Why Does the Supreme Court Convene on the First Monday of October?



The Supreme Court’s new term begins on the first Monday of October, and typically ends at the end of June. 28 U.S.C. § 2 sets this date: “The Supreme Court shall hold at the seat of government a term of court commencing on the first Monday in October of each year and may hold such adjourned or special terms as may be necessary.”

28 U.S.C. §2 was passed by Congress in 1916, and the Supreme Court began its term on the first Monday in October in 1917.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 provided that the Supreme Court “shall hold annually at the seat of government two sessions, the one commencing the first Monday of February, and the other the first Monday of August.”  The Court met for the first time on February 2, 1790.

In the mid-19th century, the Court began its term in December. During this time, the Court’s docket grew exponentially, and so Congress allowed the Court in 1866 to set its own start date; the Court moved that date to October. In 1873, Congress formalized this practice by passing a law that moved the Court’s term from the first Monday in December to the second Monday in October. It remained on that day until 1917.

The Court does sometimes hold special sessions for important cases. Examples include the 1942 case of Ex Parte Quirin and the 2003 case of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.



*Source: David L. Hudson, Jr, The Handy Supreme Court Answer Book.

The 25th Anniversary of Justice Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court Confirmation

After a bitter confirmation battle, the U.S. Senate voted 52 to 48 to confirm Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court on October 15, 1991. He is the second African American Supreme Court Justice, and the only African American currently sitting on the Court.

Thomas was nominated by George H.W. Bush after Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Court, announced his retirement in July 1991. Thomas served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during the Reagan Administration, and was appointed in 1990 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  He served on the DC Circuit for 16 months before being nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thomas seemed headed for an easy confirmation until Anita Hill, a former aide at the EEOC, accused him of sexual harassment. Beginning on October 11, 1991, the Senate Judiciary Committee held four days of televised hearings on Hill’s charges. Thomas denied the charges, and continues to deny them to this day. On October 15, 1991, the Senate narrowly voted to approve Thomas’ confirmation.

Justice Thomas is considered the Court’s most reliably conservative voice. He tends to be very quiet (if not completely silent) on the bench, but broke his 10-year silence to ask a question during oral argument shortly after Justice Scalia’s death earlier this year.

In 2016, many conservatives criticized the newly opened National Museum of African American History for having a display related to Anita Hill, but no display noting Justice Thomas’s legacy as the Court’s second and only sitting black Supreme Court Justice.


Belva Ann Lockwood: A Supreme Court Trailblazer

This week the Supreme Court opened its October Term 2016. As I reflect on this Court, with three sitting woman justices, I was reminded of the extraordinary efforts of Belva Ann Lockwood to open the Court to women. It is those efforts I’d like to spotlight here. Lockwood, a true Supreme Court trailblazer, who successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation opening the U.S. Supreme Court bar to qualified women lawyers. She became the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, and would go on to twice run for president as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party.

Lockwood’s Difficult Pathway to the Bar

Lockwood applied to the Columbian Law School in Washington, DC, in 1870. The school’s trustees denied her admission, citing their belief that she would prove a distraction to the male students. She was later accepted to the new National University Law School (now part of the George Washington University). While she completed her legal studies in 1873, the school was unwilling to grant her a diploma on the basis of her gender. Without a diploma, Lockwood was unable to gain admittance to the bar.

In September 1873, Lockwood wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant, who also served as president of National University, appealing to him to intervene on her behalf. She explained that she had passed all her courses and deserved to be awarded a diploma. A week after sending the letter, Lockwood received her diploma. She was 43.

Legal Career

After her admission to the District of Columbia bar, Lockwood became one of the first female lawyers in the United States. She started with a modest legal practice, but then began to build a reputation as a competent lawyer – one who even gained respect from her male colleagues.

In 1876, she sought to gain admission to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. The justices refused to admit her saying “none but men are permitted to practice before [us] as attorneys and counselors.” Lockwood, never one to accept the status quo, drafted a bill that would require women to have the same access as male lawyers to the Supreme Court Bar. She vigorously lobbied Congress from 1874 to 1879. In 1879, Congress passed the legislation and President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. The law required that all qualified women lawyers be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.


Lockwood would go on to become the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, and would become the first woman to argue before the Court in the case of Kaiser v. Stickney.

Interestingly, women were able to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court 41 years before they were allowed to vote after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.