John Jay Court (1789-1795)

John Jay was the 1st Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He had previously served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and he served as acting Secretary of State until March 1790. Jay was nominated on September 24, 1789 by President George Washington, who created the position of Chief Justice on the same day by signing the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Senate confirmed Jay on September 26, 1789, and he was sworn into office on October 19, 1789. Jay served as Chief Justice until he resigned on June 29, 1795 and was succeeded by John Rutledge. He had been elected as Governor of New York a month before.

All of the Associate Justices on the Jay Court were appointed by Washington. Justices James Wilson, John Blair, William Cushing, and John Rutledge (the next Chief Justice) joined the Court by early 1790. Washington also nominated Robert Harrison, but he declined the appointment, so Justice James Iredell filled this seat in May 1790.

Of this original group, only Rutledge left the Court before Jay. He resigned in 1791 and was replaced by Thomas Johnson, who in turn resigned in 1793. Rutledge holds the record for the shortest tenure (one year, 18 days) of any Associate Justice, but Johnson is not far behind. After he resigned, Justice William Paterson filled the seat and outlasted not only Jay but also the next two Chief Justices. He remained in the seat until the early years of the Marshall Court.

The Supreme Court first met in February 1790. The first case docketed with the Supreme Court was Van Staphorst v. Maryland, which was settled before oral arguments. The first appellate case docketed with the Court was Collet v. Collet, which was dropped before oral arguments. The first case decided by the Court was West v. Barnes, a unanimous decision issued on August 3, 1791. Arising from a farm mortgage, the case was decided on procedural grounds.

In 1794, Chief Justice Jay delivered instructions to a jury that implied an acceptance of jury nullification. This is when a jury reaches a verdict that is contrary to the letter of the law. Jay suggested that a jury has a right “to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy.” This case is the only published case in which the Supreme Court presided over a jury trial.

Associate Justices on the Jay Court:

  • James Wilson (1789-1798)
  • William Cushing (1790-1810)
  • John Blair (1790-1795)
  • John Rutledge (1790-1791; later served as Chief Justice in 1795)
  • James Iredell (1790-1799)
  • Thomas Johnson (1791-1793)
  • William Paterson (1793-1806)

Selected Landmark Cases of the Jay Court:

Glass v. The Betsey (1794)

Author: John Jay

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)

Author: N/A (seriatim opinions)

Topic: Role of Courts

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

Hayburn's Case (1792)

Author: Per Curiam

Topic: Role of Courts

In general, judges should be extremely cautious in not intimating an opinion in any case extrajudicially.