Today in history, on October 19, 1789, John Jay was sworn in as the first Chief Justice of the United States.
At the time, the power and scope of the High Court were minuscule. During Jay’s six years as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court only heard four cases.
Washington nominated Jay for the position on Sept. 24, the same day he signed the Judiciary Act of 1789, and the Senate unanimously confirmed Jay two days later.
Jay supported the ratification of the Constitution and said it would create a very limited role for the new general government.
“The Constitution only serves to point out that part of the peoples business, which they think proper by it to refer to the management of the person’s therein designated.”
This was reflected in the operation of the Supreme Court during his tenure. It didn’t hear its first case until early in its third term. And during his time as chief justice, Jay insisted that Congress nor the president had the authority to assign the Court “any duties but such as are properly judicial and performed in a judicial manner.” He also refused to render advisory opinions to the executive branch in his official capacity as Chief Justice.
The Jay Court had the opportunity to utilize judicial review in its first case, West v. Barnes (1791), but declined to go down that path. The case involved a Rhode Island statute allowing debt payment using paper currency. The Supreme Court avoided opining on the law’s constitutionality and instead decided the case on purely procedural grounds.
Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) was the most significant case decided during Jay’s term. In a 4-1 decision, the Court held Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution granted federal court jurisdiction if the citizen of one state sued another state.
According to Oyez, in effect, the Court held that the Constitution “abrogated the states’ sovereign immunity and granted federal courts the affirmative power to hear disputes between private citizens and states. Thus, state conduct was subject to judicial review.”
This opinion was eventually nullified by the 11th Amendment.
In Georgia v. Brailsford (1794) the Jay Court upheld jury instructions and in so doing, affirmed jury nullification. Jay wrote:
It may not be amiss, here, Gentlemen, to remind you of the good old rule, that on questions of fact, it is the province of the jury, on questions of law, it is the province of the court to decide. But it must be observed that by the same law, which recognizes this reasonable distribution of jurisdiction, you have nevertheless a right to take upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy.
Although Jay refused to offer judicial opinions to the other branches of government in his role as Chief Justice, Jay did get involved in foreign policy during his tenure. For instance, in a letter to his wife, he insisted that the U.S. government could not go to war without a congressional declaration.
“Until war is constitutionally declared, the nation and all its members must observe and preserve peace, and do the duties incident to a state of peace.”
He later warned in a letter to Henry Johnson, “While there are knaves and fools in the world, there will be wars in it.”
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