Trials and Tribulations: The First Decade of the Supreme Court

The First Congress convened on March 4, 1789, but it adjourned immediately for lack of a quorum.  In early April, a quorum was achieved.  The First Congress consisted of 59 members in the House of Representatives and 22 Senators, two from each of the eleven states that had ratified the Constitution.  (North Carolina and Rhode Island were still debating whether to ratify.)  Pro-Administration members, as they were called at the time because there were no political party labels, significantly outnumbered Anti-Administration members.

Unlike the Congress and the President, the national judiciary could not begin its operations without prior action by the other two branches. Congress had to create the structure of the new national judiciary.  The President could not exercise his power to nominate members of the Supreme Court or judges to inferior federal courts until he knew how many there would be and whether there were particular qualifications for holding federal judicial office.  

The Constitution left unanswered many questions about the judiciary.  For example:

The Constitution provides for one Supreme Court.  It does not specify how many judges should serve on the Court or identify qualifications for service.  (Age and citizenship requirements for service are specified for the other two branches.)    

The Constitution does not specify whether the Supreme Court should have a presiding judge.

The Constitution does not specify how often the court should meet, how it should announce its decisions (orally or in writing), or how its decisions should be reported.    

The Constitution identifies a small category of cases over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction (the court sits as a trial court from which there is no appeal) and authorizes it to exercise appellate (or review) jurisdiction over the decisions of inferior courts.  But it gives Congress the power to decide whether there should be any inferior federal courts, how many there should be, what their jurisdiction should include, where they should be located, and the scope of the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction.

Disagreements that had divided the delegates at the Constitutional Convention and continued in the heated debates during the ratification process now had to be resolved by statute before the judiciary could begin its operations.  In the words of  “Civis Rusticus” (perhaps George Mason)  “The convention has only crayoned the outlines, it is left to the Congress, to fill up and colour the canvas.”