The more I learn about history, the more questions I have. I guess I never grew out of the “why” stage of development, and honestly I hope I never do. Why had Abraham Lincoln’s body been moved 17 times and his casket opened 5 times before finally being covered by 10 feet and 4,000 pounds of cement in 1901? This was 38 years after his assassination! Why did the H.L. Hunley submarine sink after becoming the first submarine to sink a warship in 1863? Why is the Titanic torn in two on ocean floor? Why did the Apollo 13 mission to the moon go horribly wrong? Why have the Chicago Cubs not won a World Series in over 100 years! Finally, why are there 9 justices on the United States Supreme Court? Why not 7 or 5? How did we get to 9? Professional basketball, baseball, and even hockey decide a champion based on a best of 7 series. So was 9 justices just an arbitrary number? The original Constitution made no such declaration as to the number of justices that would make up the U.S. Supreme Court. So why are there 9? I needed to know why.
In 1789, the first Judiciary Act established the number at 6 with one Chief Justice and 5 Associate Justices. In 1807, Congress changed the number to 7. In 1837, Congress raised the number to 9. At the height of the Civil war in 1863, Congress pushed the number up to 10. Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, things got a little nasty in 1866. Congress, afraid that President Johnson would appoint anti-Reconstruction justices to the Supreme Court, passed The Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1866 which lowered the number from 10 to 7. This was accomplished by not filling seats that were vacated. However by 1869, only 2 justices had stepped down thus the number was at 8. Finally, Congress passed The Judiciary Act of 1869 which added one more seat, bringing the total to our current 9. Whew, that was easy.
So will there always be 9 justices? History seems to tell us, “probably not as long as Congress is involved.” In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt pushed Congress to expand the number of justices to a maximum of 15 by adding one new justice for every justice over 70 years of age. This attempt was to gain more support for his New Deal programs, but Congress said no. There will most likely be future attempts and political reasons that will be used to raise or lower the number of justices. If this happens, you can be sure I will want to know why!
The following websites were used for background and reference in the writing of this entry: