History of the Supreme Court and how it impacts America today

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October 21, 2020
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History of the Supreme Court and how it impacts America today

President Donald Trump’s recent nomination to the Supreme Court is 48-year-old Amy Coney Barret, Notre Dame Law School graduate, mother of seven, and  judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. If affirmed, she is poised to fill the gap left by the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The timing of the nomination is controversial at best, with many pointing to the double standard held by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee under similar circumstances.

The current drama is hardly the first to surround the U.S. Supreme Court, however. In fact, since its inception in 1789, the court has faced a number of scandals of all shapes and sizes, some of which have had an incredible impact on American society.

The Supreme Court is the head of the judiciary branch of the United States government. It has had a hand in shaping, perhaps more than any other branch of government, the country as it’s known to be today. To contextualize that history, Stacker compiled a timeline of the Supreme Court from its inception to its modern-day controversies. Using information from the United States Courts, the Supreme Court archives, and various news reports, 50 major moments in the court’s history are presented.

Read on to learn about landmark cases, major players, and important firsts.

You may also like: How well do you remember 1969?

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1789: The Supreme Court is established

In 1789, the first U.S. Senate bill—the Judiciary Act—was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Washington, officially establishing the Supreme Court. The third branch of the government was initially composed of six justices: a chief justice and five associate judges, all of whom could serve for life or until retirement.

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1790: The first justices meet in New York City

On Feb. 1, 1790, the first Supreme Court justices met in the Royal Exchange Building in New York City. The initial lineup, all of whom were nominated by President George Washington, included John Jay, who served as the chief justice; and justices James Wilson, William Cushing, John Blair, John Rutledge, and James Iredell.

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Library of Congress

1791: The court hears its first case

On Aug. 3, 1791, the Supreme Court handed down its first decision in the case of West v. Barnes. A unanimous 5-0 opinion in favor of David Leonard Barnes, which was granted due to a procedural issue, saw William West lose his farm to Barnes.

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1793: Chisholm v. Georgia

Considered the first significant case decided by the Supreme Court, Chisholm v. Georgia saw Alexander Chisholm suing the state of Georgia over payment due to him for supplying goods during the Revolutionary War. The court decided in favor of the plaintiff, holding that private citizens could sue states in federal court. Eventually, this decision was contradicted by the 11th amendment, which says states cannot be sued by citizens of other states or foreign jurisdictions.

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1795: Rutledge removed from the Supreme Court

John Rutledge holds the record of being the shortest-serving chief justice in Supreme Court history. He briefly served as interim chief justice in 1795 before making disparaging comments against then-President George Washington and the Jay Treaty, saying, “dearly as [I] love Washington, [I] would rather see him dead than to see him sign the Treaty.” The scandal saw the Senate refuse to confirm his appointment, and Rutledge ended up withdrawing from public life.


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1801: Marshall appointed chief justice

Commonly regarded as the most influential chief justice of all time, John Marshall was appointed to the court by President John Adams in 1801. A Virginia native, Marshall did more than any other justice to shape the Supreme Court’s relationship to other branches of the government, and adhered to a firm belief in the supremacy of the federal government over state governments.

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1803: Marbury v. Madison

Perhaps the most important case argued in the Marshall Court, Marbury v. Madison established the process of judicial review, which allows Americans to strike down laws they find in violation of the Constitution, which, in these terms, is defined as the law itself, not just a collection of ideals. The case itself arose from a dispute between outgoing President John Adams and incoming President Thomas Jefferson and the official appointment of a handful of lower-court judges.

[Pictured: Marshall's famous line from Marbury v. Madison inscribed on the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.]

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1804: Chase impeached

Samuel Chase holds the distinction of being the only Supreme Court justice to have ever been impeached. In 1804, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase, citing the fact that his partisan leanings had an unjust impact on his rulings. However, the Senate refused to uphold the impeachment, and Chase continued to serve on the Supreme Court until his death in 1811.

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1811: Story appointed to the Supreme Court

The youngest person to ever be appointed to the Supreme Court, Joseph Story was 32 with no prior judicial experience when he took his oath in 1811. One of the most renowned scholars to ever serve on the court, Story was Marshall’s right-hand man, writing many of the opinions that were produced during the 20-plus years the duo heard cases together.

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1833: Barron v. Baltimore

Barron v. Baltimore was another landmark Supreme Court case that played a major role in establishing the role of federalism in U.S. law. The case was brought by wharf owner John Barron who was suing the city of Baltimore for a loss in profits due to its commandeering of his property. In the end, the court ruled in favor of Barron, establishing a precedent that the Bill of Rights does not apply to state governments, but only to the federal government.

[Pictured: Interior of the old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol.]

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1857: Dred Scott v. Sanford

One of the most commonly referenced Supreme Court cases to ever be heard, Dred Scott v. Sanford, established that Black people could not hold U.S. citizenship regardless of whether they were enslaved or free. The case was brought to trial by Dred Scott, a former slave who argued his freedom had been granted when his owner took him to free territory. Ultimately, the justices ruled that because Scott wasn’t a U.S. citizen, he had no standing in federal court and, as such, wouldn’t hear his case for freedom.

[Pictured: A copy of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper with a front page story on the Supreme Court Dred Scott Decision of 1857.]

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1864: Chase appointed chief justice

One of the only politicians to serve in all three branches of the government, Salmon P. Chase was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Chase firmly believed in the indestructibility of the Union and played a major role in legally preventing the South from seceding during the Civil War. In many ways, he’s responsible for the shape of the country today.

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1869: The Judiciary Act

The number of justices presiding over the Supreme Court had changed a number of times throughout the years, ranging in total from five to 10. In 1869, a new Judiciary Act was passed setting the number of justices at nine, with six required to form a quorum. This act remains in place today, and the number of judges sitting on the court has yet to change.

[Pictured: Joseph P. Bradley, the first Justice appointed to the newly created ninth seat.]

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1877: Harlan appointed to the Supreme Court

Once a slaveholder, John Marshall Harlan I became an avid supporter of civil rights for minorities during his time as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Nicknamed “the great dissenter,” Harlan was often in opposition to the rest of the bench. He is considered by modern scholars to be one of the most important justices of his era, and well ahead of his time.

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1883: The Civil Rights Cases

The Civil Rights Cases are a collection of five separate cases consolidated into one by the Supreme Court, each dealing with racial discrimination. In an 8-1 ruling, with Justice John Marshall Harlan I being the only dissenter, the court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional and that Jim Crow Laws were permissible. This decision led to the “separate but equal” mentality that prevailed in American culture until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


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1896: Plessy v. Ferguson

Another case that upheld Jim Crow Laws, Plessy v. Ferguson determined that laws dividing citizens by race were not unconstitutional and weren’t in violation of the 14th amendment. In this particular instance, Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth Black, argued that his constitutional rights were violated when he was required to move to a “colored car.” The court disagreed in a ruling that would stand until 1954.

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1902: Holmes appointed to the Supreme Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of the most oft-cited Supreme Court justices of all time. During his 20 years on the bench, he was known for defending progressive legislation, dissenting regularly and loudly, and penning the line “a clear and present danger” in his Schenck v. United States opinion. The author of “The Common Law,” Holmes served until he was 90, making him the oldest justice to ever sit on the court.

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1905: Lochner v. New York

One of the Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions, Lochner v. New York determined that placing limits on how long an individual could work—in this case, a baker from New York—was unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th Amendment. Today, the decision in this case, which lent its name to the Lochner era, has been effectively overturned.

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1910: Hughes appointed to the Supreme Court

Charles Evans Hughes served on the Supreme Court twice: once as an associate justice beginning in 1910, and again as chief justice in 1930 after a failed bid for the presidency. Known for his well-balanced positions, he often acted as a swing vote between the conservative Four Horsemen and liberal Three Musketeers. In his later years, Hughes eventually earned the wrath of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his opposition to Roosevelt’s court-packing legislation.

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1911: Circuit Riding officially ends

From the start of the Supreme Court in 1789 until 1911, justices were required to travel around the country to hear cases in the lower circuit courts. From the jump, the practice, called circuit riding, was hated by judges, but it remained in place until Congress officially abolished circuit courts.


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1914: McReynolds appointed to the Supreme Court

James Clark McReynolds, a Tennessee native, was appointed in 194 to the Supreme Court. McReynolds is significant because of how hated he was. Known for his racism, bigotry, inability to get along with his colleagues, and overall intolerance of those different from him, not a single one of his fellow justices attended his funeral in 1946.

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1916: The first Jewish man is appointed to the Supreme Court

Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish individual appointed to the Supreme Court when he was nominated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. A fierce opponent of big business and big government, Brandeis firmly believed in citizens’ right to privacy and duty to participate in politics. His appointment was highly contested and tinged with anti-semitism.

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1919: Schenck v. United States

In the 1919 case of Schenck v. the United States, the socialist Charles Schenck was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by encouraging young men to disobey the draft. In this landmark case, the Supreme Court determined that Schenck’s free speech rights were not violated as he claimed they were. The case placed limits around free speech, arguing that when they create a “clear and present danger” Congress has the right to intervene.

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1921: Taft appointed to the Supreme Court

Eight years after his presidency ended, William Howard Taft became the 10th chief justice of the United States. To date, Taft is the only person to have held both of these roles. However, it is clear that the Supreme Court seat was his favored position. After his appointment, he was quoted saying, “I don’t remember that I was ever president.”

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1935: The Supreme Court gets its own building

More than 100 years after it was formed, the Supreme Court finally got its own building. Since 1801 the court had been meeting in various rooms in the U.S. Capital, until William Howard Taft, by then chief justice, insisted that the judiciary branch be given its own space. The cornerstone for the neoclassical revival building was laid in 1932, but it took three years to complete the nearly $10 million structure.


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1937: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan

In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted to introduce legislation that would increase the number of judges on the Supreme Court from nine to fifteen. He argued that this would make the system more efficient, but his critics accused him of trying to court-pack or flood the court with justices who would push through his New Deal. Ultimately, the legislation failed, but the idea of court-packing remains a hot-button issue in politics to this day.

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1937: Hugo Black forced to explain KKK connections

The year 1937 was an action-packed one for the Supreme Court. In the midst of the court-packing drama, Hugo Black, an associate justice, was outed as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. While Black had cut ties with the KKK years before his appointment to the court, his apparent racism, which surfaced after he was confirmed by the Senate, didn’t sit well with Americans. While he never officially apologized, he did address the public via radio and was largely forgiven for his “error.”

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1944: Korematsu v. United States

The Supreme Court has far from a perfect track record when it comes to making decisions. Case in point, Korematsu v. the United States, a World War II-era decision that deemed Japanese internment camps constitutional citing “emergency circumstances.” A highly contentious decision, Congress officially apologized for the move in 1988 with the Civil Liberties Act.

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1953: Warren appointed chief justice

Presiding over more landmark cases than perhaps any other Supreme Court justice, Earl Warren boldly brought U.S. courts into the 20th century. The former governor of California, he found a way to bring together conservative and liberal justices, winning progressive victories that ushered in great social change. It was his court that heard Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, and Miranda v. Arizona.

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1954: Brown v. Board of Education

Unanimously acknowledged as one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education decreed that the segregation of public schools violated the 14th Amendment. In theory, this put the Constitution in opposition to the Jim Crow Laws and was the first step in a long road headed toward racial equality.


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1956: Brennan appointed to the Supreme Court

One of the longest-serving justices in Supreme Court history, William Brennan was appointed in 1956. An avid defender of the First Amendment, Brennan is perhaps best known for his opinion that burning flags, whether state or national, is well within an individual’s constitutional rights as well as his firm belief that there should be a wall separating affairs of the state and affairs of the church.

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1961: Mapp v. Ohio

In 1957, Dolly Mapp, an Ohio resident, was arrested and charged with a crime in which all evidence against her had been illegally obtained by local police. In her 1961 Supreme Court case Mapp v. Ohio, where she argued that the charges were unconstitutional, the justices ruled 5-3 in her favor. This case set the precedent that neither federal nor state governments can use illegally obtained evidence against a defendant.

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1963: Gideon v. Wainwright

Florida man Clarence Earl Gibson was charged with felony breaking and entering in the early 1960s. Unable to secure an attorney, he was forced to defend himself as the laws at that time only provided court-assigned attorneys for the needy in federal court. Gibson argued that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated by the law, and the Supremes agreed with him, resulting in a Gideon v. Wainwright decision that declared attorneys must be appointed to defendants in both state and federal courts.

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1965: Griswold v. Connecticut

Control over women’s bodies has long been a hot button political issue, as demonstrated by the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case. In 1879 a law had been passed in the state of Connecticut that banned the sale or use of any drugs that would block pregnancy. Estelle Griswold, at that time the head of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, argued that this was unconstitutional and violated a married couple’s right to privacy. In the end, the Supreme Court agreed with her overturning the earlier law.

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1966: Miranda v. Arizona

The outcome of the Miranda v. Arizona case has had a major impact on the way policing is done and suspects are treated in this country. In 1966, the Supreme Court decided that the Fifth Amendment requires that officers inform a suspect of their right to retain an attorney and refrain from self-incrimination before they begin questioning said suspect.


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1967: Marshall appointed to the Supreme Court

In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first Black justice appointed to the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. A graduate of the Howard University School of Law and an active member of the NAACP, Marshall once described his approach to legal matters as, “you do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” Marshall remained on the bench until his retirement in 1991.

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1969: Fortas resigns in disgrace

Once a promising member of the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas resigned his position under threat of impeachment in 1969. Not long before he stepped down it came to light that the supposedly impartial justice had been accepting bribes and participating in shady deals behind the scenes, leading many to believe his decisions were anything but just.

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1972: Two Supreme Court justices, one day

Those unaware of the many traditions of the Supreme Court may not realize how major the role of seniority plays in the court. This is why on Jan. 7, 1972, when two justices were sworn in at the same time, things got a little confusing—after all, both men, Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist, would have served for the exact same amount of time. In the end, the court decided that age would be the deciding factor, making Powell, at 67, the more senior justice and Rehnquist, at 47, the most junior justice.

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1973: Roe v. Wade

Aside from Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade is perhaps the most significant case heard by the Supreme Court in the 20th century. The 7-2 decision determined that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to have an abortion without “excessive government restriction.” The court’s opinion remains hotly contested to this day.

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1974: United States v. Nixon

In a judgment that may have incredible relevance to this very moment, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Nixon, that there are limits to a president’s executive privilege. In 1974, President Richard Nixon sought to withhold the White House tapes in the midst of the Watergate scandal, citing his executive privilege and a need for confidentiality. The court ruled unanimously against him.

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1981: The first woman is appointed to the Supreme Court

Nearly 200 years after it was founded, the Supreme Court welcomed the first female justice into its ranks. Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and voted consistently conservative until her retirement in 2006. In 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

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1986: Bowers v. Hardwick

In a devastating moment for LGBTQ+ communities, the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick that same-sex physical relationships between consenting adults were not protected by the Constitution. The decision was not overturned until 2003, when the court decided that this opinion was superseded by citizens’ rights to privacy.

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1991: The Thomas-Hill scandal

In 1991, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual assault by his former colleague Anita Hill. The country was glued to the TV as an all-white, all-male Senate questioned Hill, in what many perceived to be an unfair, unjust display of performative justice. Despite her credible allegations, Thomas was confirmed in the end, with a 52-48 victory, the narrowest margins in recent history.

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1993: Ginsburg appointed to the Supreme Court

The second woman and first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed as an associate justice by Bill Clinton in 1993. Eventually, Ginsburg would become a staunch member of the court’s liberal wing, championing women’s and civil rights. In the latter half of her career, RBG became a cultural icon, in part thanks to quippy answers to questions like, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” Her answer: “When there are nine.”

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2005: Roberts appointed chief justice

In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated John G. Roberts for the chief justice position on the Supreme Court, a role he still fills. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Roberts is a swing vote and only the country’s 17th chief justice.


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2009: The first Hispanic justice is appointed

Bronx-born Sonia Sotomayor joined the Supreme Court in 2009 as an associate justice. She represents the first Hispanic and Latinx member of the court. Typically a liberal voter, Sotomayor has gained notoriety for her push to reform the justice system.

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2016: Merrick Garland nominated and blocked

In 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court justice after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly dashed any hope that the moderate judge would be appointed when he announced that the Senate wouldn’t participate in the confirmation process. Instead, he declared, the position should be filled by the next president who would be elected later that year.

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2018: Brett Kavanaugh faces sexual assault allegations

Clarence Thomas isn’t the only sitting Supreme Court justice who has faced sexual assault allegations. When President Trump’s pick, Brett Kavanaugh, was nominated in 2018 three women, led by Christine Blasey Ford, came forward with allegations against the conservative judge. In the end, he was approved by a 50-48 vote, even closer than Clarence Thomas’.

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2020: Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies

In September 2020, Supreme Court icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of cancer complications at 87. The loss of the tireless champion of justice left an empty seat on the court in an election year, the exact position we were in a cycle ago.

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2020: Amy Coney Barret nominated to the Supreme Court

Or were we? This time around Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed President Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barret through, despite the fact that the election was less than a month away and mail-in ballots were already being received. Hearings are ongoing, but if Barret wins her appointment, the Supreme Court will have a decidedly conservative lean for the first time in years.

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