Today in History: The Judiciary Act of 1789 establishes the Supreme Court

September 24th, 2013

On September 24, 1789, President George Washington officially signed “An Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States” into law, outlining the structure and jurisdiction of all federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Article III, Section 1 of the US Constitution called for the creation of “one supreme Court,” but left the composition of that court up to Congress to decide.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number of Supreme Court justices at six—that number was expanded to nine in 1869. The Supreme Court was given jurisdiction over all civil actions between the states, issues between a state and the United States, and suits against diplomatic personnel. When President Washington signed the act into law on September 24, he nominated the first justices of the Supreme Court: John Jay as chief justice and John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson as associated justices.

In addition to formally establishing the Supreme Court, the act divided the states into judicial districts, creating circuit courts and district courts. It created the Office of Attorney General to represent the United States in any matters before the Supreme Court. On February 1, 1790, the first session of the US Supreme Court was held in the Royal Exchange Building in New York City. The Supreme Court was not given its own building until 1935 when construction on the iconic Corinthian structure was completed.

For more on the Supreme Court, check out the Brown v. Board of Education case from 1954, declaring that separate public schools for black and white students violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. For a more recent seminal case, consider Texas v. Johnson, which allowed the burning of the American flag as symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.

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