Toward Justice Supreme: Commemorating the Establishment of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Building (Local Identifier: 64-M-54)
The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., completed in 1935 (Local Identifier: 64-M-54)

After the ratification of the United States Constitution, newly-elected senators and representatives were faced with the task of creating a functioning government based on a four-page framework. The first session of the First United States Congress, held in 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City, set about erecting many of the institutions of government we know today. This session saw the creation of the departments of State, War, and Treasury, and on September 24, 1789, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, also known as “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States.”

Article III of the Constitution contains only a few short paragraphs delineating the role of the judiciary in the Federal government. The Judiciary Act of 1789 built on that framework to set up the structure of the Federal judiciary and define its jurisdiction. The Act set the size of the Supreme Court at six justices and established judicial districts containing circuit courts and district courts. It also established the Office of the Attorney General.

During the first decade of its existence, the Supreme Court moved from New York to Philadelphia, and ultimately settled into Philadelphia’s Old City Hall, which is now a part of Independence National Historical Park. The Court met there until moving to Washington, D.C., in 1800. During its renovation of Old City Hall for the United States Bicentennial, the U.S. Park Service commissioned an elaborate multimedia presentation titled Toward Justice Supreme for the Court chamber to commemorate the Supreme Court’s time in Philadelphia.

Supreme Court chamber in Philadelphia's Old City Hall in 1927, long before the Bicentennial renovation. Original caption: U.S. Supreme Court Room, Old City Hall, Philadelphia. Sessions of the Supreme Court were held here from February 7, 1791 to August 15, 1800. (Local identifier: 30-N-40-36)
The Supreme Court chamber in Philadelphia’s Old City Hall in 1927, long before the Bicentennial renovation. (Local identifier: 30-N-40-36)

From the presentation’s production file we learned that this presentation synchronized two film projectors, three slide projectors, lighting and sound effects to dramatize a cordial debate between a friend and a critic of the Court. A single press of a button would create a “pleasantly haunted” ambiance as two men in period garb were projected on screens at each side of the room to discuss the early years of the Supreme Court, ultimately declaring it to be “a marvel, indeed.”

Here in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab we recently scanned the two separate film reels, without realizing exactly what they were. It quickly became apparent that the two were supposed to interact with each other.

A friend of the Supreme Court (Local Identifier: 79-HFC-364)


A critic of the Supreme Court (Local Identifier: 79-HFC-364)

By digitally combining the film reels, we can see the characters in conversation with each other.

Combined into a Cordial Debate

This is not exactly how the images would have appeared in the original presentation, as the courtroom itself shaped how the images were projected and consumed in conjunction with the slideshow, but we can have a sense of program viewed by Bicentennial spectators.

2 thoughts on “Toward Justice Supreme: Commemorating the Establishment of the Supreme Court

    1. Daria,

      The actor’s names are not in the production file, but the contract to audition, hire, and outfit the two actors went to Ellie Chamberlain, who produced the free outdoor Washington Shakespeare Summer Festival at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument from 1961 through 1982. The narration/voiceover work was contracted to local actors John Flynn and Dick Coughlan.

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