John Jay Becomes First Supreme Court Chief Justice
On October 19, 1789, John Jay was sworn in as America’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
John Jay was one of America’s Founding Fathers, serving in the First and Second Continental Congress, drafting New York’s Constitution, and serving as New York’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature. He was also American Ambassador to Spain, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and helped negotiate the Treaty of the Paris, in which Great Britain recognized America’s independence. Supporting a strong centralized government, Jay helped write the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, which promoted the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
After the Constitution was ratified, President Washington needed to make several political appointments. In September 1789, he offered Jay the position of Secretary of State. Though a new title, it would’ve been the same duties he was already performing as Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Jay turned down the offer, but Washington had another in mind – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to Washington, the position “must be regarded as the keystone of our political fabric.” After Jay accepted, Washington officially nominated him on September 24, and the Senate unanimously confirmed him two days later. Jay swore his oath of office on October 19.
For the first three years, most of the Supreme Court’s time was spent establishing rules and procedures, admitting attorneys to the bar, and overseeing circuit court cases in the federal judicial districts. In his spare time, Jay aided President Washington and spread his ideas while touring the circuit courts.
In 1790, Jay established the court’s independence after Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton asked the court to support legislation over state debts. Jay said that the court could only rule on the constitutionality of cases being tried and wouldn’t take a position for or against the legislation.
In the six years Jay was Chief Justice, the Supreme Court only heard four cases. In the first case, they sided with state statute requirements. The second case concerned whether a federal statute could require the court to decide if war veterans qualified for pensions. The court initially decided to continue the case at a later time, but Congress changed the law in the interim. After this, the court wrote that it was a violation of the separation of powers for the legislature and executive branch to revise the court’s ruling. The third case asked if “the state of Georgia [was] subject to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the federal government.” Though the court ruled in favor of South Carolina loyalists whose land was seized by Georgia, their decision was later overturned by the 11th Amendment. In their final case, the court decided that jurors should make their decisions based both on fact and law, as some had previously questioned if it was in their power to decide the law.
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