From 1801, when the Supreme Court moved from Philadelphia to Washington, to 1860, the court was held in the basement chamber of the Capitol. After the Senate moved to its new chambers, the court moved into nicer quarters in the Old Senator Chamber. It was not until 1934 that the Supreme Court finally received its own building, across the street from the Capitol.
While situated inside the Capitol, the Supreme Court decided on many fundamental issues of the nineteenth century. In McCullough v. Maryland (1819), the court stated that the federal government had powers which overrode those of the state. The next large cases had a direct bearing on the issue of slavery and civil rights. In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the court decreed that slaves had no rights as citizens and that Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. After the Civil War, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) established the "separate but equal" belief which allowed segregation, until Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) reversed it.
In the twentieth century, the Supreme Court again focused on the issues of civil rights, and on a the constitutional right to privacy, specifically, the right to have an abortion. The court decided in Roe v. Wade (1971) that women had full right, under the Constitution, to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The Supreme Court has will likely play a large role in the future regarding the rights of homosexuals and again with the always-volatile issue of abortion.
Many Presidents have despised the Supreme Court because of its decisions. Franklin Roosevelt was one of them. He was rather annoyed that the Supreme Court kept calling his New Deal programs unconstitutional. However Roosevelt, unlike other presidents, actually sought to do something about his problems. He attempted to pass a law which would have allowed Roosevelt to appoint six new judges, enough to counteract the anti-New Deal rulings that were being passed. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted down the plan by a margin of 10 to 8. However, there was much public criticism put on Roosevelt's "court packing plan" and since then, no president has attempted to change the Supreme Court's Bench.
The site on which today's Supreme Court stands was once the home to the Old Brick Capitol. When the British burned down the Capitol in 1814, Congress temporarily moved here for five years as they waited for the new Capitol to rise. It was also out on the front of the building that Monroe had his inauguration ceremony on March 4, 1817. Since then, all such inaugurations (with the exception of Ronald Reagan's second, driven inside by a snowstorm) has taken place outdoors.
At the end of 1819, Congress moved back to the Capitol. The building was used as a private school and then a boarding house. It was here that John C. Calhoun died in 1850. The federal government took over and used the site as a prison, where it was named the Old Capitol Prison, during the Civil War. The building was torn down in 1867 and in 1869, three brick houses were built on the site. These houses served as headquarters for the National Women's Party until 1929, when it moved to the Sewall-Belmont House. The houses were then removed to make room for the Supreme Court.
Decisions of the Supreme Court can now be found on the Internet at the Supreme Court Decisions web page. Biographies of the judges have also been made available.
Library of Congress