Tuesday, March 18, 2008
There are three branches of government in the United States: The Executive (Presidential), the Legislative (Congress), and the Judicial (Supreme Court). The U.S. Constitution provides that "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." (Article 3, Section 1) This building houses the Judicial Branch of government and is the seat of The Supreme Court of the United States.
Prior to being seated in this building, the Supreme Court handed down decisions for 146 years in spaces that were not their own. The court first sat in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City, America's first federal capital. When the national capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the court met in Independence Hall and then in City Hall. In 1800, when the capital finally moved to Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court convened in space provided by Congress in the Capitol Building. For about 20 years, they met in a dozen different rooms in the Capitol. At one point, after the British burned Washington in 1814, they met in a house. From 1819-1926, they continued to convene in the Capitol (you can see the Old Supreme Court and the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol, when you visit there.)
In 1929, Chief Justice and former U.S. President William Howard Taft prevailed on Congress to appropriate funding for the court to construct a permanent home. Architect Cass Gilbert designed the building. Construction commenced in 1932 and was completed in 1935. The building cost less than $9.47 million to build and came in under budget, including furnishings. At the end of the project, $94,000 in unused funding was returned to the U.S. Treasury.
The court has had 17 Chief Justices in its history, beginning with John Jay of New York. The current Chief Justice is the youthful John G. Roberts, Jr. of Maryland. The longest serving Chief Justice to date was John Marshall of Virginia. He served from 1801-1835. The shortest was John Rutledge of South Carolina who served for four months; he was the second Chief Justice of the United States and was a recess appointment. His nomination was rejected by the Senate on the specious grounds that he was mentally ill. The court has had two female associate justices--Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and two black associate justices--Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. The rest have all been white men (not a lot of diversity going on on the court, sadly.)
One final fact: the only U.S. President to appoint a full court during his terms in office was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He appointed one Chief Justice--Harlan Stone Fiske of New York (1941-1946) and eight associate justices: Hugo Lafayette Black (Louisiana, 1937-1971); Stanley Forman Reed (Kentucky, 1938-1957); Felix Frankfurter (Massachusetts, 1939-1962); William Orville Douglas (Connecticut, 1939-1975); Frank Murphy (Michigan, 1940-1949); James Francis Byrnes (South Carolina, 1941-1942); Robert Houghwout Jackson (New York, 1941-1954); and Wiley Blount Rutledge (Iowa, 1943-1949.)
Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 3/08