It's one of the three branches of government, but also one of the least understood. Except for a few weeks in June, when the Court releases its most important decisions, and when it comes time to appoint a new justice, the Supreme Court largely flies under the public's radar. (Way under. A surprising percentage of the American public think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.)
If you pay attention, though, you know the Court is a fascinating place -- and not just because it has the final say on the law. From its secrets to its history to its bizarre procedures, here are seven strange, little-known Supreme Court facts.
1. There Weren't Always Nine Supreme Court Justices
As the Senate and the president struggle over Justice Scalia's successor, it's worthwhile to note that nine Supreme Court justices aren't required by the Constitution. Indeed, nine wasn't the norm for much of the nation's early history. When the Supreme Court was first created, George Washington appointed only six justices, and only three made it to New York when the Court convened for the first time.
By 1807, there were seven members sitting on the Supreme Court. That grew to nine in 1837 and 10 in 1863. Shortly after, Congress tried to reduce the Court to seven justices again, before settling on nine in 1869.
2. The Justices Make Over $200,000 a Year and Are (Almost) All Millionaires
Sitting on the highest court in the land is a cushy job. The chief justice made a salary of $258,100 last year, while the eight associate justices were paid $246,800 each. All of the Supreme Court justices made more than the vice president. That's just a drop in the bucket for most of the justices though, who are almost all millionaires. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leads the pack, with a net worth that peaked at over $45 million in 2010. Justice Kennedy is the only non-millionaire justice, as of 2013, with a net worth of under $700,000, excluding the value of his home.
3. The First Supreme Court Decided No Cases
The three justices that made it to New York for the first meeting of the Court probably regretted it. There was, after all, nothing to do. The courts worked slowly even back in 1789, and during the first year of the Supreme Court, there was nothing on the docket.
4. The Youngest Supreme Court Justice Was Just 32 Years Old
Joseph Story was a relative baby when he joined the Supreme Court in 1811, at just 32 years old. By then he'd already had a long and, ahem, storied career, having joined the Massachusetts House of Representatives when he was just 26 and the U.S. Congress when he was 28. As a member of the Marshall Court, Story was influential in shaping the U.S. Constitution and the role of the judiciary. He served on the Court for 34 years, until his death in 1845.
5. The "Highest Court in the Land" Is for Basketball
If Justice Sotomayor gets bored reading briefs, she can head upstairs to the Supreme Court gym or downstairs to chat with her colleagues. The Supreme Court Building, designed to be a "temple of Justice," has five floors, with the Great Hall and all the Justice's chambers on the second floor -- except for Sotomayor's. Justice Sotomayor is tucked away on the third floor, while the court gym is on the fifth. The gym, of course, houses a basketball court referred to as the "highest court in the land."
6. Supreme Court Attorneys Are Each Given a Quill Pen
Supreme Court justices might not wear dusted wigs to work, but the Court is still a sucker for tradition. One of the most anachronistic of Court traditions is the quill pen. Before each oral argument, white quill pens are placed on the arguing attorney's tables, a tradition dating back to the earliest days of the court. No one uses those pens for notetaking anymore, but most attorneys keep them as a memento.
7. A Supreme Court Justice Was Once on the $10,000 Bill
Yes, there was once a $10,000 bill. Long after he became chief justice in 1864, Salmon P. Chase was on one of the highest U.S. notes ever in circulation. Chase, an abolitionist politician and founder of the Free Soil movement, was secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War and instrumental to establishing our current monetary note system -- including the placement of faces on cash. He didn't put his own mug on the $10,000 bill, though. To honor his legacy, the Treasury depicted him on the note from 1928 to 1946.