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Supreme Court Justices

    “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” This quote is from the first sentence of Article III Section 1 of the United States Constitution, establishing the Judicial branch of our government.

    Article II of the Constitution establishes and delineates the Executive power of the President of the United States of America. Article II Section 2 contains the Appointments Clause: [the President] “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…, Judges of the supreme Court.”

    There have been 113 Justices of the United States Supreme Court since the Constitution was adopted in 1789, three of those from South Carolina. Congress initially set the number of Justices at 6. The number of Justices varied from 6 to 7 to 9 to 10, until Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1869 stipulating that the Supreme Court would consist of the Chief Justice and 8 Associate Justices. The number of seats of the Court has remained constant since 1869. The only serious challenge to maintaining 9 Justices was Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack the Court” in 1937. Roosevelt was frustrated that the Supreme Court had declared several of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. Despite intense lobbying by President Roosevelt, his proposed bill was seen as political maneuvering and was soundly defeated in the United States Senate.

    The United States Constitution is silent on qualifications for Supreme Court Justices. There are no age requirements, or limits, nor is there a requirement that the candidates have law degrees. Many of the early Justices, as was common at the time, received their legal training working for a practicing lawyer and “reading the law.” After a period of apprenticeship, aspiring lawyers would sit for the bar exam. The last Justice of the United States Supreme Court who did not receive a law school degree was South Carolinian James F. Byrnes. Byrnes was an adept politician. He served in the United States House of Representatives and as a United States Senator from 1911 until 1941. He was close allies with Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt appointed Byrnes to the Court in 1941. Within months of Byrnes’s appointment, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Roosevelt convinced Byrnes to leave his lifetime appointment on the Court to join the Executive branches’ efforts to mobilize the country for the war effort. Byrnes is credited with the second shortest tenure of any justice on the Court.

    There have only been 17 Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. John Rutledge, a Charlestonian, served as an Associate Justice from 1790 to 1791. President Washington later appointed Rutledge as the second Chief Justice which he served for 5 months in 1795. Rutledge was appointed under a temporary commission as the Senate was not in session.  When the Senate reconvened, Rutledge’s nomination was rejected. Rutledge has the distinction of having served the shortest tenure as an Associate Justice as well as serving the shortest term as the Chief Justice.

    The other South Carolinian who served on the Court had one of the longest tenures. William Johnson, another Charlestonian, was only 32 years old when he was confirmed in 1804. He was one of three Justices appointed by President Thomas Jefferson. Johnson had been an avid political supporter of Jefferson while serving as Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1798 to 1800. He was the first non-Federalist to serve on the Court. He died while still in office in 1834 having served over 30 years as an Associate Justice.

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