Chief Justice John Jay

Chief Justice John Jay joined the U.S. Supreme Court on October 19, 1789 as the first person to hold that position. Jay was born on December 12, 1745 in New York City. He attended King’s College (now Columbia University), graduating in 1764. He then studied law and was admitted to the New York bar a few years later.

Jay began his political career shortly before the start of the Revolutionary War. He served in the Continental Congress during much of the 1770s, including a 1778-1779 term as its president. Jay also helped draft the New York State Constitution, after which he briefly served as the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. During the latter stages of the Revolutionary War, Jay served as U.S. Minister to Spain. He eventually helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which formally ended the war.

From 1784 to 1789, Jay served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He strongly endorsed the U.S. Constitution and contributed to the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays that urged the citizens of New York State to ratify the Constitution. After the founding document took effect, Jay continued to supervise the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of State until Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, took office in March 1790.

On September 24, 1789, President George Washington nominated Jay to the U.S. Supreme Court as its inaugural Chief Justice. The Senate confirmed him on September 26, and he took the judicial oath a few weeks later. Jay would serve in that role for less than six years.

Jay wrote an opinion in the first major Supreme Court decision, Chisholm v. Georgia, which held that the Court could review a lawsuit against a state by a citizen of another state. The Justices wrote seriatim opinions in this case, rather than producing a unified “opinion of the Court.” The Eleventh Amendment soon superseded this decision.

In 1794, Jay provided jury instructions for the only known jury trial in Supreme Court history. Although he reminded the jury that the court generally should decide questions of law, while the jury decides questions of fact, he said that the jury had a right “to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy.” Around the same time, Jay wrote for a unanimous Court in holding that lower federal courts had the power to hear admiralty cases.

Jay narrowly lost the 1792 election for Governor of New York, but he won in 1795, which brought his tenure as Chief Justice to an end. He left the Supreme Court on June 29, 1795 and was replaced by Chief Justice John Rutledge. Jay served as Governor of New York until 1801. He largely retired from public life afterward and died on May 17, 1829 in Bedford, New York.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Jay:

Glass v. The Betsey (1794)

Topic: Role of Courts

Every district court of the United States possesses all the powers of a court of admiralty, whether considered as an instance or as a prize court.

Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)

Topic: Role of Courts

A state is suable by citizens of another state. (This decision was superseded by the Eleventh Amendment.)