Law and Politics: Occasional Papers of Felix Frankfurter, 1913-1938

By Felix Frankfurter; E. F. Prichard Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

The Supreme Court of the United States

This selection is from an article contributed by Mr. Frankfurter to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciencesin 1934 (Vol. XIV, p. 424), reprinted by permission of the Macmillan Company, publishers.

THE LEGISLATIVE history of the United States Senate began with a bill to implement Article III of the federal Constitution, providing for the establishment of "one Supreme Court" and "such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." The scheme for a federal judicial establishment, of which the chief architect was Oliver Ellsworth, himself a future Chief Justice, became law on September 24, 1789. There were many contenders for the Chief Justiceship and the five associates for which the first Judiciary Act provided, and not until February 1, 1790, was the day set for the organization of the Court. Even then a majority of the Court were not able to reach New York and the first formal session of the Court could not be held until the following day. From then on for a period fast approaching a century and a half the Supreme Court has maintained unbroken its very special relation to the constitutional scheme of American society, although during the first three years practically no business came before the Court. The Supreme Court mediates between citizen and government; it marks the boundaries between state and national authority. This tribunal is the ultimate organ--short of direct popular action--for adjusting the relationship of the individual to the separate states, of the individual to the United States, of the forty-eight states to one another, of the states to the union, and of the three departments of government to one another.

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