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U.S. Supreme Court

A brief look at the history and function of the Supreme Court including material at the BPL and beyond.

The Supreme Court in 1925

Standing (L-R): Edward T. Sanford, George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, & Harlan Fiske Stone
Seated (L-R): James C. McReynolds, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William Howard Taft (Chief Justice,) Willis Van Devanter, & Louis Brandeis

For more information about current and past Associate and Chief Justices, visit the links below from The Supreme Court Historical Society:
The Current Court
Previous Associate Justices
Previous Chief Justices


Chief Justices and Associate Justices are nominated by the President of the United States and are subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. The nominees appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in one or more hearings where they and any relevant witnesses are questioned. The committee then decides whether or not to refer the nomination to the full Senate for debate. The Senate then debates the nomination and generally will either vote to confirm or reject the nominee.

Justices serve lifetime terms, excepting retirement, resignation, or removal from office via impeachment. Only one Justice, Samuel Chase, has ever been impeached. He was charged in 1804 and ultimately acquitted.

The President can also appoint a Justice directly to the Court during a Senate recess, these are called recess appointments. These appointments are still subject to confirmation by the Senate once it has reconvened.

Recess Appointments

Name Position Appointed For Year Appointed (Appointing President) Senate Decision  
Thomas Johnson Associate Justice 1791 (George Washington) Confirmed Books @ BPL
John Rutledge Chief Justice 1795 (George Washington) Rejected Books @ BPL
Smith Thompson Associate Justice 1823 (James Monroe) Confirmed Books @ BPL
Levi Woodbury Associate Justice 1845 (James K. Polk) Confirmed Books @ BPL
Benjamin Robbins Curtis Associate Justice 1851 (Millard Fillmore) Confirmed Books @ BPL
David Davis Associate Justice 1862 (Abraham Lincoln) Confirmed Books @ BPL
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Associate Justice 1902 (Theodore Roosevelt) Confirmed Books @ BPL
Earl Warren Chief Justice 1953 (Dwight Eisenhower) Confirmed Books @ BPL
William J. Brennan, Jr. Associate Justice 1956 (Dwight Eisenhower) Confirmed Books @ BPL
Potter Stewart Associate Justice 1958 (Dwight Eisenhower) Confirmed Books @ BPL

Failed Nominees

Twelve nominees have been rejected by the Senate. The most well-known rejection in recent memory is Robert Bork, whose nomination was defeated by the largest margin in U.S. history (58-42) after an aggressive campaign against led him by Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts. Because of this the word “bork” or “borking” has come to describe the defeat of a candidate for public office through an organized campaign of harsh criticism, defamation, and vilification.

Rejected Nominees

Name, Year (Nominating President) Final Vote
John Rutledge, 1789 (George Washington) 14-10
Alexander Wolcott, 1811 (James Madison) 24-9
John Spencer, 1844 (John Tyler) 26-21
George Woodward, 1846 (James Polk) 29-20
Jeremiah Black, 1861 (James Buchanan) 26-25
Ebenezer Hoar, 1870 (Ulysses Grant) 33-24
William Hornblower, 1894 (Grover Cleveland) 30-24
Wheeler Peckham, 1894 (Grover Cleveland) 41-32
John Parker, 1930 (Herbert Hoover) 41-39
Clement Haynsworth, Jr., 1969 (Richard Nixon) 55-45
G. Harrold Carswell, 1970 (Richard Nixon) 51-45
Robert Bork, 1987 (Ronald Reagan) 58-42


Several nominees have declined their nominations, two of them after having been confirmed by the Senate. John Jay declined a second nomination five years after retiring as Chief Justice in 1795 in order to serve as the second Governor of New York. The first Chief Justice, Jay was a Founding Father who served in numerous offices in the then-new government of the United States before retiring from politics completely in 1801.

Nominees Who Declined to Serve

Name, Year (Nominating President) Reason
Robert Harrison, 1789 (George Washington) Poor health
Levi Lincoln, Sr. , 1811 (James Madison) Poor health
John Quincy Adams, 1811 (James Madison) Prior commitment as U.S. Minister to Russia
William Smith, 1837 (Andrew Jackson) Declined after confirmation due to desire to comment freely on public affairs
Roscoe Conkling, 1882 (Chester Arthur) Initially accepted, declined after confirmation for unspecified reasons



Many nominees to the Court have had their nominations for either Associate Justice or Chief Justice fail due to withdrawal, postponement, or lack of action by the Senate. If a nomination is not withdrawn by the nominating President, it will expire and thus be considered withdrawn when the Congressional term expires if no action has been taken by the Senate by that time. And while a nominee cannot be appointed without the approval of the Senate, the Senate is under no obligation to take action for any nomination.

Failed Nominees

Name, Year (Nominating President) Details
John Crittenden, 1811 (John Quincy Adams) No action taken by Senate.
Reuben Walworth, 1844 (John Tyler) Nominated three times, 1st and 3rd withdrawn, no action taken on 2nd.
John Spencer, 1844 (John Tyler) Nominated twice, was rejected 1st and 2nd withdrawn.
Edward King, 1844 (John Tyler) Nominated twice. 1st confirmation hearing postponed indefinitely, 2nd withdrawn.
John Read, 1845 (John Tyler) No action taken by Senate.
Edward Bradford, 1852 (Millard Fillmore) No action taken by Senate.
George Badger, 1853 (Millard Fillmore) Confirmation hearing postponed indefinitely.
William Micou, 1853 (Millard Fillmore) No action taken by Senate.
Henry Stanbery, 1866 (Andrew Johnson) No action taken by Senate.
George Williams, 1873* (Ulysses S. Grant) Nomination withdrawn.
Caleb Cushing, 1874* (Ulysses S. Grant) Nomination withdrawn.
William Hornblower, 1893 (Grover Cleveland) Nominated twice. No action on 1st, rejected on 2nd.
Homer Thornberry, 1968 (Lyndon Johnson) Nominated to replace Associate Justice Fortas, who'd been nominated for Chief Justice. Nomination withdrawn after Fortas' nomination was withdrawn.
Harriet Miers, 2005 (George W. Bush) Nomination withdrawn.
Merrick Garland, 2016 (Barack Obama) Nomination was before the Senate without action for 293 days, longer than any nomination in U.S. history.

*Nomination for Chief Justice, all other nominations for Associate Justice.

Duties of the Justices

The official title of the Chief Justice is Chief Justice of the United States. Nominated by the President, they can either be current Associate Justices or not and their appointment is not related to their tenure on the Court. The Chief Justice is the presiding officer of the Court and the administrative head of the entire federal judiciary. Along with the regular duties of an Associate Justice the Chief Justice’s additional duties include overseeing the administration of the Court, presiding over arguments and private conferences, presiding over impeachment trials, writing and assigning the writing of opinions, appointing federal judges to the membership of various courts and panels, and overseeing the acquisition of books for the Law Library of the Library of Congress. They are also paid more than the Associate Justices.

While the Chief Justice often administers the oath of office for the President of the United States, this is simply a tradition and not an official duty. Any federal judge, state judge, or notary public is allowed by law to administer the oath.

Chief Justices

Name (Appointing President) Tenure  
John Jay (George Washington) 1789-1795 (resigned) Books @ BPL
John Rutledge (George Washington) 1795 (rejected by Congress) Books @ BPL
Oliver Ellsworth (George Washington) 1796-1800 (resigned) Books @ BPL
John Marshall (John Adams) 1801-1835 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Roger B. Taney (Andrew Jackson) 1836-1864 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Salmon P. Chase (Abraham Lincoln) 1864-1873 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Morrison Waite (Ulysses S. Grant) 1874-1888 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Melville Fuller (Grover Cleveland) 1888-1910 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Edward D. White (William H. Taft) 1910-1921 (died in office) Books @ BPL
William H. Taft (Warren G. Harding) 1921-1930 (retired) Books @ BPL
Charles E. Hughes (Herbert Hoover) 1930-1941 (retired) Books @ BPL
Harlan F. Stone (Franklin D. Roosevelt) 1941-1946 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Fred M. Vinson (Harry S Truman) 1946-1953 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Earl Warren (Dwight D. Eisenhower) 1953-1969 (retired) Books @ BPL
Warren E. Burger (Richard Nixon) 1969-1986 (retired) Books @ BPL
William Rehnquist (Ronald Reagan) 1986-2005 (died in office) Books @ BPL
John Roberts (George W. Bush) 2005-present Books @ BPL


The number of Associate Justices has varied over time and is currently set at eight according to the Judiciary Act of 1869. Each Justice, including the Chief Justice, has one vote in the decision of cases. Seniority among the Associate Justices is determined by length of tenure on the Court. If the Chief Justice is unable to carry out their duties or the office is vacant, the Associate Justice with the most seniority will take over.

In addition to deciding cases argued before the Court, each Justice is responsible for emergency applications and other matters from one or more of the thirteen circuits in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  The Chief Justice, by tradition, oversees the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit. In the past, Justices were expected to travel to their assigned circuit courts to preside over cases. This is no longer the case.


First Justice:  James Wilson, October 5, 1789 (nominated by George Washington.) Books @ BPL
First Chief Justice: John Jay, 1789-1795 (nominated by George Washington.)  Books @ BPL
First Jewish Justice: Louis Brandeis, 1916-1939 (nominated by Woodrow Wilson.) Books @ BPL
First Catholic Justice: Roger Taney, 1836-1864 (nominated by Andrew Jackson.) Books @ BPL
First African American Justice: Thurgood Marshall, October 2, 1967 (nominated by Lyndon Johnson.) Books @ BPL
First Female African American Justice: Ketanji Brown Jackson, June 30, 2022 (nominated by Joe Biden.)
First Woman Justice:  Sandra Day O'Connor, September 25, 1981 (nominated by Ronald Reagan.) Books @ BPL
First Hispanic Justice: Sonia Sotomayor, August 8, 2009 (nominated by Barack Obama.) Books @ BPL
First Justice to Die in Office: James Wilson, died on August 21, 1798 of a stroke preceded by a bout of malaria at age 55. Books @ BPL
First Justice to Retire: Robert Cooper Grier retired on January 31, 1870 at age 75 due to ill health after serving for nearly 24 years. He died eight months later. Books @ BPL
First Justice to Resign: John Rutledge, resigned on March 4, 1791. Left to become Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions.  Books @ BPL

Number of Justices in U.S. History: 116.
Number of Justices Who Died in Office: 51.
Number of Justices Who Retired: 40.
Number of Justices Who Resigned: 18.
Number of Chief Justices: 17.
Longest Vacancy on the Court: 841 days between the death of Henry Baldwin on April 21, 1844 until the swearing in of Robert Cooper Grier on August 4, 1846.
Longest Vacancy on a Nine Member Court: 422 days between the death of Antonin Scalia on February 13, 2016 and the swearing in of Neil Gorsuch on April 10, 2017.
Shortest Tenure of Chief Justice: John Rutledge served 5 months and 14 days in 1795. Books @ BPL
Shortest Tenure of Associate Justice: Thomas Johnson served 4 months and 3 weeks from 1792 to 1793.  Books @ BPL
Longest Tenure of Chief Justice: John Marshall served 34 years, 5 months, and 11 days from 1801 to 1835. Books @ BPL
Longest Tenure of Associate Justice: William O. Douglas served 36 years, 7 months, and 8 days from 1939 to 1975. Books @ BPL
Oldest Appointed Chief Justice: Harlan Stone, age 68 in 1941. Served as an Associate Justice for 16 years prior. Books @ BPL
Oldest Appointed Associate Justice: Horace Lurton, age 65 in 1910.
Youngest Appointed Chief Justice: John Jay, age 44 in 1789. Books @ BPL
Youngest Appointed Associate Justice: Joseph Story, age 32 in 1811. Books @ BPL

Five Justices had their first nominations fail, and were successful with their second.

Name, Year (Nominating President or Presidents) Details
William Paterson, 1793 (George Washington) 1st nomination withdrawn, 2nd nomination confirmed. Served from 1793 to 1806.
Roger Taney, 1835 (Andrew Jackson) 1st nomination (for Associate Justice,) confirmation hearing postponed indefinitely. 2nd nomination (for Chief Justice) confirmed, served from 1836 to 1864.
Stanley Matthews, 1881 (Rutherford B. Hayes & James Garfield) No action on 1st nomination by Hayes. 2nd nomination by Garfield confirmed. Served from 1881 to 1889.
Pierce Butler, 1923 (Warren G. Harding) No action on 1st nomination, confirmed on 2nd nomination. Served from 1923 to 1939.
John Marshall Harlan II, 1955 (Dwight D. Eisenhower) No action on 1st nomination, confirmed on 2nd nomination. Served from 1955 to 1971. Grandson of John Marshall Harlan, an Associate Justice from 1877 to 1911.
John G. Roberts, Jr., 2005 (George W. Bush) 1st nomination (for Associate Justice to replace the retiring Justice O'Connor) withdrawn after the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist. 2nd nomination (for Chief Justice) confirmed. Currently serving.

Five Chief Justices have previously served as Associate Justices prior to their appointments. Only one Associate Justice, William Cushing, has declined a nomination to Chief Justice (in 1796.) Cushing served as an Associate Justice from 1789 until his death in 1810. Abe Fortas, who served as an Associate Justice from 1965 to 1969, had his nomination for Chief Justice withdrawn in 1968.

Name Associate Justice Tenure (Nominating President) Chief Justice Tenure (Nominating President)
John Rutledge 1 year, 18 days from 1790-1791 (George Washington) 5 months, 14 days in 1795 (George Washington)
Edward Douglass White 16 years from 1894-1910 (Grover Cleveland) 11 years from 1910-1921 (William Howard Taft)
Charles Evans Hughes 6 years from 1910-1916 (William Howard Taft) 11 years from 1930-1941 (Herbert Hoover)
Harlan Stone 16 years from 1925-1941 (Calvin Coolidge) 5 years from 1941-1946 (Franklin Roosevelt)
William Rehnquist 14 years from 1972-1986 (Richard Nixon) 19 years from 1986-2005 (Ronald Reagan)

19 Supreme Court Justices have previously argued before the court before being appointed to it, including current Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Alito, Kagan, and Kavanaugh.

Cases Argued by Justices Before Joining the Court

Name Won Lost Total
Thurgood Marshall 29 3 32
Robert H. Jackson 27 10 37
John G. Roberts 25 14 39
William Howard Taft 15 3 18
Stanley Forman Reed 11 2 13
Samuel Alito 10 2 12
John Archibald Campbell 5 7 12
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 5 2 7
Tom C. Clark 3 0 3
Elena Kagan 2 4 6
Melville Fuller 2 0 2
William Henry Moody 1 3 4
Louis Brandeis 1 0 1
Edward Terry Sanford 1 1 2
Abe Fortas 1 0 1
David Souter 1 0 1
Philip Pendleton Barbour 0 1 1
Willis Van Devanter 0 1 1
Brett Kavanaugh 0 1 1

In the history of the Court, there have been nine Associate Justices who were born in Massachusetts. The only states to produce more Justices are New York (thirteen) and Virginia (ten.)

Name (Nominating President) Birthplace (Year) Noteworthy Facts Tenure  
William Cushing (George Washington) Scitiuate (1732) One of the original six Justices, and the longest serving Justice appointed by George Washington. 1789-1810 (died in office)  
Joseph Story (James Madison) Marblehead (1779) Wrote majority opinion in Amistad case, which held that the kidnapped Africans who had revolted on the ship were free and allowed to return to Africa. 1812-1845 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Benjamin Curtis (Millard Fillmore) Watertown (1809) Dissented from majority in Dred Scott case, which held that slaves and descendants of slaves were not U.S. citizens and that the Federal government had no authority to regulate slavery in U.S. territories. Curtis' opposition to Chief Justice Taney in regards to this case led to his resignation from the Court. 1851-1857 (resigned) Books @ BPL
Horace Gray (Chester A. Arthur) Boston (1828) Wrote majority opinion in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, which established precedent for the Citizenship Clause of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. 1881-1902 (died in office) Books @ BPL
Henry Brown (Benjamin Harrison) South Lee (1836) Wrote majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, confirming the "separate but equal" doctrine in regards to racial segregation in public facilities. 1890-1906 (retired due to loss of eyesight)  
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Theodore Roosevelt) Boston (1841) Wrote over 800 majority opinions and was known for using colorful quotes in his writings. Retired at the age of 90 years and 306 days old, the oldest Justice to ever serve on the Court. One of the most widely cited legal scholars in the U.S. His papers were donated to Harvard after his death. 1902-1932 (retired due to advanced age) Books @ BPL
William Moody (Theodore Roosevelt) Newbury (1853) Served in all three branches of government: represented Massachusetts 6th district in the House, served as U.S. Secretary of the Navy and U.S. Attorney General. 1906-1910 (retired due to severe rheumatism)  
Harold Burton (Harry S Truman) Jamaica Plain (1888) Was said to be instrumental in making the decision in Brown v. Board of Education unanimous. The decision held that laws upholding racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. 1945-1958 (retired due to Parkinson's disease) Books @ BPL
David Souter (George H.W. Bush) Melrose (1939) Wrote an unpublished dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. FEC, which held that freedom of speech prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations. Souter's dissent was considered too critical of the conservative Justices to be released. 1990-2009 (retired due to desire to return to New Hampshire) Books @ BPL