This Day in History: February 1, 1790 – U.S. Supreme Court Convenes


The United States Supreme Court convened for the first time on this day in 1970 in the Royal Exchange Building in New York City. The first court consisted of five associate justices with Chief Justice John Jay presiding for a total of six justices. The constitution established the Supreme Court but did not indicate a required minimum or maximum number of justices, and the Judiciary Act of 1789 provided for the six. That number decreased to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, increased back to six with the Judiciary Act of 1802, again increased to seven by a new appointment from Jefferson, and in 1837 increased to nine with the Eighth and Ninth Circuits Act in 1837. Another increase, to ten, occurred in 1863 with the Tenth Circuit Act, after which it was again decreased to seven with the Judicial Circuits Act in 1866. The last change was the Judiciary Act of 1869, placing it since then at the current nine justices.

All of those numerical changes were due to changes in the number of federal circuits, but Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted for the first time to change the makeup of the court numerically solely to gain political advantage to get his New Deal approved. A justice did come on board at the last minute to swing in his favor, though the challenge continued and ultimately failed. It was purposed stalled in Senate committee hearings to prevent the change. Too many did not accept changing institutions of government based upon one’s political desires. They rejected the use of the Court, our third branch of government, as a strategic element.