Q. 39: How Many Justices Are on the Supreme Court?

Judge signing papers
There are nine Supreme Court justices at present.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

How many justices are on the Supreme Court?

Answer:

Nine.

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

There Are Nine Justices on the Supreme Court

The existence of the Supreme Court of the United States, as it is known today, was the direct result of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Presently, the Supreme Court, also known as SCOTUS, acts as the court of last resort and is considered the head of the federal judicial system. As the court of last resort, its justices review decisions rendered by the lower federal courts.

According to the United States Constitution, Congress has the sole power and authority to determine how many justices can sit on the court. And although this number has changed multiple times while the court was still in its infancy, the present number of Supreme Court justices was established in 1869. For more than 150 years, the maximum number of justices on the United States Supreme Court has remained nine.

Judiciary Act of 1789

The United States government created the judicial branch under Section 1, Article III of the Constitution, and the United States Supreme Court is the head of that branch of government. Beyond its creation, the Constitution provides no further definition or provisions regarding the court systems’ composition or procedures. Rather, the determination of all these relevant matters was left to Congress.

When the federal courts were first established, anti-Federalists argued that the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary would be used as an instrument of tyranny. The Fourth and Eighth Amendments, which now form part of the Bill of Rights, were specifically created to regulate the judicial system and prevent it from being used oppressively.

Ultimately, Congress established an entire federal court system that included the United States Supreme Court and created an entire structure of District and Appeals Courts. This judiciary’s existence was needed to enforce the various national laws at the state level. In doing so, states created their own court systems for handling local laws at the city, county, and state levels while leaving the enforcement of federally enacted statutes to the District Court system.

Appointment and Confirmation Process

Known exclusively as the Appointments Clause, Section 2, Article II of the United States Constitution provides that the power of nomination to certain public positions lies with the President of the United States. Likewise, the Advice and Consent Clause provides the power of confirmation to the United States Senate.

As a result, the appointment of federal court judges, including Appeals Court judges and Supreme Court justices, is executed through nomination by the president and confirmations by the Senate. The Constitution itself does not provide any qualifications for a Supreme Court justice nomination, leaving that determination exclusively with the president. Because of this, the Senate is limited to either confirming or rejecting a nomination.

Because the power to nominate lies exclusively with the president, the Senate may not set any qualifications for the position. It is, therefore, the discretion of the president to determine whether a nominee is qualified for the position.

A Change in the Number of Justices

When the Supreme Court was established through the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress provided that there should be six justices on the court. Therefore, the first Court consisted of only five Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. But this number would change 12 years later.

The Midnight Judges Act of 1801 was set to reduce the size of the court from six down to five. Under this legislation, there would have been only four Associate Justices and a Chief Justice. However, this never came to fruition. A year later, the Judiciary Act of 1802 restored the court to six members. 

In the early days of the court, it was common for the justices to travel by horse-drawn carriage to other parts of the country to hear cases. As a result, the five justices would not be able to attend to matters at the capital for months on end. To overcome this obstacle, in 1807, the Supreme Court was expanded to seven, allowing for six Associate Justices and one Chief Justice.

The first time that the Supreme Court featured nine justices was in 1837. But, by 1863, that number was increased once again to 10. This was then followed by the Judicial Circuits act of 1866, which was passed to reduce the court’s size to seven justices. 

The Judicial Act of 1869 finally cemented the number of justices on the Supreme Court to nine. For over 150 years, the Supreme Court has consisted of eight associate justices and one Chief Justice.

The Chief Justice

The position of the Chief Justice exists under Clause 6 of Section 3, Article I of the United States Constitution. While the position was not defined nor referred to anywhere else in the Constitution, this specific clause declared that the Chief Justice has the power and responsibility to preside over impeachment trials. 

Like all justices of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice was initially appointed by a United States President and then confirmed. There are no term limitations on the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. Once a justice has been appointed to the court through the confirmation process, they will remain a member of the court until they retire, pass away, or are otherwise impeached.

The Chief Justice is the most tenured member of the Supreme Court. As one Chief Justice retires or passes away, the next most tenured Associate Justice moves up in rank. However, it is important to remember that all of the justices’ votes are equal when rendering a decision.

Notwithstanding, the Chief Justice has power and influence over the selection of cases and even presides over the arguments in those Supreme Court cases. He or she is considered to be the head of the judiciary branch.

Founding Father John Jay was appointed the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court by George Washington in 1789. There has yet to be a woman appointed to the position of Chief Justice. Still, notable recent female Supreme Court Justices include Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan, and the now-deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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