Since its inception, the Supreme Court has served to uphold and enforce American values. As the first bill introduced and signed, the Judiciary Act of 1789 served as the foundation for the Supreme Court as well as the entirety of the U.S. judicial system. President George Washington and the members of Congress signed this bill, allowing it to pass, and with the finalization of Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution, Washington then established the Supreme Court as a mode of conducting judicial review, nominating six men to serve on the tribunal.
John Jay, a New York native and co-author of the Federalist papers, was appointed to serve as the nation’s first chief justice. He only judged four cases during his term, but he was influential in establishing rules and methods of judicial procedure for the American government.
The remaining five justices consisted of James Wilson, John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair Jr., and Robert Hanson Harrison. All of these justices were appointed by George Washington, and during their first year, they received no cases and instead focused on constructing and improving the court system.
The first case to be docketed with, or assigned to be heard by, the Supreme Court was Van Staphorst v. Maryland, in which the Van Staphorst brothers had loaned money to the state of Maryland during the Revolutionary War and had been refused repayment. Before the case could be heard by the Supreme Court, the two parties settled their disagreement.
The first Supreme Court decision made was for the case West v. Barnes. A farmer, William West, owed a mortgage on his home due to a failed deal with Jenckes family, and he requested a lottery to assist him in paying off his debt. The state of Rhode Island complied, paying out the proceeds in paper currency. However, David Leonard Barnes, an heir of the Jenckes, refused the payment and insisted that it must be paid in gold or silver. West appealed to the Supreme Court on a writ of error composed by a Rhode Island circuit judge, and the ultimate ruling of the Supreme Court was not conducted on judicial review but on procedural grounds, declaring that a writ of error was only valid if written by a Supreme Court clerk. However, Congress overruled this decision a year later in the Act of 1972 which permitted Circuit Court judges to issue writs of error.
The procedures and standards of the Supreme Court have shifted over time to accommodate new rulings and insights into American society and culture, but its presence as a legal and moral compass has not changed.
Jorge J. Perez is an attorney in South Florida. He is a self-professed history buff. Visit JorgeJPerez.net to read more historical content.