Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which formally established the federal judiciary. As the first president, and since there were no sitting justices at the beginning of his term, George Washington had the unique opportunity to fill the entire body of United States federal judges with his selections-- including the Supreme Court.

United States President George Washington appointed 38 United States federal judges during his presidency, which lasted from April 30 to March 4, 1798.

The first group of Washington's appointments—two justices of the Supreme Court of the United States and ten district court judges—began service two days after Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which formally established the federal judiciary. Washington's last court appointee received his commission twelve days before the end of Washington's presidency.

William Cushing, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (Wikimedia Commons)As the first President, Washington was responsible for appointing the entire Supreme Court; he appointed a record ten justices, including two Chief Justices who were confirmed from outside the Court and one former Justice named as Chief Justice by a recess appointment, but not ultimately confirmed to the position. Additionally, Washington nominated Robert H. Harrison, who declined to serve, and nominated William Cushing for elevation to Chief Justice, who likewise declined.

Washington appointed only 28 judges to the United States district courts, due to the smaller size of the judiciary at the time; there were far fewer states, most states had a single district court, and each district had a single judge assigned to it. Because intermediate federal appellate courts had not yet been established, this, combined with the Supreme Court appointments, constituted the total number of federal judicial appointments made by Washington. Richard Peters, Jr. served for over 36 years, the longest of Washington's appointments.

The First Supreme Court

The Royal Exchange, in New York City, where the Supreme Court met for their first regular session in 1790 (Wikimedia Commons)

The first meeting of the Court was scheduled to take place in New York City on Monday, February 1, 1790, but the lack of a quorum (only three of the six Justices were present) delayed the official opening until the following day, Tuesday, February 2, 1790.

As stipulated by the Judiciary Act of 1789, there was one Chief Justice, John Jay, and five Associate Justices: James Wilson, William Cushing, John Blair, John Rutledge and James Iredell. Only Jay, Wilson, Cushing, and Blair were present at the Court's first sitting.

The six man Supreme Court met at the national capital (first New York City, then Philadelphia) twice a year; one session began the first Monday in February, and the other the first Monday in August.

The Supreme Court justices, in addition to their high-court responsibilities, were required to perform “circuit riding” duties. The Unites States circuit courts met twice a year at the district courts, creating numerous sessions a year in several different states. Each justice was assigned to one of three geographical circuits and traveled to the designated meeting places within the districts of that circuit. This meant that each early Supreme Court justice spent many months on the road and logged thousands of travel miles by horseback and carriage.

United States Supreme Court Justices Appointed by President Washington

Chief Justice John Jay October 19, 1789 to June 19, 1795
James Wilson September 26, 1789 to August 21, 1798
William Cushing September 26, 1789 to September 13, 1810
John Rutledge September 26, 1789 to March 4, 1791

promoted to Chief Justice:
June 30, 1795 to December 28, 1795
John Blair, Jr. September 30, 1789 to October 25, 1795
James Iredell February 10, 1790 to October 20, 1799
Thomas Johnson August 5, 1791 to January 16, 1793
William Paterson March 4, 1793 to September 9, 1806
Samuel Chase January 27, 1796 to June 19, 1811
Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth March 4, 1796 to September 30, 1800

JUSTICE KENNEDY ON GEORGE WASHINGTON

Segments from our interview with the Honorable Anthony Kennedy

The First President

Learn more about President George Washington and his administration

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