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date: 27 July 2017

The History of the U.S. Supreme Court

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The Supreme Court of the United States stands at the head of the nation’s judicial system. Created in Article III of the Constitution of 1787 but obscured by the other branches of government during the first few decades of its history, the court came into its own as a co-equal branch in the early 19th century. Its exercise of judicial review—the power that it claimed to determine the constitutionality of legislative acts—gave the court a unique status as the final arbiter of the nation’s constitutional conflicts. Composed of unelected justices who serve “during good behavior,” the court has decided cases brought to it by individual litigants—from the slavery question during the antebellum era to abortion and gay rights in more recent times—and in doing so has largely shaped American constitutional and legal development. The court’s rise, however, has not gone uncontested. Throughout the nation’s history, Congress, the president, and organized interest groups have all attempted to influence the court’s jurisdiction, composition, and decision-making. The court’s prominence reflects Americans’ historically paradoxical attitudes toward the judiciary: they have often been suspicious of the power of unelected judges at the same time that they have relied on independent judicial institutions to resolve their deepest disputes.