There will soon be a new appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court to fill a vacancy as one justice retires. Here are some quick facts about the court’s beginning and membership.
• Established by the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court “bears the closest resemblance to its original form — a 225 year old legacy —” of the three branches of federal government (Executive, Judicial and Legislative), according to the Supreme Court Historical Association.
• For all of the changes in its history, the Supreme Court has retained so many traditions that it is in many respects the same institution that first met in 1790, prompting one legal historian to call it "the first Court still sitting."
• To ensure an independent judiciary and to protect judges from partisan pressures, the Constitution provides that judges serve during "good Behaviour," which has generally meant life terms. To further assure their independence, the Constitution provides that judges' salaries may not be diminished while they are in office.
• The exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole were not elaborated by the U.S. Constitution, leaving it to Congress and justices of the court through their decisions to develop the federal judiciary and a body of federal law. That prompted the first bill introduced in the United States Senate: the Judiciary Act of 1789.
• Members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president of the United States subject to the approval of the U.S. Senate.
• Initially composed of a chief justice and five associate justices, the number of justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. President Washington appointed the six original justices and before the end of his second term had appointed four other justices. During his long tenure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) came close to this record by appointing eight justices and elevating Harlan Fiske Stone to be chief justice.
• The Supreme Court’s first meeting in New York City, then the nation's capital, was Feb. 2, 1790. The first cases reached the Supreme Court during its second year, and the justices handed down their first opinion on Aug. 3, 1791, in the case of West v. Barnes.
Sources: Supreme Court Historical Association, www.supremecourt.gov.