History of the United States Supreme Court
This article was edited and reviewed by FindLaw Attorney Writers | Last reviewed November 20, 2023
Article III of the U.S. Constitution established one federal court, the United States Supreme Court. The court's judicial power is quite broad. Building a body of federal law and determining the Supreme Court's role in interpreting it has been up to Congress (and the Court itself).
The first Supreme Court assembled on February 2nd, 1790. Six justices shared the bench, including Chief Justice John Jay. In 1791, the Court handed down its first decision in West v. Barnes.
Today, we think of the Supreme Court as the final authority on whether a law complies with the Constitution. But it was actually an 1803 decision by the Supreme Court that established this power. Marbury v. Madison held that:
- Federal laws that conflict with the Constitution are invalid, and
- Judges hold the power to review the constitutionality of federal laws.
This power is known as judicial review.
Since then, the Supreme Court has acted as an important check on lawmakers and executives. For more than 200 years, the Supreme Court has helped maintain the balance between the three branches of the U.S. government. Some decisions stand the test of time. Others reflect views better left behind, such as Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation in 1896.
Famous U.S. Supreme Court Decisions
Below are some of the Supreme Court's most famous decisions:
1819: The Court establishes that Congress's powers extend beyond the text of the Constitution and that state governments cannot interfere with the federal government in McCulloch v. Maryland.
1824: Gibbons v. Ogden clarifies the amount of power given to Congress under the Commerce Clause.
1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford denies citizenship to formerly enslaved African Americans.
1954: The Court outlaws racial segregation in schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
1966: Miranda v. Arizona establishes the well-known "Miranda warning" for those accused of a crime.
1967: Loving v. Virginia overturns state laws barring interracial marriage.
1973: In Roe v. Wade, the Court rules that constitutional privacy rights protect access to abortion.
1974: United States v. Nixon holds the president cannot use executive privilege to withhold evidence in a criminal trial.
1989: Texas v. Johnson holds that flag burning is protected speech under the First Amendment.
2004: Blakely v. Washington overturns sentencing guidelines all over the country.
2010: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows corporations to spend freely on elections.
2015: The Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges.
2020: Bostock v. Clayton County extends Title VII protection against sex discrimination to sexual orientation and gender identity.
2022: Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health overturns Roe v. Wade.