Supreme Court History

The Supreme Court of the United States is the only court that receives its power directly from the U.S. Constitution. Article III provides that “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.” The Court checks the power of the political branches of government, established by Articles I and II of the Constitution. It often does this by striking down laws or regulations that are incompatible with the founding document. However, the Court also must not reach beyond its own sphere of power and interfere with the other branches.

A Chief Justice has always presided over the Court, but the number of Associate Justices has fluctuated. Since 1869, though, the Court has consisted of eight Associate Justices, in addition to the Chief Justice. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed expanding the Court, but this initiative failed and has not been revisited.

The Court meets in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., which was completed in 1935. Before that date, the Court met in various chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building for most of its history. During its first decade, it met in New York City and Philadelphia, each of which briefly served as the national capital before Washington, D.C. was founded. Each term of the Court starts on the first Monday in October, and its recess begins in late June or occasionally in early July.

Eras of Supreme Court history are generally defined by Chief Justices. Current Chief Justice John Roberts, whose tenure started in 2005, is the 17th Chief Justice. The first Chief Justice was John Jay, who served from 1789 to 1795. The longest-serving Chief Justice was John Marshall, whose tenure extended from 1801 to 1835. Click on an era of the Court below to learn more about its history.

John Roberts Court (2005-present)

While the Roberts Court has taken a deeply conservative stance on gun control and abortion, this era has seen the expansion of health care access and LGBTQ+ rights.

William Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)

Conservatives generally gained the upper hand during the Rehnquist Court, which is perhaps best known for its role in deciding the 2000 presidential election.

Warren Burger Court (1969-1986)

A transitional era between liberal and conservative Courts, the Burger Court echoed the Warren Court in some areas while limiting its legacy in others.

Earl Warren Court (1953-1969)

Considered the most liberal era in Supreme Court history, the Warren Court aggressively deployed judicial power to expand constitutional protections.

Fred M. Vinson Court (1946-1953)

This era saw an internal conflict between a group of Justices who favored judicial restraint and a group of Justices who urged greater activism.

Harlan Fiske Stone Court (1941-1946)

The Second World War cast a shadow over the Stone Court, which reviewed several national security cases and sent a Justice to the Nuremberg Trials.

Charles Evans Hughes Court (1930-1941)

Hughes and his colleagues often clashed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal, but a plan to “pack the Court” stalled in the Senate.

William Howard Taft Court (1921-1930)

The only President to serve as Chief Justice, Taft led a Court that shaped constitutional principles affecting zoning regulations and property rights.

Edward Douglass White Court (1910-1921)

While the White Court helped build the foundations of free speech doctrine, its greatest contribution may have come in the field of antitrust law.

Melville Weston Fuller Court (1888-1910)

The pro-business Fuller Court struck down many economic regulations, while permitting racial segregation under a “separate but equal” theory.

Morrison R. Waite Court (1873-1888)

Several Justices on the Waite Court helped resolve the 1876 presidential election, which marked the transition from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age.

Salmon Portland Chase Court (1864-1873)

This era of the Court spanned the end of the Civil War and most of Reconstruction, during which the Court first interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment.

Roger Brooke Taney Court (1836-1864)

The Taney Court is forever tied to the Dred Scott case, which was decided on the eve of the Civil War and is considered the worst decision in Supreme Court history.

John Marshall Court (1801-1835)

The Court bolstered its authority by establishing the power of judicial review, which allows it to strike down unconstitutional actions by the other branches.

Oliver Ellsworth Court (1796-1800)

The Supreme Court reviewed a dispute between states for the first time. Ellsworth began to shift the Court toward its modern style of opinions.

John Rutledge Court (1795)

The shortest era in Supreme Court history ended after just 138 days when the Senate refused to confirm Rutledge, who had been a recess appointment.

John Jay Court (1789-1795)

The Supreme Court issued its first decision on August 3, 1791. This era included the only published Supreme Court case involving a jury trial.