The Supreme Court has retained so many traditions that it is in many ways the same institution that first convened in 1790. Many legal historians call it "the first court still sitting."
The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. It was left to Congress and to the justices of the court -- through their precedents -- to develop the federal judiciary and a body of law.
Members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and subject to the approval of the Senate. To ensure an independent judiciary and to protect judges from partisan pressures, the Constitution mandates that judges serve during "good behavior," which has been generally meant life terms. To further assure their independence, the Constitution provides that judges' salaries may not be decreased while they are in office.
Recent justices have perpetuated the tradition of longevity of tenure. Justice Hugo Black served for 34 years and one month prior to his retirement in 1971. Justice William O. Douglas holds the record for time served -- 36 years, six months.
According to custom, American courts seat nine Justices by seniority. The chief justice occupies the center chair; the senior associate justice sits to his right, the second senior to his left, and so on, alternating right and left.
Since around 1800, it has been traditional for Justices to wear black robes while in court. Chief Justice John Jay and some of his colleagues lent a colorful air to the earlier sessions by wearing robes with a red facing, somewhat like those worn by early colonial and English judges. Today, the tradition of formal dress is followed only by Department of Justice lawyers and other government advocates.
The "conference handshake" has been a tradition since the late 19th century. Justices gather each day to discuss decisions and afterwards the justices all shake hands with each other. Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller instituted the practice as a reminder that differences of opinion did not preclude the overall harmony of purpose.
The Supreme Court has a traditional seal similar to the Great Seal of the United States but with a single star beneath the Eagle's claws -- symbolizing the Constitution's creation of "one Supreme Court."