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.

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