When the Supreme Court of the United States met for its first Terms, it followed the English pattern of the Justices delivering their opinions seriatim; that is, each Justice delivered his own opinion of the case, what the result should be, and the legal reasoning behind it. This could sometimes be confusing, since the various opinions did not always agree on exactly what the result should be or why. The first Chief Justice, John Jay, occasionally managed to get the Court to deliver a single majority opinion, but when Oliver Ellsworth became Chief Justice in 1796, the Court had not developed a strong pattern regarding the use of either seriatim or majority opinions. In some cases, the use of seriatim opinions indicated differences of opinion among the Justices, but in others, there were multiple opinions even when there was unanimity on the bench. In the first opinion Ellsworth delivered, the case of La Vengeance, he delivered a consolidated majority opinion, from which Justice Samuel Chase dissented.
Ellsworth was “following the practice to which he had become accustomed when he served upon the Connecticut Superior Court from 1784 to 1789.” Although a state statute called upon each judge to write an opinion in every case, the Connecticut Superior Court ignored the law, and adopted a practice of writing majority and occasional dissenting opinions, an approach that was surely more efficient in the expenditure of judicial labor. After he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ellsworth established a pattern in which he would deliver short opinions of the Court, infrequently accompanied by a dissent. The practice of using majority rather than multiple opinions, initiated by Ellsworth, became consolidated during John Marshall’s long tenure, and while Marshall certainly cemented the practice, the credit should actually go to Ellsworth.