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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Supreme Court pandemic perspective

Chief Justice Roberts began his 2020 Judiciary year-end report with some historical perspective.
Two hundred and thirty years ago, our first Chief Justice, John Jay, convened the Supreme Court of the United States for its inaugural sitting. With no cases yet filed, Jay and his colleagues turned promptly to circuit riding. That duty, assigned by Congress, required them to travel around the young country and preside over trials in the lower federal courts. Jay took the Eastern Circuit, covering his home state of New York, assisted by his colleague William Cushing. (Justices John Rutledge and James Iredell, who skipped the first session of the Supreme Court, were assigned to the Southern Circuit, which required 1,800 miles of travel—providing yet another lesson in what happens when you miss a meeting.)

America was at the time suffering under the spread of influenza and, later, yellow fever.  When he arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, in April 1790, Jay noted that “almost every Family here is down with the Influenza—some old people have died with it.” He later wrote his wife Sarah that “I have travelled in some very disagreeable Days—the whole Country has been sick, and indeed is much so yet.” President Washington himself fell ill with a severe case of influenza that May. Three years later, Jay had to adjourn the Court from sitting in Philadelphia due to the yellow fever epidemic that killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents.  As the Reporter of the Supreme Court recorded, “The Malignant Fever, which during this year, raged in the City of Philadelphia, dispersed the great body of its inhabitants, and proved fatal to thousands, interrupted, likewise, the business of the Courts; and I cannot trace that any important cause was agitated in the present Term.”

In other news from the report, bankruptcies were down this year.

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