History of the Supreme Court’s Organization, Structure, Membership and Decision Making Power
It was back on this day in 1789 that Congress passed the act that officially created the federal judiciary system that included the Supreme Court and other federal courts.
The Supreme Court itself was established as part of the Constitution. According to Article III, “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The details of the Court’s composition and that of the lower courts were left to Congress, which debated the Judiciary Act for several months and passed the final measure on September 24, 1789. The Act set the intial number of Supreme Court
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at six: one Chief Justice
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and five Associate Justices
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The early days of the Court were certainly low-key. The justices, when they met, were in the Old City Hall in Philadelphia and then the Capitol building’s basement in Washington.
The Supreme Court then became more of an institution we’d recognize today under Chief Justice John Marshall’s tenure as the Supreme Court’s leader for more than three decades.
In the court’s history, 106 of the 112 Justices have been white men. Only six are minorities with four women and two African-Americans. One of the women — Justice Sonia Sotomayor — is also Latina.
Democratic Presidents have nominated three women (Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and one African-American (Thurgood Marshall).
A Republican President (Reagan) nominated the first woman to ever sit on the bench — Sandra Day O’Connor — and President George H.W. Bush nominated African-American Clarence Thomas. Nine has not always been the magic number
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for Justices. While the Court has settled there since 1869, it reached an all-time high of 10 in 1863 — not exactly conducive to majority opinions — while the inaugural Court only hosted four. For the first 146 years of its existence
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, the Supreme Court did not have its own building. Justices reportedly met in different rooms of the Capitol building and also frequented private homes and bars to discuss their cases.
On the topic of cases, the court is not particularly productive when it comes to its case-to-opinion ratio. While it does manage to issue rulings on between 80 and 90 per year, it receives anywhere from 7,000-8,000 new cases
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each term.
The highest court in the land ultimately decided vegetable. The case was Nix vs. Hedden
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, decided in 1893.
John Nix was a big-time produce seller in NYC. The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 determined taxes had to be paid on imported veggies, but not fruits.
Tomatoes being seed-bearing, many considered them to be fruits but ultimately Justice Horace Gray would argue, in a unanimous decision, that tomatoes weren’t fruits because they were typically eaten with the main course of a meal instead of as a dessert.
Some of you may think — horrifying as it may sound — the government is the only entity able to utilize eminent domain to its advantage. Not true.
The Supreme Court decided in the 2005 case of Kelo vs. City of New London
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that it was also usable when it came to the transference of property from one private owner to another.
Translation: you can be forced to sell your land to another at a predetermined price beyond your control even if you don’t want to, provided the sale is for the public good — except that’s not true if you follow the specific case all the way through to its conclusion.
The land owners in question were forced to sell to make way for the promise of economic development from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Pfizer never actually delivered on that promise after the sale.
Beloved President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed one of the least popular Executive Orders
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of all time (historically) interning the Japanese into camps during World War II, regardless of citizenship
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In Korematsu vs. U.S., the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the order. “Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can,” wrote Justice Hugo Black.
Required Materials and Resources:
Copy and paste the two links below, in order to watch the two videos needed to complete this assignment.
Marbury v. Madison Case :

Frontline Inside the Supreme Court Documentary:
Analysis Objectives and Central Themes
Keeping in mind that the founding fathers gave little thought to the Federal Court’s power. This is evident in that compared to Article I (Congress/Legislative Branch) and Article II (President/Executive Branch), Article III of the constitution is the shortest in length. Recall, the framer’s purpose and function for establishing a federal court system.  They were seeking to create an independent judiciary
Only during the ratification debates in the states did political writers more fully explore the Constitution’s definition of judicial independence. The most famous commentary came in The Federalist essays of Alexander Hamilton, who argued that “the complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution,” by which he meant a Constitution that placed limits on the authority of all government officeholders. The judiciary’s responsibility, according to Hamilton, was to enforce the people’s will as expressed in the Constitution and thus to prevent the abuse of power by the executive and especially the legislature. “Permanent tenure” was the most important foundation of the courts’ role as “bulwarks . . . against legislative encroachments.”
A prominent Anti-Federalist critic of the Constitution acknowledged the importance of judicial independence as secured by service during good behavior, but “Brutus” also recognized that the judicial independence envisioned by the Constitution was unprecedented. Judges would be removable only by impeachment and conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors” rather than by a vote of the legislature, as was the case in most other governments with judicial tenure during good behavior. “Brutus” warned that regardless of errors of judgment or inability to carry out their duties, federal judges would be “independent of the people, of the legislature, and of every power under heaven.” He also worried that these largely unaccountable judges would have the final say on the meaning of the Constitution, but Hamilton and other framers of the proposed government thought that the courts’ responsibility to determine the constitutionality of laws, and thus to protect individual rights, was precisely the reason for the extraordinary protections of judicial independence. Hamilton dismissed concerns about unchecked judicial power, since the courts had “no influence over either the sword or the purse.” (http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/talking_ji_tp.html
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Useful Links and Resources:
Politics Behind Supreme Court Confirmations and Recommendations for Reform
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The Supreme Court Data Base
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CQ Press’s Supreme Court Collection
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Insightful Information
Being a Supreme Court Justice has been called a “lifetime appointment,”
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but Justices do not generally treat it as one. Case-in-point, of the 112 confirmed, less than half (50) have died in office. The majority have resigned or retired.
The average U.S. President gets to appoint just over two Supreme Court justices (i.e. 45 U.S. Presidents, 112 Justices confirmed so far).
Prompt Topics
Choose 1 of the following to write about. Papers should be argumentative, in favor or opposition of one position presented in the question. Papers must include at least 1 example from the film and 1 example from Article III of the U.S. Constitution, to offer support for their position.
Describe how power of the Supreme Court has changed, by comparing the power of the first court (Marshall’s court) to the present day court (CSPAN video Roberts Court) to analyze whether the power of this particular court has either remained consistent or overstepped the function and purpose intended by the framers.
In your own words, explain the meaning, power and purpose behind the term Judicial Review and assess whether this is or is not within the bounds of the Supreme Court’s constitutional power.
There are two competing ways justices make decisions and interpret the constitution: judicial restraint or judicial activism. Explain the differences between these two approaches of interpreting the constitution and decision making, and based on the personal interviews of each justice, given in the CSPAN video,  provide an example of a justice whose decision-making behavior you would predict to model each of the two types of decision making behaviors.