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Housing of the Court

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Description: Places where the Supreme Court met and held court.


Significance: Because the judiciary was considered a relatively unimportant branch of the government, the Court met in a variety of places until a dedicated building was constructed in 1935.


Although the Framers of the U.S. Constitution agreed to a tripartite division of the federal government, the judiciary received the least emphasis. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established a Supreme Court consisting of a chief justice and five associate justices. Most of the Court's time would be devoted to the circuit courts. Two sessions were held in 1790 in the Merchants Exchange building in New York City before the government moved to Philadelphia. In 1791 the Court met in Independence Hall; from 1791 to 1800, it met in Philadelphia's City Hall. After the 1800 term, the Court moved to the new capital of Washington, D.C. The north wing of the capitol building was ready for Congress; the president moved into the Executive Mansion. There was, however, no official place for the Court. Because the justices were expected to spend only about six weeks in the capital, Congress decided a small room in the basement of the capitol would suffice.


The Court Under John Marshall

What was to change the development of the federal government and the Court was John Marshall's appointment as chief justice. Marshall, who served from 1801 to 1835, strengthened and enhanced the powers of the federal government and the responsibilities and powers of the Court through a liberal interpretation of the Constitution and a series of incisive, far-reaching decisions. In 1807 and 1808, disturbed by ongoing construction, the Court met in the former library of the House of Representatives. In 1809, because of the extreme cold, it met in Long's Tavern. In 1810 the Court was given new quarters under the recently constructed Senate chamber. The semidome-shaped space, measuring thirty-five by seventy-five feet, was still inadequate. It was humid because of its basement location and lacked a separate entrance and a robing room for the justices, forcing them to robe in public. The bench where they sat was only slightly elevated, and the whole area dimly lit with poor acoustics. The room was likened to a “dark potato hole.” The justices had to evacuate their quarters when the British burned the capitol in August, 1814, during the War of 1812. In 1815 and 1816 the Court met in a private house; in 1817 and 1818 it moved into a habitable part of the capitol. By 1819, their former quarters had been repaired. The justices returned to their quarters, where they remained until 1860, despite the growing inadequacy of the space. Marshall died in 1835, to be succeeded by chief justices who mainly followed his lead. Not only were the physical arrangements not in keeping with the dignity of the Court, but also the justices had no office space or a law library, which became increasingly necessary.


The Move to the Senate's Chamber

In the 1850's, additions to the north and south wings of the capitol provided larger chambers for the Senate and the House of Representatives. In 1860 the Court moved to the chamber vacated by the Senate and remained there until 1935. These quarters, too, became increasingly deficient as the work of the Court mounted. Although the justices had a robing room, it had to double as their dining room. They had no office space or conference room. Work space for the Court's personnel was small and crowded, and the acoustics were still bad. A law library installed in their former quarters was shared by other governmental departments. After the Civil War, the duties of the Court increased considerably as their duties in the field decreased. In 1869 federal circuit judges were appointed; in 1891 Congress created the courts of appeals, which would handle many of the cases formerly heard by the Court; in 1925 the Court was given control of its own docket.


The New Building

By the end of the nineteenth century, the shift to an industrial economy placed an increased burden on the Court. Between 1870 and 1890 the number of cases increased fivefold. Despite the power and prestige of the Court, it was still a tenant of Congress. To be coequal with the other branches of the government as the Constitution intended, the Court needed to be housed separately. The driving force behind the new building was William H. Taft, president from 1908 to 1912 and chief justice from 1921 to 1930. As president he began promoting the idea of a separate building for the Court and enlisted the aid of Cass Gilbert, a distinguished architect also from Ohio. Working at first without a commission, Gilbert drew up plans for the building in the classical style favored by the Founders. Through personal influence and political pressure, Taft persuaded Congress to appropriate $9.7 million for the building at the time a large sum. The building was completed in 1935, and the Court met there for the first time on October 7. Neither Taft nor Gilbert lived to see their work completed, but they had planned carefully. Every convenience was given the justices. They could enter and leave the building, their quarters, and the courtroom without contact with the public. They had suites of rooms for their personal use, a library, dining rooms, garage space, and a gymnasium. They were provided with adequate clerical assistance and electronic support. Built of the finest materials, the building is noted for the splendor of the courtroom. Eighty-two by ninety-one feet with a forty-four-foot ceiling, the chamber is lined with columns of the finest marble. The impressive mahogany bench of the justices helps make this an effective and awe-inspiring seat for what has become the world's most important and powerful court.



Further Reading

  • Jost, Kenneth, ed. The Supreme Court, A to Z. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1998.
  • Maroon, Fred. J., and Suzy Maroon. The Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Thomasson-Grant & Lickle, 1996.
  • Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.