A CLOSER LOOK: The history and makeup of the Supreme Court

A Closer Look

American History: there have been five to 11 justices at any one time

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington. June 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has eight associate justices and one chief justice, combined they are paid $2.34 million a year, according to the U.S. Courts Judicial Compensation for 2019.

Associate justices are paid $258,900 and the chief justice is paid $270,700. The group of nine is in session from October through June to August.

2009 Compensation: Associate Justices: $213, 900; Chief Justice: $223,500

2000 Compensation: Associate Justices: $173,600; Chief Justice: $181,400

1990 Compensation: Associate Justices: $118,600; Chief Justice: $124,000

John Roberts has been the chief justice since 2005. This is the guy who tries to bring the court together.


The September 2020 vacant seat was held by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died Friday, September 18, at her home in Washington D.C., she was 87.

Seventeen men have served as SCOTUS Chief Justice since it was created in 1789, this includes Chief Justice Roberts. A chief justice is nominated by the president and the U.S. Senate confirms. The person stays in that position until they die, retire, resign, or impeached.

The longest-serving justice was John Marshall (1755-1835), 34 years, until his death on July 6, 1835. John Rutledge served the shortest term of 138 days. He started on December 15, 1795, and ended 4 months and 16 days later.


“In large parts of the Constitution, there are certain elements that don’t get addressed and that is usually on the Judicial Branch. While the Constitution discusses how justices are selected, it doesn’t say how many will be sitting on the Supreme Court at any one time,” said University of Arkansas Political Science Professor Andrew Dowdle, “that is left to Congress and the President.”

For the first 80 years of American history, the number fluctuated. It started at six, went as low as five and at one point there were 10 justices. However, since 1869, there have been nine.

In part, the fluctuation was because as the country grew larger there was a need for more justices. “For the first 75 years, when the court was not in session, justices were supposed to go out into the rest of the country and supervise the lower federal circuit courts,” said Dowdle.

So, as the country ended up growing there was a need for more judicial circuit districts, therefore a need for more judges.

At the same time, partisan differences also affected the number of seats on the court.

“For example, the first time the presidency changed from one party to the other was in 1801. In the days before that transition, the Federalist Congress and President John Adams reduced the number of court seats to five to deprive Thomas Jefferson of the opportunity to fill a vacancy,” said Dowdle. “The Democratic Congress reversed the decision within months of taking power by the mid 19th century.”

However, since then there really has only been one serious challenge to a nine-member court.

In 1937-38, Franklin Roosevelt (D) was faced by a Supreme Court filled with justices appointed by prior Republican presidents. These justices invalidated many of the initial programs passed as part of the New Deal. Roosevelt began to support increasing the number of justices to as many as 15. This effort was known as court-packing. Not only did conservative justices oppose this, but the few liberal justices did as well. “They thought this would politicize the court and reduce its autonomy and legitimacy,” said Dowdle.

Associate Justice Owen Roberts was appointed by then-President Herbert Hoover and served from 1930-1945. In 1937, Roberts changed his position to generally opposing Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to supporting it. This was also known as “the switch in time that saved nine.”

Eventually, public offices due to court-packing, along with a number of vacancies on the court, helped to dissuade Roosevelt (and his allies in Congress) from this plan. Also, some historians believe this kept Roosevelt from further pursuing increasing the number of justices on the court, according to Dowdle.

What is the conclusion?

Whatever decision future presidents in Congress make, it seems certain that the composition of the court will be a major political debate for years to come.

In recent decades, the court has become more politicized. Partisans on both sides have called for their presidents to increase the number of justices they have on the court.

“Today, it is difficult to get 80 votes much less 90 or 96 from the Senate. The court is now more polarized because there is an argument about the court being politicized,” said Dowdle.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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