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U.S. Supreme Court:
History,
chronology of members


Supreme Court building

Powers of the Supreme Court

Ever since the Marbury v. Madison case (1803), it has been understood that the Supreme Court has the power to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. In other words, it has the authority to definitively interpret the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. According to many scholars, however, this authority is not final or absolute. In his book The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy (1984), John Agresto argues that in our system of checks and balances, there simply is no final, absolute "supreme" authority. Instead, the three branches of government continually vie against one another, each asserting what they believe to be their proper powers, and appealing to broad public support. It is in the very nature of our republican of government, upholding the rights of minority dissenters, that some issues are never resolved once and for all.

Controversies over the proper role of the Supreme Court in our society are perfectly natural, and will never be fully resolved. Ironically, many modern liberals who look to the High Court as the the champion of progressive social reforms seem to have forgotten that this same institution has actually hindered social legislation during most of its history, and in any case, of the three branches it is the least susceptible to democratic influence. The fact that the Supreme Court has become so powerful explains why the arguments over nominees have become so heated and melodramatic in recent decades. (Excerpted from a paper written in a graduate seminar under Prof. Martha Derthick at the University of Virginia, 1991.)

Ideological history of the Supreme Court

For much of the nation's history until the 1940s, the Supreme Court was a conservative institution, refraining from making rulings that might upset the social-political order. After the showdown with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, however, the Court gradually became more liberal, and was decidedly on the left side of the political spectrum from the 1950s through the 1970s. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought about a rightward shift, though some of his appointees (and those of his successor, George H.W. Bush) turned out to be liberals as well. For nearly two decades, from 1992 until 2008 there was a slight conservative slant on the Supreme Court, after which the liberals regained rough parity.

Confirmation battles in the U.S. Senate

Over the course of U.S. history, twelve presidential nominees to the Supreme Court have been rejected by the U.S. Senate, mostly in the 19th Century. Two of President Nixon's nominees were rejected (Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell), and one of President Reagan's nominees was rejected (Robert Bork, in 1987). During the administration of George W. Bush, Democratic opposition to judicial nominations was so strong that vacancies caused widespread delays in court proceedings. In response, the Republicans threatened to invoke the "nuclear option," voiding the process of filibuster by which minority rights are protected in the Senate. In the end, however, a compromise was reached to avoid such a drastic step.

Current members
(ranked by seniority, after the Chief Justice)

NOTE: Associated Justice Antonin Scalia, who began serving on the Supreme Court in 1986, passed away on February 13, 2016, leaving a vacancy. There is currently a sharp dispute over whether President Obama should nominate a successor this year, or let the next president do so.



Chronology of Supreme Court members

See the color key at the bottom.

Year Chief
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
Associate
justice
1975 Warren Burger
(1969)
John Paul Stevens
(1975)
Potter Stewart
(1958)
William Rehnquist
(1971)
Lewis Powell
(1971)
William Brennan
(1956)
Thurgood Marshall
(1967)
Byron White
(1962)
Harry Blackmun
(1970)
1976 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Potter Stewart William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1977 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Potter Stewart William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1978 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Potter Stewart William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1979 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Potter Stewart William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1980 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Potter Stewart William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1981 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Stewart /
O'Connor
William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1982 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1983 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1984 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1985 Warren Burger John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor William Rehnquist Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1986 Burger /
Rehnquist
John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Rehnquist /
Scalia
Lewis Powell William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1987 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Lewis Powell ** William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1988 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1989 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1990 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Brennan /
Souter
Thurgood Marshall Byron White Harry Blackmun
1991 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Marshall /
Thomas
Byron White Harry Blackmun
1992 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Byron White Harry Blackmun
1993 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas White /
Ginsberg
Harry Blackmun
1994 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Blackmun /
Breyer
1995 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
1996 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
1997 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
1998 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
1999 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2000 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2001 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2002 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2003 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2004 William Rehnquist John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2005 Rehnquist /
Roberts
John Paul Stevens Sandra Day O'Connor ** Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2006 John Roberts John Paul Stevens Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2007 John Roberts John Paul Stevens Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2008 John Roberts John Paul Stevens Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2009 John Roberts John Paul Stevens Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy D. Souter /
S. Sotomayor
Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2010 John Roberts J. P. Stevens /
Elena Kagan
Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2011 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2012 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2013 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2014 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2015 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Antonin Scalia Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2016 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Scalia / VACANT Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
2017 John Roberts Elena Kagan Samuel Alito Neil Gorsuch ?
(PENDING)
Anthony Kennedy Sonia Sotomayor Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsberg Stephen Breyer
KEY: Nominated by a Republican president,
confirmed by a Republican Senate.
Nominated by a Republican president,
confirmed by a Democrat Senate.
Justice replaced during the year, with someone of a different partisan origin. Nominated by a Democrat president,
confirmed by a Republican Senate.
(Has not happened in the past 50 years.)
Nominated by a Democrat president,
confirmed by a Democrat Senate.
NOTE: ** Served in the first half of the year only, without being replaced in the fall. The Supreme Court's term typically begins in October.
For years in which justices were replaced, the last names of both the new and old justices are shown.

SOURCE: The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2004; Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1991; other newspapers

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