The wacky world of the early US high court

John Jay Court

John Marshall became chief justice of the United States on this date in 1801. Marshall would sit on the high court until 1835, and his opinions laid the basis for American constitutional law and made the US Supreme Court a co-equal branch of government, along with the legislative and executive branches.

But what of Marshall’s predecessors?

The best known of the three men to lead the Supreme Court before Marshall was John Jay, who, among other things, helped write the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

During Jay’s nearly six years as chief justice (1789-1795), the high court ruled on just four cases, rather remarkable considering today the court receives petitions to hear some 7,000 cases annually.

Jay resigned as chief justice in June 1795 after being elected governor of New York. President George Washington named John Rutledge of South Carolina, an original high court associate justice who had resigned in 1791 to become chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions, to replace Jay.

Washington’s appointment took effect immediately as the US Senate was not in session.

However, Rutledge’s time on the court proved one of the shortest in the history of the nation. He was a vocal opponent to the Jay Treaty of 1794, which resolved issues remaining from the Revolutionary War but left many Americans unhappy.

His opposition cost him support in the administration and the senate. In addition, questions about his mental stability, driven at least partly by partisanship, were making the rounds.

The Senate rejected Rutledge’s appointment on Dec. 15, 1795, by a 14-10 vote. This remains the only time in US history the senate has rejected a Supreme Court recess appointment. Rutledge resigned from the court on Dec. 28, 1795. Just two cases had been heard during Rutledge’s tenure.

A month later, Washington nominated William Cushing for chief justice. This seemed a relatively sure bet as Cushing had served on the high court since its inception as an associate justice. However, Cushing declined the offer, though he stayed on as an associate until his death in 1810.

Finally, on March 3, 1796, Oliver Ellsworth, US senator from Connecticut, was nominated by Washington for chief justice. The next day Ellsworth was unanimously confirmed by the senate.

To further reiterate how little the early Supreme Court justices had on their plates, Ellsworth had enough free time in his first year at the helm to run for president; he came in sixth, behind John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Pinckney, Aaron Burr and Samuel Adams, garnering 11 electoral votes.

Ellsworth would serve until poor health forced his resignation on Sept. 30, 1800. In all, just four cases were heard during Ellsworth’s four-plus years as chief justice.

With Ellsworth’s resignation, new president John Adams first offered the seat to Jay, the nation’s original chief justice.

But Jay declined, stating that he was “perfectly convinced” that the court “would not obtain the energy, weight, and dignity which was essential to its affording due support to the national government; nor acquire the public confidence and respect which, as the last resort of the justice of the nation, it should possess,” according to the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Adams then turned to Marshall, his secretary of state.

To say things changed once Marshall took over as head of the court is an understatement. His rulings reshaped American government and made high court the final arbiter of constitutional interpretation.

The Marshall Court made the lion’s share of the “landmark” decisions that laid the foundations of American constitutional law, added the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Marshall participated in more than 1,000 decisions, writing 519 opinions himself. In addition, he wrote a five-volume biography of Washington, which has been praised by historians for its accuracy and depth.

By the time he died in 1835, he had served as chief justice for more than 34 years. He remains the longest-serving and most influential chief justice in US history.

(Above: Members of the John Jay Court, 1789-1795. Although the court first met in February 1790, it didn’t hear its first case until 1792.)

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