The US Supreme Court Meets for the 1st Time


It Was a Snooze Fest 

On February 1, 1790, the United States Supreme Court met for the first time.  They met at the Royal Exchange Building on Broad Street in New York City.  The building was essentially a covered marketplace at the lower tip of Manhattan.  The Court, established, but very loosely defined in article 3 of the new constitution, was still a work in progress.  The Judiciary Act of 1789 had given more of an outline for the court system, but there was still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the role of the Supreme Court. 

There were six justices in this initial court.  John Jay was assigned as the Chief Justice at the request of President Washington, and with the unanimous approval of the 26 person US Senate.  His five fellow justices initially had little to do operating as a Supreme Court.  Their first decision did not come until 1791 with the West v Barnes case which decided a procedural issue so mundane it is not worth discussing.

Off to a slow start and occasionally contradicted by Congress, the court was not the esteemed institution it is today.  The United States new judicial system had been broken up into circuits.  Supreme Court Justices had to spend much of their time “riding circuit”, hearing cases in whatever federal jurisdiction they were assigned.  Arduous work in a time before a quality road system and before the railroad. 

This and the lack of interesting cases to hear made being a Supreme Court Justice a somewhat undesirable job.  John Jay left the court in 1795 to run for Governor of New York.  Of the five original Associate Justices, two others left for more appealing jobs. 

The Court did not even have a home.  They met in The Exchange Building in New York, Independence Hall and Philadelphia City Hall when the seat of government moved to Philly.  When Washington DC became the capital, the Court met at a variety of locations, eventually settling in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol Building.  It was not until 1935 that the Court was given its own official building.

As time went on, the Court had more significant cases to try.  The prestige of the Court grew as it became for focused and defined.  It is a far cry from the early days when the dissatisfied six original Justices met in a cramped room in what was little more than a wooden barn.

Christopher Flanagan
photo By This drawing was published in Vol. 2 of the History of the City of New York by Martha Joanna Lamb (1881; page 634), as referenced here., Public Domain,


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