When the U.S. Supreme Court first met in 1790, there were six justices (so the answer is A). The number of justices fluctuated until 1869, when it stabilized at nine.
“What is my proposal? It is simply this: whenever a judge or justice of any federal court has reached the age of 70 and does not avail himself of the opportunity to retire on a pension, a new member shall be appointed by the president then in office, with the approval, as required by the Constitution, of the Senate of the United States.
“That plan has two chief purposes. By bringing into the judicial system a steady and continuing stream of new and younger blood, I hope, first, to make the administration of all federal justice, from the bottom to the top, speedier and, therefore, less costly; secondly, to bring to the decision of social and economic problems younger men who have had personal experience and contact with modern facts and circumstances under which average men have to live and work. This plan will save our national Constitution from hardening of the judicial arteries.
“The number of judges to be appointed would depend wholly on the decision of present judges now over 70, or those who would subsequently reach the age of 70.
“If, for instance, any one of the six justices of the Supreme Court now over the age of 70 should retire as provided under the plan, no additional place would be created. Consequently, although there never can be more than 15, there may be only 14, or 13, or 12. And there may be only nine.”
— President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1937 Fireside Chat
Congress determines the number of justices on the High Court. The Constitution does not impose a certain number.
So the Court could conceivably become larger or smaller in the future. However, similar attempts to change its size have been rejected since 1869.
For example, in 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed increasing the number of justices to a maximum of 15, with one additional seat being added for each justice over the age of 70. (See the right-hand box for details of FDR’s enlargement plan.) He was accused of trying to “pack the court” with younger, more liberal judges. The Court at that time had revoked many of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives.
The age of Supreme Court justices has always been a source of debate, because staying on the court until a ripe old age is a tradition.
When Justice William O. Douglas retired on November 12, 1975, he had served a total of 36 years and six months. He’d surpassed the previous longevity record of Justice Stephen J. Field, who had served for 34 years and six months from 1863 to 1897. Oliver Wendell Holmes retired in 1932 at the age of 90.
Currently, the Chief Justice of the United States is John G. Roberts, Jr. (born in 1955). The Associate Justices are:
- Clarence Thomas (born in 1948);
- Stephen G. Breyer (born in 1938);
- Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (born in 1950);
- Sonia Sotomayor (born in 1954);
- Elena Kagan (born in 1960);
- Neil M. Gorsuch (born in 1967)
- Brett M. Kavanaugh (born in 1965); and
- Amy Coney Barrett (born in 1972).
There are also three living judges who are retired: Sandra Day O’Connor (born in 1930); David H. Souter (born in 1939); and Anthony M. Kennedy (born in 1936).