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Appendix Three Trivia and Traditions of the Court

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 07 June 2023

(p. 1151) Appendix Three  Trivia and Traditions of the Court

Firsts and Trivia

  • From the Research Files of the
  • Curator’s Office in the
  • Supreme Court of the United States


  • ▪  The first session of the Supreme Court was on 2 February 1790, in the Royal Exchange building in New York City.

  • ▪  The first session in the new Supreme Court building was on 7 October 1935. There were no cases argued in that first session.

  • ▪  The first case argued in the new building was Douglas v. Willcuts, argued on 14 October 1935.

  • ▪  The first Supreme Court bar member was Elias Boudinot, sworn in on 5 February 1790.

  • ▪  The first black Supreme Court bar member was John S. Rock, admitted on 5 February 1865.

  • ▪  The first woman Supreme Court bar member was Belva Ann Lockwood of the District of Columbia, admitted on 3 March 1879.

  • ▪  The first deaf attorney to argue a case before the Court was Michael A. Chatoff, who argued Board of Education v. Rowley on 23 March 1982.

  • ▪  The first Jewish Supreme Court Justice was Louis D. Brandeis, who was sworn in on 5 June 1916.

  • ▪  The first black justice was Thurgood Marshall, who was sworn in on 2 October 1967.

  • ▪  The first female justice was Sandra Day O’Connor, who was sworn in on 21 September 1981.

  • ▪  The first woman law clerk was Lucile Loman, who clerked for Justice Douglas from 22 October 1944 to 30 September 1945.

  • ▪  The first black law clerk was William T. Coleman, who clerked for Justice Frankfurter from 1 September 1948 to 31 August 1949.

  • ▪  The first woman Court officer was Helen Newman, who was the Court’s first female librarian.

  • ▪  The Court’s first female police sergeant was Eileen F. Cincotta, appointed on 18 August 1985.

  • ▪  The first president and vice president elect to visit the Court were Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush on 11 November 1980.

  • ▪  The first woman justice to issue the oath of office in a presidential inauguration was Justice O’Connor, who issued the oath of office to Vice President elect Dan Quayle on Friday, 20 January 1989.


  • ▪  The youngest Supreme Court appointee was Joseph Story, who was appointed on 3 February 1812, at the age of 32.

  • ▪  The longest living justice was Stanley F. Reed, who lived to be 95 years old. He retired on 25 February 1957, at the age of 72.

  • ▪  The only foreign-born justices were James Wilson, born in Scotland in 1742; James Iredell, born in England in 1751; David Brewer, born in Asia Minor in 1837; George Sutherland, born in England in 1862; and Felix Frankfurter, born in Austria in 1882.

  • ▪  There were originally only six justices on the Supreme Court. Since 1790, the total number of justices has changed six times before arriving at the current total of nine in 1869.

  • ▪  There have been a total of 108 Justices throughout the history of the Supreme Court, with a grand total of 113 appointments. The difference is due to the fact that there have been five Justices who were associate justices before being appointed chief justices.

  • ▪  There have been sixteen chief justices in the history of the Court, John Jay (1789) through William H. Rehnquist (1986).

  • (p. 1152) ▪  There have been 102 Associate Justices; John Rutledge (1789) through Steven G. Breyer (1994). This number includes 5 Justices who were later appointed to Chief (John Rutledge was one of them, appointed in 1795).

  • ▪  William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor were classmates at the Stanford Law School.

  • ▪  George Washington appointed the most justices to the Court: 11. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed 9.

  • ▪  Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush are the only presidents to serve a full term in office without appointing any justices to the Court. Only four presidents—William H. Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Jimmy Carter—never appointed a justice.

  • ▪  Chief Justice Roger B. Taney swore in the most presidents (7), but Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office the most times (9 times to 5 presidents).

  • ▪  There have been three family connections on the high court:

    1. 1.  John Marshall Harlan (1877–1911) and his grandson John Marshall Harlan (1955–1971).

    2. 2.  Stephen J. Field (1863–1897) and his nephew David J. Brewer (1890–1910).

    3. 3.  Lucius Q. C. Lamar (1883–1893) was a distant relative of Joseph R. Lamar (1911–1916).

  • ▪  Five justices have been associate justices before becoming chief justices: John Rutledge, Edward D. White, Charles E. Hughes, Harlan F. Stone, and William H. Rehnquist.

  • ▪  Harlan F. Stone was the only justice to sit in every chair on the bench. He progressed from most junior to most senior associate justice before he was appointed chief justice.

  • ▪  Oliver W. Holmes, at the age of 90, was the oldest justice ever to sit on the Supreme Court.

  • ▪  William O. Douglas served the longest term on the Court: 36 years and almost 7 months.

  • ▪  Justice Thomas Johnson served the shortest amount of time on the Court: 1 year, 2 months.

  • ▪  William H. Taft was the only president also to serve as a justice.

  • ▪  The most justices have come from New York (14), Ohio (9), and Massachusetts (9).

  • ▪  Samuel Chase was the only justice to be impeached. He was not convicted, however.

  • ▪  FEC v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee, 533 U.S. 431 (2001), is the longest opinion ever issued by the Supreme Court.

  • ▪  The highest known number of cases disposed of by a signed opinion was 223 during the 1926 term.

  • ▪  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said in the case of Buck v. Bell (1927), upholding a sterilization order affecting a person of subnormal intelligence: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

  • ▪  Justice Potter Stewart wrote in dissent in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) that when it came to obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

  • ▪  Appointed by President Grover Cleveland in 1888, Melville Weston Fuller was described by a newspaper of the time as “the most obscure man ever appointed Chief Justice.”

  • ▪  The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are inscribed on the entrance to the Supreme Court building.

  • ▪  Salmon P. Chase is the only justice whose likeness ever appeared on U.S. currency. He was on the $10,000 bill, which is no longer printed.

  • ▪  Justices Byron White, John Paul Stevens, William H. Rehnquist, and Stephen G. Breyer are the only justices who served as Supreme Court law clerks after graduating from law school. White worked for Justice Fred M. Vinson in 1946–1947; Stevens worked for Justice Wiley B. Rutledge in 1947–1948; Rehnquist worked for Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1952–1953; and Breyer worked for Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1964–1965.

  • ▪  Eighteen justices have graduated from Harvard Law School, which is more than from any other school. A total of nine justices were considered self-taught.

  • ▪  Thirty-six justices have served in the military.

  • ▪  Ninety-one justices have had previous state or federal political experience.

  • ▪  Justice Byron R. White played professional football for the Pittsburgh Pirates (later called the Steelers) in 1938, and for the Detroit Lions in 1940 and 1941.

Traditions of the Court

  • ▪  Since at least 1800, it has been traditional for justices to wear black robes while in Court. During the Court’s earliest years, under Chief Justice John Jay, the justices wore robes with a red facing, somewhat like those worn by English judges.

  • ▪  Seniority has always been an important part of the institutional practices of the Court. Seniority is determined by length of service, except in the case of the chief justice, who is always considered the most senior justice.

  • ▪  On the bench, seniority determines seating. The chief justice sits in the center of the Supreme Court bench, while the senior associate justice sits to his right. The next senior justice sits to the chief (p. 1153) justice’s left, the next to his right, and so forth, alternating right to left by degree of seniority. The most junior justice, therefore, sits in the farthest seat to the left of the chief justice.

  • ▪  Seniority also determines seating in the conference room. The chief justice sits at one end of the table, while the senior associate justice sits at the other. The junior justice sits closest to the door and, because no one besides the justices is present during conferences, must serve as the doorkeeper. While in conference, the Court discusses and votes on cases in order of seniority.

  • ▪  In the 1880s, Chief Justice Melville Fuller instituted the tradition of the judicial handshake. When the justices gather to meet in conference or to go on the bench, each justice shakes the hands of the other eight justices. Fuller initiated the practice to remind the justices that, despite their differences, all members of the Court shared a unity of purpose.

  • ▪  New justices take their oaths of office in a formal investiture ceremony in the courtroom. The new justice, seated below the bench in a chair that belonged to John Marshall, listens as the attorney general reads the letters patent nominating the justice to the Court. The chief justice then administers the oath to the new justice and seats him/her on the bench with the others.

  • ▪  On state occasions, such as presidential inaugurations, the justices attend together, wearing their robes. The justices formerly wore top hats at outdoor ceremonies, but, beginning at the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, justices began to wear black brimless hats known as skullcaps. At President George H. W. Bush’s inauguration, Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor wore skullcaps.

  • ▪  The titles affixed to the names of the justices have changed over time. Traditionally, a justice’s title had been “Mr. Justice,” as in “Mr. Justice Blackmun.” In November 1980, however, the justices dropped the prefix and began signing their opinions simply “Justice Blackmun.” When orally addressing a member of the Court, one refers to the justice as simply “Justice Blackmun,” but one still addresses the chief justice as “Mr. Chief Justice.”

  • ▪  Traditionally all attorneys practicing before the Supreme Court were required to wear formal “morning clothes.” Today, only members of the Department of Justice and other advocates of the United States government adhere to the tradition of formal dress. Most private attorneys wear dark business suits, although some still follow the more formal custom.

  • ▪  Quill pens remain an important part of the courtroom, as they did in the Court’s earliest days. The staff of the Court places twenty ten-inch white quills on counsel tables each day that the Court is in session.

  • ▪  The Court has a traditional seal, much like the Great Seal of the United States but with a single star beneath the eagle’s claws. The clerk of the Court keeps the seal of the Supreme Court and uses it to certify official documents, such as certificates given to attorneys newly admitted to practice before the Court. The seal the Court presently uses is the fifth in the institution’s history.

  • ▪  When a new justice is appointed to the Court, one of the justices will host a dinner to welcome him/her. These dinners are open only to the justices (including former justices) and their spouses.

  • ▪  Upon the retirement of a justice, the rest of the Court will purchase either his bench chair or his conference room chair and present it to the justice. After retiring, a justice retains an office and a small staff in the Court building until his death.

  • ▪  The justices throw a Christmas party each year for the entire staff of the Supreme Court. Moreover, in recent years the justices have instituted a new tradition: giving welcome and farewell parties to law clerks as they arrive and depart.

  • ▪  Another new tradition at the Court are law clerk reunions, in which former clerks of a specific justice host a dinner for that justice at the Supreme Court courtroom.

  • ▪  Although the Constitution prescribes that the president take the oath of office, it is only a tradition that the chief justice administer the oath. Indeed, on seven occasions, an official other than the chief justice administered the oath of office (see chart of appointments by presidential term, Appendix 2, pp. 1135–1140).(p. 1154)