Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Supreme Court of the United States

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. In accordance with the provisions of the United States Constitution there was organized in 1789 a Supreme Court, John Jay receiving the first appointment as chief justice. With him were joined as associate judges John Rutledge, of South Carolina; James Wilson, of Pennsylvania; William Cushing, of Massachusetts; John Blair, of Virginia; and James Iredell, of North Carolina. John Jay held the office till 1795, and in 1796 Oliver Ellsworth became chief justice. The latter presided over the court till in 1800 the infirmities of age compelled his resignation. Then came the long and honorable incumbency of Chief-Justice John Marshall, who held the office from his appointment in 1801 to his death in 1835. This was a very notable period in the history of this court, and Judge Marshall's decisions have always been ranked as of pre-eminent ability. In 1836 the appointment of Roger B. Taney to the chief justiceship by President Jackson was confirmed by the Senate, and he took his seat on the bench in January, 1837, entering on his long term of 27 years. It was his celebrated decision in the case of the negro, Dred Scott, relative to the status of the slave race in America that applied the torch to that immense heap of combustibles whose explosion was the Civil War. At the death of Chief-Justice Taney in 1864, President Lincoln appointed as his successor Salmon P. Chase, former Secretary of the Treasury, and author of most of the great financial measures and expedients by which the national credit had been preserved during the war. His official term extended to his death in 1873, and covered the period when the important issues arising from the Civil War were under adjudication. To Chief-Justice Chase fell also, by virtue of his office, the duty of presiding at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. In 1874 the appointment of Morrison R. Waite as chief justice was made by President Grant, and the death of this able jurist in 1888 devolved on President Cleveland and the Senate the duty of selecting his successor, Melville W. Fuller, who served until his death in 1910. Edward Douglass White, of Louisiana, associate justice, and a Democrat, was appointed his successor as chief justice.

In the formation of the Constitution of the United States it was intended that the three general departments of the government should be of correlative rank and influence. And the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially those rendered since the Civil War, in the construction of the constitutional amendments which were made as a result of that war, have been of such fundamental and far reaching consequences that the value and importance of this tribunal in the United States system of government have been made more strikingly conspicuous than ever before. Its judgments, for example, in regard to civil rights, interstate commerce, prohibition liquor laws, the Mormon question, the right of Congress to authorize the use of paper money in time of peace, the legislation of Congress in regard to the Southern States by so-called “force bills,” the relations of the States to the Federal Government, etc., have been of the highest importance, and their influence in the future will be almost incalculable. The importance of the conservative opinion of this great national court in determining, at least negatively, the final validity of all legislation and of all subordinate judicial decisions, can hardly be overestimated. The same may be said of the Supreme Bench, considered as the only immovable breakwater against the unscrupulous and rampant spirit of party. It is fortunate, moreover, that the offices of our chief justice and the associate judgeships are appointive, and are thus removed in a great measure from the perfidy of the convention and the passion of a partisan election. The Supreme Court, at its first session in 1790, as already noted, consisted of a chief justice and 5 associates. By successive acts of Congress the number of associate justices was increased, 6 in 1807, to 8 in 1837, and the statute now in force, passed in 1869, fixes the number at 9. The retirement of supreme justices at the age of 70 is not compulsory, but a mere personal privilege. This provision was originally enacted April 10, 1869. Sec. 1, Art. III., of the United States Constitution expressly provides that the judges “shall hold their offices during good behavior,” so that if they do not voluntarily take advantage of the foregoing provision and are not removed they are entitled to exercise the duties of their office till death.

The Supreme Court is the judicial court of last resort in the Federal system of courts. The sessions are held in Washington, D. C., and any 6 justices constitute a quorum. Each judge of the court, moreover, must, at least once in every 2 years, attend a term in 1 of the 9 circuit courts in those parts of the country where those courts are held. The judicial power of the Supreme Court and of the inferior Federal courts extends to all cases in law and equity arising under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made under their authority; to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers, and consuls; to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; to controversies to which the United States is a party, and to controversies between two or more States or between citizens of different States, etc.; but not to suits against one of the States by citizens of another State, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state. The Supreme Court has original jurisdistion in cases affecting ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, and when a State is a party; but its chief jurisdiction is appellate. Thus it hears appeals from the circuit courts and from certain district courts having circuit court powers; in civil actions; where the matter in dispute exceeds $5,000, or in equity and maritime cases, $2,000. But there are some cases, as, for example, in regard to patents and copyrights, revenue laws, and civil rights, where an appeal is allowed without regard to the value in dispute. Moreover, if decisions in the highest courts of the various States are in conflict with the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, they may be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in 1920-1921 was composed of E. D. White, Louisiana, chief justice; associate justices, Joseph McKenna, California; O. W. Holmes, Massachusetts; W. R. Day, Ohio; Willis Van Devanter, Wyoming; Mahlon Pitney, New Jersey; J. C. McReynolds, Tennessee; L. D. Brandeis, Massachusetts; J. H. Clarke, Ohio.