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Humble beginnings

Starting in New York in 1790, the early Supreme Court focused on establishing its rules and procedures and perhaps trying to carve its place as the new government’s third branch. However, given the difficulty of getting all the justices even to show up, and with no permanent home or building of its own for decades, finding its footing in the early days proved to be a monumental task. Even when the federal government moved to the nation’s capital in 1800, the Court had to share space with Congress in the Capitol building. This ultimately meant that “the high bench crept into an undignified committee room in the Capitol beneath the House Chamber.”

Bernard Schwartz. 1993. A History of the Supreme Court . New York: Oxford University Press, 16.

It was not until the Court’s 146th year of operation that Congress, at the urging of Chief Justice—and former president—William Howard Taft , provided the designation and funding for the Supreme Court’s own building, “on a scale in keeping with the importance and dignity of the Court and the Judiciary as a coequal, independent branch of the federal government.”

“Washington D.C. A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary.” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc78.htm (March 1, 2016).
It was a symbolic move that recognized the Court’s growing role as a significant part of the national government ( [link] ).

An image of the Supreme Court building. In the foreground, a set of stairs is bracketed by statues on either side, leading up to a portico. The portico has a roof supported by several tall columns.
The Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, was not completed until 1935. Engraved on its marble front is the motto “Equal Justice Under Law,” while its east side says, “Justice, the Guardian of Liberty.”

But it took years for the Court to get to that point, and it faced a number of setbacks on the way to such recognition. In their first case of significance, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the justices ruled that the federal courts could hear cases brought by a citizen of one state against a citizen of another state, and that Article III , Section 2, of the Constitution did not protect the states from facing such an interstate lawsuit.

Chisholm v. Georgia , 2 U.S. 419 (1793).
However, their decision was almost immediately overturned by the Eleventh Amendment , passed by Congress in 1794 and ratified by the states in 1795. In protecting the states, the Eleventh Amendment put a prohibition on the courts by stating, “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” It was an early hint that Congress had the power to change the jurisdiction of the courts as it saw fit and stood ready to use it.

In an atmosphere of perceived weakness, the first chief justice, John Jay , an author of The Federalist Papers and appointed by President George Washington, resigned his post to become governor of New York and later declined President John Adams’s offer of a subsequent term.

Associated Press. “What You Should Know About Forgotten Founding Father John Jay,” PBS Newshour . July 4, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/forgotten-founding-father.
In fact, the Court might have remained in a state of what Hamilton called its “natural feebleness” if not for the man who filled the vacancy Jay had refused—the fourth chief justice, John Marshall . Often credited with defining the modern court, clarifying its power, and strengthening its role, Marshall served in the chief’s position for thirty-four years. One landmark case during his tenure changed the course of the judicial branch’s history ( [link] ).
“Life and Legacy.” The John Marshall Foundation . http://www.johnmarshallfoundation.org (March 1, 2016).

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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