder, which enhanced her influence on the Court. Upon graduating from Stanford Law School, no law firm would hire her as an attorney (only as a legal assistant), and so began her career in public service. She worked as a deputy attorney in California, a civilian lawyer while overseas in Germany, and was the first female majority leader for the Arizona state senate, the first female to do so in the U.S.
In this controversial case, Allan Bakke, a 35-year-old white man, applied to the University of California at Davis medical school and was rejected twice. The school reserved sixteen spaces in their medical program for “qualified” minorities as part of their affirmative action program, however Bakke’s test scores and qualifications exceeded those of the minorities accepted. He claimed that he was rejected from the school solely on the basis of his race. The court was split 5-4 in favor of Bakke.
In this case involving President Richard Nixon, the Court found that the President's right to safeguard certain information by using his executive privilege was not entirely immune from judicial review. The Court recognized certain executive powers associated with military or diplomatic affairs, but required that Nixon produce tapes and documents demanded by the subpoena issued in the Watergate scandal. As a result, Nixon resigned from office and gave up his presidential duties.
In this landmark case, the Supreme Court held that a woman’s right to choose falls under the right to privacy protected under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This ruling gave women the right to full autonomy in the first trimester of their pregnancy and also defined different levels of involvement in the second and third trimester. In total, forty-six states were affected by this decision of the Supreme Court.
Warren E. Burger replaced Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1969 during the Nixon Administration. He advocated strict adherence to the United States Constitution and identified with the Court’s conservative wing. Chief Justice Burger also spoke for a unanimous Court upholding a subpoena for the Watergate tapes, which resulted in President Nixon's resignation. Burger retired from the Supreme Court in 1986 and was replaced by William H. Rehnquist.
Under Lyndon B. Johnson, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American Justice appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Prior to joining the Court, he worked for the NAACP and coordinated their efforts to end segregation for over twenty years. As a liberal Justice, his dedication to equality increased as he served on the Court. He served as an Associate Justice for twenty-four years and retired in 1991.
In this controversial case, the Court outlined the necessary aspects of policy warnings to suspects. These warnings include the right to remain silent and the right to have counsel present during interrogations. The Supreme Court held that the interrogation of defendants must provide procedural safeguards to secure against self-incrimination.
The Tinker family decided to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to their Des Moines schools. The schools administrators feared the armbands would provoke a disturbance and when the Tinkers refused to remove the armbands they were suspended from school. The Court found that wearing armbands is “closely akin to ‘pure speech’” and protected by the First Amendment. Although school environments imply limitations of free expression, the principals here lacked the justification in doing so.
In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that the defendant in this case, Clarence Gideon, had a right to be represented by a court-appointed attorney and in so doing overturned the decision made in 1942 with the Betts v. Brady case. Gideon lacked the funds to hire an attorney, and the court refused to provide one on the grounds that it was only obligated to do so to indigent defendants in capital cases. The Court found that the lack of attorney provided to Gideon violated his right to a fair trial and due process of the law, guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
In this case, the Supreme Court found that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is inadmissible in a state court due to the Fourth Amendment. This was a controversial and historic decision because Dollree Mapp had been convicted on the basis of evidence that had been obtained illegally. This decision excluded illegally obtained evidence from court at all levels of the government.
Brown v. Board of education was a landmark case in the history of the Court. With a 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court found that the segregation of children in public school based solely on the issue of race violated the equal protection rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court found that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal in public schools, and that the separation of minorities leads to an inferiority complex associated with race. This case was fundamental in changing state-maintained racial separation.
Earl Warren was appointed to the Supreme Court under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Warren joined the Court in the midst of cases regarding racial segregation in public schools. Eisenhower hoped Warren would be a moderate conservative, but he proved to be an unabashed liberal Justice. He favored equal opportunities for all and united the Court on issues of racial equality, showcasing his leadership ability and dedication to furthering equality standards in America. Warren retired from the Supreme Court in 1969 and was replaced by Warren E. Burger.
Fred M. Vinson served in all three branches of government during his legal career. He was a U.S. Representative from his native state of Kentucky, a trusted advisor to President Truman and his Secretary of the Treasury, and a Chief Justice of the Court. He was the leader of an extremely divided court, and decisions made during his tenure helped to pave the way for desegregation. He died suddenly of a heart attack before the rearguing of the controversial Brown vs. Board of Education case, and was replaced by Earl Warren in 1953.
In this case, the Court upheld that the President and Congress did not go beyond their war powers when Executive Order 9066 was issued, banishing civilians of Japanese ancestry from the west coast. This excluded and restricted the rights of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. The Supreme Court sided with the United State government and held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the rights of Fred Korematsu. In this video, Mr. Korematsu receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Harlan F. Stone served on the Supreme Court as an associate Justice prior to his appointment as Chief Justice in 1941 under the Roosevelt administration. Stone was an academic and practiced the philosophy of judicial self-restraint. The Court was deeply divided under his leadership, and the majority was forced to continually strike down national legislation during the chaos of the New Deal. Stone died in 1946 and was replaced by Fred Vinson.
In 1937, President Roosevelt petitioned Congress to add one new Justice to the United States Supreme Court for every Justice seventy years or older (there were six). The proposal came during New Deal legislation, and although the court-packing proposal was never adopted, Roosevelt subsequently appointed all nine members of the Supreme Court during his Presidency.
After four years of construction, the Supreme Court moved out of the Senate Chamber in the Capitol and into the completed building across the street. The grand structure is made of marble and its splendor and majesty initially deterred the Justices. They refrained from moving into their new chambers and instead continued to work from home, as was the custom. Associate Justice Huge Black joined the Court in 1937, and he became the first Justice to use his personal chambers in the new Supreme Court building.
Prior to serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes served as an Associate Justice and also as the Governor of New York. President Taft nominated Hughes to the High Court in 1910, but resigned to run for President against Woodrow Wilson. While Hughes lost the election, he returned to the Court as Chief Justice in 1930 after being appointed by President Herbert Hoover.
It was Taft’s dream for the Supreme Court to have a building of its own, and in 1929 Congress approved the funds for it. Just under ten million dollars was granted for the construction of the Supreme Court building, and in 1935 when the it was completed, the Court was able to finally move out of the old Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol and into its own home.
William H. Taft began his judicial career when he was appointed to the Ohio Superior Court, then served as Solicitor General of the United States and sat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. After serving as the Secretary of War, Taft was elected President in 1908. He served one term, and was appointed Chief Justice by President Harding in 1921, making Taft the only person to have been both President and Chief Justice. It was Taft’s vision to construct a new building to house the Court, which became a reality in 1935 and is where the Court resides today.
While studying at Georgetown College, the Civil War began and White left to join the Confederate Army. He was captured by Union troops and remained in captivity until the end of the war. Afterwards, he studied at the University of Louisiana and established a law practice in New Orleans. He was elected to the State Senate and served on the Louisiana Supreme Court. In 1894 President Grover Cleveland nominated him for the Supreme Court, and after serving sixteen years President Taft nominated him for Chief Justice, becoming the first sitting Justice to be elevated to Chief Justice.
In Louisiana, whites and blacks were forced to ride separate railway train cars. Homer Adolph Plessy, who was seven-eighths Caucasian, tried to ride in a car reserved for “whites only” and was subsequently arrested. The Court examined whether or not racial segregation on the trains proposed an infringement on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. The Supreme Court decided that the law was within Constitutional boundaries and the “separate but equal” doctrine was upheld.
Born in Augusta, Maine, Melville Fuller was admitted to the bar only six months after he began his studies at Harvard Law School. He moved to Chicago in 1856 and became involved with politics, being elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. After he was appointed Chief Justice under President Cleveland’s administration, Fuller served on the Venezuela-British Guiana Border Commission and the Court of Permanent Arbitration at The Hague.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which banned bigamy in the United States. Bigamy is the practice of entering into marriage with one person, while still married to another. Twelve years later, Congress passed the Poland Act which gave U.S. district courts jurisdiction in the Utah Territory over all civil and criminal cases. This act was designed as a tool to enforce the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in Utah. George Reynolds was a Mormon leader and practicing polygamist who sought to challenge federal laws banning bigamy. He was indicted and later convicted in Utah for bigamy. He appealed his case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Reynolds’s legal team contended that his plural marriage was a constitutional expression of the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion. The high court disagreed and upheld his conviction and the federal law banning bigamy. The court stressed that while government can’t regulate religious beliefs, it does have the power to regulate actions, including marriage. 1. Explain the controversial issue surrounding this case. 2. What was the Supreme Court’s ruling based on the free exercise clause? 3. What examples does the speaker cite as a “compelling interest” in the government preventing free exercise of religion?
A native of Connecticut, Morris R. Waite practiced law in Maumee City, Ohio and later became a member of the Ohio General Assembly. Shortly after, Waite was appointed to a committee established to settle claims the United States held against Great Britain. The U.S. was awarded $15.5 million in compensation in the aftermath. Waite was also part of the Ohio Constitutional Convention and was nominated as Chief Justice by President Ulysses Grant.
Salmon P. Chase played many different roles in the United States political system before being named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on December 6, 1864. He served in the Senate, was the Governor of Ohio, the Secretary of the Treasury, and graduated from Dartmouth when he was just eighteen years old. Chase was also nominated by President Lincoln and confirmed by the Senate all in the same day.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was permitted by the Republican Congress to expand the Supreme Court from nine to ten Justices. He made additional appointments to the Court, but this privilege was later revoked in 1867 under President Andrew Jackson. Congress thus reduced the number of justices to eight, which prevented Jackson from making further appointments. After his death however, in 1869, Congress reinstated the number of justices to nine, and it has remained at nine to this day.
The Court moved out of its room in the basement of the Capitol and into the Old Senate Chamber in 1860. The Supreme Court remained here until 1935 with the completion of its present building behind the Capitol, which was constructed under the direction of Chief Justice William Howard Taft.
Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri, a slave state, who lived in Illinois, a free state, from 1833-1843. When he returned to Missouri, he sued for his freedom claiming his residency in a free territory made him a free man. His masters claimed that no one of African descent, or descendants of slaves, could be a citizen of the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that Scott was a slave and therefore not a citizen, denying him his freedom.
President Andrew Jackson appointed former Attorney General Roger B. Taney, a Dickinson graduate, as Chief Justice in 1836. He was the second-longest serving Chief Justice, spending twenty-eight years on the bench and is perhaps best known for leading the Court when the Dred Scott decision was made. Prior to serving as Chief Justice, he was elected into the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate. Johnson nominated Taney to take the role of Secretary of Treasury and Associate Justice, however the Senate did not confirm either position.
This case established that the power to regulate interstate commerce was granted to Congress by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Aaron Ogden had purchased rights to operate steamboats in the waters between New York and New Jersey from a monopoly granted by the state of New York. He sued Thomas Gibbons for operating steamboats in the same waters without permission. The Court found that New York’s actions were inconsistent with Congress’ duty of regulating coastal trade.
In 1816, Congress passed an act establishing the Second Bank of the United States, and in 1817 a branch opened in Baltimore, Maryland. The state of Maryland passed a law in 1818 imposing a tax on all banks not chartered by their legislature. James McCulloch, head of the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank, refused to pay the tax. The Court held that Congress had the right to create the bank, and that Maryland’s laws interfered with the powers Congress has.
In 1795, the state of Georgia divided a 35-million-acre region of land into four tracts and sold each to different development companies. It was discovered that these sales were approved in exchange for bribes, and the transactions were voided. John Peck had purchased land that had been sold under the 1795 act and sold it to Robert Fletcher in 1803. Fletcher sued Peck, arguing that Peck had no right to sell the land because the original sale was invalid. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s repeal of the law was unconstitutional and the land would not be taken away.
Located in the basement of the US Capitol, this refurbished room is the place where the Supreme Court met for the majority of the time between 1810 to 1860. In this Chamber, Chief Justice John Marshall oversaw the court and was then follwed by Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott Decision. In this video, we take you inside the Chamber with Senate Curator Diane Skvarla, Senate Historian Dick Baker, House Historian Robert Remini, and historian Felicia Bell talking about the history, art, and architecture of the Chamber.
The doctrine of judicial review and the Supreme Court’s power as interpreter of the Constitution was established in the case of Marbury vs. Madison. William Marbury was appointed by John Adams in his last few days in office to serve as the justice of the peace for Washington, D.C. A petition was started because he was never fully issued his appointment after Adams left office. The Supreme Court decided that he was entitled to the position and the concept of checks and balances was introduced to the government.
John Marshall, a Revolutionary War veteran, is one of the most famous Chief Justices. Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court under President John Adams, and he held the position through Jefferson’s inauguration upon request. Prior to serving on the Court, he was involved with his own private law practice and turned down many political opportunities. Serving thirty-four years, he had the longest tenure of any Chief Justice, and helped establish the Supreme Court as the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution.
In 1800 the Federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. For the years of 1800-1809, the Supreme Court met in several rooms inside a still unfinished U.S. Capitol building.
Born in Windsor, Connecticut in 1745, Oliver Ellsworth studied at Yale and later the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). After graduating, he became a member of the Connecticut General Assembly and a delegate to the Continental Congress. Ellsworth helped formulate the "Connecticut Compromise," which resolved a critical debate between the large and small states over representation in Congress, and was elected to the First Federal Congress as a Senator. George Washington nominated the Connecticut native for the position of Chief Justice on March 3, 1796 which he served as for four years.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, the politics of Rutledge’s home state dominated his life. He served as Attorney General of South Carolina, was in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, and was a member of the South Carolina Ratification Convention. Nominated by George Washington to be one of the original Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, he left after one year to be the Chief Justice of South Carolina’s Supreme Court. Rutledge was nominated to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court but served as a recess appointee after failing to be confirmed by the Senate.
All three branches of government moved from New York to Philadelphia, the new location of the Capitol, in 1791. Held at Independence Hall, the first session of the Court in its new location lasted only two days because they had no cases. The Court moved to Old City Hall for their next term in August of that year, where they met for the following decade.
The first two sessions of the Supreme Court were held in the Royal Exchange Building in New York before an “uncommonly crowded” scene, according to New York newspapers at the time. The Court heard no cases in its first term and instead attended to administrative matters.
In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress spelled out the details of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. Thirteen district courts were created in principal cities, with one judge each, and three circuit courts to cover the other areas of the eastern, middle and southern United States. Above these is the Supreme Court, with a Chief Justice and Associate Justices, as the only court of appeals.
The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was New York native John Jay. A former president of the Continental Congress, he was appointed by George Washington to serve on the Court. After serving five years on the bench he became governor of New York. Jay was nominated for a second term as Chief Justice by John Adams, but declined.