Oliver Ellsworth Court (1796-1800)

Oliver Ellsworth was the 3rd Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, succeeding John Rutledge. He was nominated on March 3, 1796 by President George Washington after Associate Justice William Cushing had declined the office in February. The Senate confirmed Ellsworth on March 4, 1796, and he was sworn into office on March 8, 1796. During his tenure, he ran for President in the 1796 election, receiving 11 electoral votes. These indirectly helped Thomas Jefferson become Vice President. Ellsworth served as Chief Justice until he resigned on December 15, 1800 and was succeeded by John Marshall.

Although the Supreme Court now numbers nine Justices, including the Chief Justice, the Court consisted of only six total Justices during Ellsworth’s tenure. Justice Samuel Chase was sworn into office a month before Ellsworth, replacing an Associate Justice who had left during the short-lived Rutledge Court. Accused of political bias several years later, Chase was the only Supreme Court Justice ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives. However, he was acquitted by the Senate and remained on the Court until his death.

Two veterans of the Jay Court, Justices William Cushing and William Paterson, would outlast Ellsworth as well as Jay. However, two other Justices died as the 18th century approached its close. These Justices, James Wilson and James Iredell, were replaced by Justices Bushrod Washington and Alfred Moore, respectively. These were the first two Justices not nominated by George Washington.

Most modern readers of Supreme Court decisions are accustomed to seeing an official “opinion of the court,” often accompanied by one or more dissents or concurrences. However, no rule requires decisions to be structured in this style. During the early years of the Court, each Justice usually wrote their own opinion on a case. This structure was known as “seriatim,” which means “consecutively” in Latin. Ellsworth urged the other Justices to present a cohesive Opinion of the Court. He achieved only limited success, and the Justices returned to the seriatim style after his departure. Chief Justice Marshall ultimately ended this custom for good.

In 1799, the Ellsworth Court reviewed a dispute between New York and Connecticut, each of which claimed a certain tract of land. This marked the first time that the Supreme Court exercised its original jurisdiction to decide a dispute between states.

Associate Justices on the Ellsworth Court:

  • James Wilson (1789-1798)
  • William Cushing (1790-1810)
  • James Iredell (1790-1799)
  • William Paterson (1793-1806)
  • Samuel Chase (1796-1811)
  • Bushrod Washington (1798-1829)
  • Alfred Moore (1800-1804)

Selected Landmark Cases of the Ellsworth Court:

Hollingsworth v. Virginia (1798)

Author: Per curiam

Topic: Role of Courts

Since the Eleventh Amendment was constitutionally adopted, there cannot be exercised any jurisdiction in any case, past or future, in which a state was sued by the citizens of another state or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.


Calder v. Bull (1798)

Author: N/A (seriatim opinions)

Topic: Role of Courts

The Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to determine that any law of any state legislature contrary to the Constitution of that state is void. (This decision also held that the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws, which operate retroactively, applies only to the criminal context.)