U.S. Supreme Court Justices Past & Present: Names & Facts

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

This lesson will teach you about the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. You'll learn the names and facts about key justices, important judicial milestones, and written judicial opinions that have shaped American life.

The Supreme Court

It is easy to name one or more of the American presidents, but have you ever thought about the people who are on the Supreme Court? The U.S. Supreme Court is part of the judicial branch of the U.S. government and the highest court in the land. Every year the court decides cases that have important impacts on American life, such as law and order, civil rights, civil liberties, and conflicts between the states and the federal government. For this lesson, we'll take a look at the justices of the Supreme Court, who they are and what they are known for.

The Supreme Court Building
Supreme Court Building

Justice Milestones

The Supreme Court was first convened in February of 1790, with all its justices appointed by President George Washington. As of March 2016, 112 Supreme Court Justices have served on the court, but it is only recently that the court has become more representative of the country. For much of its existence, the court has been composed of white Protestant males. Until 1916, when Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Court, there had never been a Jewish Supreme Court justice. Until the twentieth century, the court had only a single Catholic justice, Roger B. Taney. In 1967, the court appointed its first African American justice, Thurgood Marshall. The first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, was appointed in 1981.

Sandra Day O Connor
sandra day o connor

This list gives us a brief list of personal milestones by Supreme Court justices, including ethnicity, length of service, and other characteristics.

Justice Years Served Milestone
John Jay (1789 - 1795) First Chief Justice of Supreme Court
John Rutledge (1790 - 1791);(8/1795-12/1795) Justice with shortest tenure;
Chief Justice with shortest tenure
John Marshall (1801 - 1835) Longest serving Chief Justice
Samuel Chase (1796 - 1811) Only justice to be impeached
Roger B. Taney (1836 - 1864) First Catholic justice
Louis Brandeis (1916 - 1939) First Jewish justice
William Howard Taft (1921 - 1930) Only president to serve on the court
William O. Douglas (1939 - 1975) Longest serving justice
Sandra Day O'Connor (1981 - 2006) First female justice
Thurgood Marshall (1967 - 1991) First African American justice
Clarence Thomas (1991 - Present) Second and only current African American justice
Sonia Sotomayor (2009 - Present) First Hispanic justice

It is important to note that although Samuel Chase was impeached by Congress, he was not convicted. Chase was impeached because some in Congress thought he was behaving in a partisan manner, favoring one party or cause, during his proceedings, not because he committed a crime. His acquittal set a precedent that a justice could not be impeached just because Congress disapproved of that judge's partisan behavior.

Judicial Opinions

When the Supreme Court makes its decision, individual justices will write an explanation of how they voted on that decision. This is called a judicial opinion. If justices vote in the majority, one of them may be assigned to write an opinion for the whole majority. Justice Harry Blackmun drew great praise as well as criticism for writing the court's majority opinion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that made abortion widely legal. Blackmun's opinion made the legal case why the Constitution protected abortion in many cases.

Justices have also been known for their dissents. These are opinions written by justices who voted in the minority. Even though a dissent is written to oppose the court's ruling, the dissent can provide the legal reasoning that might reverse the majority decision in the future. For example, in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the court ruled that state laws which allowed racial segregation in public facilities were constitutional as long as they were 'separate, but equal.' Justice John Marshall Harlan, who opposed the decision, wrote a strong dissent that stated that the Constitution is color blind and all citizens must be treated equally before the law.

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