Share story

The first

The Supreme Court assembled for the first time in February 1790, in New York City, with Chief Justice John Jay presiding. The justices made no legal decisions that year; the first decision, West v. Barnes, was handed down in 1791. William West lost that one.

The longest

The longest-serving justice was William O. Douglas, who retired Nov. 12, 1975, after 36 years and six months. Proud Northwesterners know Douglas was Maine-born but Yakima-raised and a Whitman College alum. Although he moved to New York for law school, the big city never replaced the great outdoors in his heart.

The shortest

The briefest tenure held by a chief justice was just about six months, achieved by John Rutledge in 1795. Upon John Jay’s resignation, Rutledge asked President Washington to appoint him; Washington did, but things went south while Rutledge served as temporary chief justice. He was a foe of Jay’s Treaty between America and England (tip: don’t suggest a president “die” rather than sign a treaty) and vicious rumors circulated about his mental health. The Senate refused to appoint him. A devastated Rutledge jumped off a wharf but was saved before he drowned. He died five years later.