The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth

The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth

The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth

The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth


An insightful look at the first Supreme Court and the controversies that surrounded the judicial body.

William R. Casto sheds a new light on America's federal judiciary and the changing legal landscape with his detailed examination of the Supreme Court's formative years. In a study that spans the period from the Court's tentative beginnings through the appointment of its third chief justice, Casto reveals a judicial body quite different in orientation and philosophy from the current Supreme Court and one with a legacy of enduring significance for the U.S. legal system.

Casto portrays the founding of the Supreme Court as a conscious effort to help the newly established government deal more effectively with national security and foreign policy concerns, and he credits the Court with assisting the Washington and Adams administrations establish stable relationships with Great Britain and France. The initial debate over the Supreme Court's jurisdiction as well as over the method of selecting its justices is recalled here.

Casto also reveals the philosophical mindset of the first Supreme Court, contrasting the eighteenth-century concept of natural law with the legal positivism on which the Supreme Court now relies. Using this historical context, he addresses the political controversy over federal common-law crimes, the drafting of the Judiciary Act of 1789, and the adoption of judicial review.


The volumes in this series are intended to provide readers with a convenient scholarly introduction to the work and achievements of the Supreme Court of the United States for the period of one or more chief justiceships. An effort will be made to examine the Court’s personnel and administration and to summarize its contribution in constitutional law, international law, and private law.

While the periodization of the separate volumes follows the now well established historical tradition of focusing upon the chief justices, it should be emphasized that there is no intention to defend the doubtful thesis that the presiding officer of the Supreme Court is its dominant member. Custom and tradition assign certain administrative responsibilities to the chief justice, and it is these functions which distinguish his service from that of his associate justices. This institutional management role justifies our decision to divide the series into monographs delineated by chief justiceships. Leadership in the Supreme Court is predominantly a function of interpersonal relationships. the chief justice lacks authority to command obedience even in administrative matters. He must rely upon and cultivate the respect and deference that his associate justices are willing to accord him. Any scholarly attention to the role of the chief justice inevitably requires close examination of all relationships among the justices.

Professor Casto’s volume draws upon his extensive study of the Supreme Court in the earliest decade of its history, and more particularly upon his biographer’s knowledge of the life and career of Oliver Ellsworth, who was not only the third Chief Justice of the United States but also one of the prime architects of the Judiciary Act of 1789. It provides valuable insights into Court activities during the Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams. Until recently this has been a neglected period of Supreme Court history, largely eclipsed by . . .

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