This Day in Supreme Court History: October 19, 1789

On this day in 1789, John Jay took the oath to become the first Chief Justice of the United States.

Before being chosen by President George Washington to lead the newly formed Supreme Court, Jay was one of the leading figures of early American politics. During the Revolutionary War, he served as President of the Continental Congress and then traveled to Europe to serve as a diplomat for the new nation. Under the Articles of Confederation, he served as Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, he helped make the case for ratification of the newly drafted Constitution in his essays in The Federalist.

In addition to the Chief Justice, the first Supreme Court had five associate justices: James Wilson, John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, and James Iredell. Its first meeting took place on February 2, 1790, in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City. It was, to put it mildly, uneventful: the justices had no cases to consider (they would not hear a case until 1791).  

The Jay Court heard only a handful of cases in its six-years. Perhaps its most significant was the case that helped convince Jay to leave the Court and return to political life. In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Court interpreted Article III of the Constitution to allow individuals to sue states in federal court. The nation quickly reversed this unpopular ruling with the 11th amendment, which that Jay took as a challenge to the Court. He resigned from the Court in 1795. After serving two terms as the governor of New York, Jay retired from public life in 1801. President John Adams tried to persuade him to serve another term as Chief Justice, but Jay refused, explaining that he believed the Supreme Court lacked “energy, weight and dignity.” He died in 1829 at the age of 83.

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