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Landmark ‘Firsts’ in Supreme Court History

Presidents have long considered religious, racial, and gender diversity when appointing new members to the Court.

  • Dave Roos
Published: August 1, 2023
Graphic of Supreme Court justices, scales of justice
credit: Library of Congress/pixhook/Getty

The First Six Supreme Court Justices

Article III of the Constitution organized the federal judiciary into one “supreme Court” and however many “inferior Courts” Congress chooses to create, but overall, it was surprisingly sparse on details. Clocking in at under 400 words — the shortest of the articles of the Constitution creating the three branches of government — the framers provided little detail on the powers and responsibilities of the Supreme Court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 filled in some of the blanks, laying the groundwork for what would become the modern U.S. legal system. Signed by George Washington, the act established a six-member Supreme Court — comprised of one chief justice and five associate justices — as well as the position of attorney general.

As the first president, Washington appointed more members of the Court than any other U.S. president, selecting a total of eight associate justices and three chief justices (one of whom failed to be confirmed by the Senate) during his tenure. His first six appointees were a mix of allies and prominent public figures whose reputations would help establish the nascent Court’s legitimacy.

  • John Jay (chief justice). A close ally of Washington and an ardent Federalist, Jay helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War with Great Britain, then served as secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation. While chief justice, Jay was also busy running for governor of New York (twice) and negotiating the unpopular “Jay Treaty” with Great Britain. When he was elected governor in 1795, Jay resigned from the Court.
  • John Blair Jr. Blair earned his reputation as a fair and skilled jurist while serving on the Virginia Court of Appeals, where he established the principle of “judicial review,” referring to the ability of the courts to invalidate an act of the legislature or executive that violates the Constitution. In his less than six years on the Supreme Court, Blair heard only 13 cases and resigned in 1796 over health concerns.
  • William Cushing. By far the most experienced jurist of Washington’s first six appointees, Cushing, seated at age 57, had been a Massachusetts judge since he was 28 years old. He was a man of few words — his shortest Supreme Court opinion was just two sentences long — but he was also the longest-serving of the Court’s original members. Washington even tapped him to succeed Jay as chief justice, but Cushing stepped down from the role after only a week due to health concerns. He remained on the bench as an associate justice until his death in 1810.
  • Robert Hanson Harrison. Another close ally of Washington, having been his aide-de-camp and military secretary during the Revolution, Harrison never actually served as a Supreme Court justice. He was too sick to accept the appointment and died a few months after the Court’s first meeting in 1790. Washington ultimately appointed James Iredell, a North Carolina jurist and Federalist leader, to fill Harrison’s seat.
  • John Rutledge. A respected figure from South Carolina, Rutledge missed the first meetings of the Supreme Court due to illness and only heard a few cases on the southern circuit before resigning in 1791. When John Jay retired, Washington granted Rutledge’s request to be named the interim chief justice. Upon returning from recess, the Senate blocked his permanent appointment less than six months later, citing Rutledge’s unhinged rhetoric against the Jay Treaty, including an infamous declaration that he would rather Washington die than sign it. Rutledge was so upset by the news that he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Charleston Bay, but two enslaved men pulled him to safety. His public career, however, did not survive the incident.
  • James Wilson. Wilson holds the distinction of being the only Supreme Court justice to have signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. An influential member of the Constitutional Convention — he helped create both the Electoral College and the Three-fifths Compromise — Wilson was ultimately derailed by financial troubles. He was jailed twice for unpaid land debts while serving on the bench.

The Court’s first six members were confirmed by the Senate within two days of their nomination — a feat that would be virtually impossible today given the fraught and polarized judicial confirmation processes that have been the norm in recent decades.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to meet for the first time on February 1, 1790, at the Royal Exchange building in New York City, which was the nation’s capital at the time. The meeting was pushed back because of travel delays, and ultimately, only four of the six justices were able to attend. It was an inauspicious start for the highest court of the United States.

The First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

George Washington had plenty of good reasons to appoint John Jay as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. At just 33 years old, Jay served as the president of the Continental Congress, the highest civilian post during the Revolutionary War, and then negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Jay authored five of the Federalist Papers alongside Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. It also didn’t hurt that Jay was Washington’s longtime political ally and friend.

When Jay was sworn in as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1789, he took his appointment seriously and hoped that the American judicial system could prove the young nation’s legitimacy. In practice, Jay was bored with life on the bench and busied himself with political campaigns and diplomatic duties. Washington picked Jay to smooth over the acrimonious relationship with Britain, but the resulting agreement, known as “Jay’s Treaty,” proved so unpopular that Jay joked he could find his way across the country by the light of his burning effigies.

Jay resigned from the Supreme Court in 1795 to become governor of New York. He later declined an invitation by John Adams to return as chief justice in 1800, stating the Court lacked “energy, weight, and dignity.” 

The First Women on the Supreme Court

The Senate unanimously confirmed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman on the Supreme Court in 1981, nearly two centuries after the high court’s creation. Her appointment fulfilled Ronald Reagan’s campaign pledge to nominate the first female justice.

A Texas native, O’Connor graduated from high school at 16 and attended both college and law school at Stanford University. She graduated (a year early) third in her class, two spots behind her future Supreme Court colleague William Rehnquist. Because of sexist hiring practices in the 1950s, O’Connor was only offered one job at a California legal firm — as a secretary. Undeterred, she eventually persuaded the San Mateo County attorney to hire her as a deputy county attorney, even offering to work for free after the office said it didn’t have the budget for another deputy.

After settling in Arizona, O’Connor became assistant attorney general and then served two terms as an Arizona state senator, eventually rising to lead the Republican majority — making her the first female majority leader of any state legislature. Returning to her legal roots, O’Connor was first elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court, thenappointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Upon her nomination by Reagan, O’Connor’s Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court were the first ever to be televised.

During her 25 years on the bench, O’Connor earned a reputation as a moderate “swing vote” on a politically divided Court. She authored more than 600 opinions — nearly half of them the majority opinion — spanning everything from gender discrimination to freedom of speech to voting rights. O’Connor retired in 2006 to care for her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For 12 years, O’Connor shared the bench with the second woman to reach the high court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. 

One of just nine women in her class at Harvard Law, Ginsburg served as editor of the Harvard Law Review, supported her husband through cancer, and graduated first in her class after transferring to Columbia Law. 

Like O’Connor, Ginsburg was denied jobs at top law firms, which she suspected was because she was Jewish, female, and the mother of a young child. And she was rejected for a clerkship by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who said he refused to hire a woman. Instead, she taught law at Rutgers and Columbia before founding the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972. There, she argued a series of landmark sex discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She first ascended to the bench in 1980 when Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

For 27 years, until her death in 2020, Ginsburg was a strong liberal voice on the Supreme Court, never missing a day of oral arguments even while receiving chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. After her passing, she was universally praised by her fellow justices — regardless of their deep ideological differences — as a champion of women’s rights and a dogged advocate for justice.

The First Black Supreme Court Justices

Thurgood Marshall, the prominent civil rights lawyer, was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice in 1967. 

Marshall, born in 1908, was raised in racially segregated Baltimore. A rambunctious student, his punishment in high school was to sit and read the U.S. Constitution, which he memorized by graduation. Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania, but was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of his race.

At Howard University Law School, where Marshall graduated first in his class, he was mentored by the university’s dean, Charles Houston, who taught Marshall that the best way to end racial discrimination was through the Constitution. Together, the two men joined the NAACP’s legal team. In one of Marshall’s first legal cases, they successfully argued that the University of Maryland Law School’s racist admissions policy was unconstitutional.

In 1940, after Houston returned to private practice, Marshall launched the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and began methodically chipping away at the legal basis for the “separate but equal” doctrine upholding racial segregation in the South. Marshall argued and won a series of landmark Supreme Court cases, but none as impactful as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which effectively ended the legal segregation of public schools.

Marshall brought his commitment to civil rights and social justice to the Supreme Court and argued repeatedly to end capital punishment and expand programs such as affirmative action. He retired in 1991 and was succeeded by the second Black Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas.

Thomas, like Marshall, grew up in the racially segregated South. He had originally planned to become a Catholic priest but left the seminary to pursue a career in law. He was accepted to Yale Law School in 1971 as one of the first Black students to benefit from affirmative action. His mistreatment by white classmates, who implied that he only was admitted because of his race, fueled Thomas’s lifelong opposition to affirmative action.

Under President Reagan, Thomas was appointed assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education and then chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

When Marshall announced his retirement, Thomas was 43 years old and had only been a judge for one year. Thomas’s confirmation hearings were some of the most contentious in history due to accusations of sexual harassment by a former employee, Anita Hill. He was ultimately confirmed by a vote of 52–48.

As a Supreme Court justice, Thomas became famous for almost never asking questions during oral arguments — he went a full 10 years without saying a word from the bench, although he is now a more active participant in oral arguments — and his staunchly conservative reading of the Constitution makes him a core part of the Court’s conservative voting bloc. More recently, Thomas has come under public scrutiny for several ethics scandals, including allegations that he accepted luxury gifts and trips from GOP megadonors and that his wife, Ginni Thomas, participated in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

The First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice

Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice in 2009 when she was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. She is also the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Born in the Bronx, New York, to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor credits an episode of the TV show Perry Masonwith sparking her interest in the law. After graduating from Princeton University and Yale Law School, 25-year-old Sotomayor worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, prosecuting everything from petty theft to organized crime. After a stint in private practice, she was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991 and proceeded to “save baseball” by ending the longest strike in sports history.

Next stop was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where she served for a decade, heard more than 3,000 cases, and became known for her spirited and rigorous questioning of attorneys. When Justice David Souter announced his retirement in 2009, Sotomayor was picked as his successor. 

As a justice, Sotomayor has voted with the majority in landmark cases that preserved the Affordable Care Act and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. She has dissented, sometimes vigorously, in decisions that have curtailed affirmative action and overturned abortion rights.

The First Black Woman on the Supreme Court

In 2022, the Supreme Court achieved another milestone when Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. She was appointed by President Joe Biden following the retirement of Stephen Breyer.

The child of two public school teachers and administrators in Miami, Florida, Jackson fell in love with the law while sitting at her father’s side as he studied for law school exams. After graduating from Harvard-Radcliffe College and Harvard Law School, Jackson was chosen for a series of high-profile clerkships, including one for Justice Breyer on the Supreme Court in 1999.

In between private practice and two positions at the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that provides sentencing guidelines for federal courts — Jackson worked as a federal public defender in Washington, DC, representing clients who couldn’t afford their own attorneys. She is the first former federal public defender to serve on the Supreme Court.

In 2012, President Obama appointed Jackson to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. President Biden appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2021.

The First Jewish Supreme Court Justices

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, a Boston lawyer known as the “people’s attorney,” as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. Some in Congress labeled Brandeis a radical for his anti-business stance, and opposition to his nomination — which was rooted in antisemitism — resulted in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s very first public hearings for a Supreme Court nominee.

Brandeis was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, to Jewish immigrants from Prague. Entering Harvard Law School at just 18 years old, he earned the highest marks in school history. As a Boston attorney, Brandeis championed the rights of workers, fought corruption, and advocated for the rights and freedoms of all Americans. He pioneered a new type of legal argument called the “Brandeis Brief,” which relies on social science and other expert evidence. And in a much-cited 1890 Harvard Law Review article, Brandeis argued that an unwritten “right to privacy” was implicit in American law.

In his 23 years on the Supreme Court, Brandeis used the Constitution to protect individual rights, including the freedom of speech. “Those who won our independence,” he wrote in a 1927 opinion, “believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.” 

Brandeis shared the bench with the second Jewish Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo, who served on the Court for six years until his death at the age of 68 in 1938. 

Cardozo came from a prominent New York family, and his father was also a judge. Tragically, he lost both of his parents and one of his sisters by the time he entered Columbia College at just 15 years old. While Cardozo attended Columbia Law School, he never finished his degree, leaving a year before graduation to join his older brother’s law practice. He garnered a reputation as a “lawyer’s lawyer,” famed for his encyclopedic knowledge of the law, and he quickly rose to a judgeship on the New York State Court of Appeals.

Thanks to his reputation as a respected public legal scholar and judge, Republican President Herbert Hoover nominated the liberal-leaning Cardozo to the Supreme Court. During his brief time on the bench, Cardozo played a pivotal role in upholding Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. 

The First Catholic Supreme Court Justice

The Supreme Court’s first Roman Catholic justice, Roger Taney, served as chief justice from 1836 to 1864 and presided over the most notorious Supreme Court decision in American history, Dred Scott v. Sanford, which denied citizenship to Black Americans and threatened to spread slavery into non-slaveholding states.

Taney came from a slave-owning family of Maryland tobacco farmers, but as a young lawyer, he emancipated the enslaved people he inherited and even called slavery “a blot on our national character.” But his opinions changed over the ensuing decades as he rose to prominence in the Maryland legislature and aligned himself with the populist presidential candidate Andrew Jackson.

Following Jackson’s election, Taney served as his attorney general and treasury secretary and led Jackson’s attacks against the national bank. In 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to the Supreme Court, but the Senate refused to confirm him (a first) over lingering opposition to his financial policies. Less than a year later, Chief Justice John Marshall died, and Jackson nominated Taney again, this time winning the Senate’s approval.

Taney joined a Court dominated by pro-slavery justices — five of the nine justices came from slave-owning families — and their decision in the Dred Scott case delivered a devastating blow to Black Americans, both enslaved and free. Taney wrote that Black people were not, in fact, “created equal” and therefore were not citizens who could sue in court to protect their rights. Additionally, the ruling struck down the Missouri Compromise, holding that Congress lacked the authority to abolish slavery in federal territories, including in free states. This was only the second time in U.S. history that the Court ruled a federal law unconstitutional.

Outrage over the Dred Scott decision helped propel Abraham Lincoln into the White House. Taney died in 1864 as the country fought a Civil War that he had helped ignite.

The First Foreign-Born Supreme Court Justice

The first Supreme Court justice born outside of the United States was James Wilson, one of George Washington’s initial six appointees. Originally from Scotland, he attended three universities in the country but never obtained a degree. At the age of 24, he abandoned plans to join the Presbyterian ministry and emigrated to the United States to make his fortune, bringing with him letters of introduction that allowed him to secure a position as a tutor and later as a teacher at Philadelphia College (now the University of Pennsylvania). Some months afterward, he petitioned the university for an honorary Master of Arts degree.  

Wilson set down lifelong roots in Pennsylvania, attaining the bar there and establishing a lucrative private law practice. And upon being elected to the Continental Congress as Pennsylvania’s representative, he waited until he had garnered support from his constituents before voting for independence from his former homeland.

Nevertheless, foreign-born justices are exceedingly rare, with only six members of the Supreme Court having been born outside of the United States to date. The last such justice was Felix Frankfurter, who hailed from Vienna, Austria, and was also the third Jewish Supreme Court justice. Frankfurter and his five siblings grew up in a crowded tenement in New York City’s Lower East Side. He went on to graduate first in his class at Harvard Law.

Frankfurter made a name for himself as a law professor at Harvard and through his speeches and writings on progressive causes. In 1920, he helped create the American Civil Liberties Union and was one of the founding editors of the New Republic magazine. When Supreme Court justices needed new law clerks, they came to Frankfurter for recommendations. 

But it was Frankfurter’s relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that shaped the rest of his career. Frankfurter, a vocal supporter of social change through legislation, was a close advisor on Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. When Benjamin Cardozo died in 1938, Roosevelt nominated Frankfurter to the Supreme Court, where he became known as a fierce advocate for judicial restraint.

The First Supreme Court Justices with Military Service

Military veterans are well represented on the Supreme Court, with roughly a third of all 116 Supreme Court justices having served in the armed forces. John Jay, the first chief justice, served in the New York Militia during the Revolutionary War, albeit not as a combatant, and Chief Justice John Marshall was a captain in the Continental Army. But perhaps the most famous veteran on the Supreme Court was Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Holmes was in his final year at Harvard College when the Civil War broke out, and the 20-year-old Massachusetts native was so anxious to enlist that he joined the Union Army before taking his finals. At the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Holmes was shot in the chest, but he recovered and returned to the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment less than a year later. At Antietam, the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Holmes was wounded again. 

In later years, Holmes gave two well-known Memorial Day addresses in which he spoke of his formative and traumatic experience as a soldier in the Civil War. Perhaps fittingly, one of his most famous Supreme Court decisions upheld the Espionage Act and the conviction of two socialists who distributed leaflets criticizing the draft during World War I, maintaining that the First Amendment does not protect speech that poses a “clear and present danger.

In 1965, all nine of the Supreme Court justices were military veterans. As of 2023, Samuel Alito is the only sitting Supreme Court justice with military experience.

The First Supreme Court Justice with No Judicial Experience

It’s not unusual for a president to nominate a Supreme Court justice with no prior experience as a judge. While all Supreme Court justices have had some kind of legal background and education, as of 2023, at least 40 had never served as a judge before rising to the nation’s highest court. The same is true of chief justices — less than half had judicial experience before taking their posts. 

Among the early justices with no prior judicial experience was John Marshall, known as “the Great Chief Justice.” Before being appointed to lead the Court by John Adams in 1801, Marshall had served in the Virginia state legislature, then as Adams’s diplomatic envoy to France, and finally as secretary of state.

Despite his lack of judicial experience, Marshall went on to become arguably the most influential justice in the history of the Supreme Court, firmly establishing the power of the judiciary as equal to the other branches of government.

The Youngest Supreme Court Justice

The Constitution does not specify a minimum age for Supreme Court justices, although most have been appointed in their fifties. The youngest person ever appointed to the Court was Joseph Story, who joined the bench at just 32 years old in 1812.

After practicing law for a few years, Story was elected to the Massachusetts legislature at 26 years old and then to the U.S. House at 29 years old. President James Madison appointed Story to the Supreme Court because of their shared political affiliation as Federalists. Story served on the Court for 33 years, one of the longest terms of any Supreme Court justice. In addition to his decisions as a justice, he left a lasting imprint on the U.S. legal system by penning 11 volumes of commentary on the branches of American law, which are still widely referenced today.

The First Supreme Court Justices with Disabilities

Appointment as a Supreme Court justice is a lifetime position, although justices are free to retire for any number of reasons, including poor health. In the early years of the Court, many elderly justices remained on the bench long after their health and mental faculties had deteriorated, because they relied on the salary.

Henry Baldwin, who was appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, struggled with mental health issues and was hospitalized with “incurable lunacy” in 1833. Still, he stayed on the Court until his death in 1844. Robert C. Griersuffered a series of strokes in 1867 while serving as a Supreme Court justice, leaving him partially paralyzed. He, too, remained on the bench for another three years. 

Interestingly, the first Supreme Court justice who was appointed with a legally protected disability might be Sonia Sotomayor, who was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was eight years old.

The First Justices to Resign or Retire from the Supreme Court

John Rutledge, one of the original six justices appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington, was also the first to resign his post in 1791 due to illness.

Thomas Johnson, another of Washington’s early appointees to the Supreme Court, resigned his post after just two years, citing the requirement to “ride circuit” and serve on circuit courts as “excessively fatiguing.” In 1793, he sent a resignation letter to Washington, writing, “I cannot resolve to spend six Months in the Year of the few I may have left from my Family, on Roads at Taverns chiefly and often in Situations where the most moderate Desires are disappointed.”

John Jay was the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and also the first chief justice to leave the post. Jay resigned in 1795, two months after being elected governor of New York.

The First Supreme Court Justices to Die in Office

Even though Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, fewer than half of all justices have died in office, and it has become relatively uncommon in the modern era, when most justices have chosen to retire. In the first century of the Court, however, most justices served until the bitter end. 

James Wilson was a distinguished member of both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention before being appointed by George Washington as one of the first six Supreme Court justices. But soon after accepting his new position, his fortunes changed. Wilson got caught up in land speculation and fell into crushing debt.

During the last year of his life, Wilson didn’t attend Supreme Court sessions because he was actively fleeing from his creditors, to whom he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1789, he ended up dying from malaria at just 55 years old — malaria afflicted many Americans, including George Washington himself, in the 18th and 19th centuries — becoming the first justice to die in office.

The second justice to die in office was James Iredell, who emigrated from England to North Carolina at 17 years old to become one of the colony and state’s most prominent lawyers, judges, and Federalists. Iredell was just 38 years old when Washington appointed him to replace Robert Hanson Harrison, who was too sick to take his seat on the first Supreme Court.

Iredell served on the Court for nine years and is best known for two significant dissenting opinions, including his lone dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia, which laid the groundwork for the 11th Amendment, barring individual states from suing each other. Iredell’s health suffered from traveling to circuit courts, and he died in 1799 at age 48.

More recently, Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in office in 2016 and 2020, sparking intense partisan clashes in the Senate over the selection of their successors.

Dave Roos is a journalist and podcaster based in Boise, Idaho.