Supreme Court of the United States

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Seal of the Supreme Court
Seal of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States of America. As such, the Court provides the leadership of the Judicial Branch of the Federal Government.

The Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices, who are nominated by the President and confirmed with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Appointed to serve for life, they can only be removed by Congress through the impeachment process, although they may resign. No justice has ever been removed from office, though many have retired or resigned.

The Supreme Court is the only court established by the United States Constitution; all other federal courts are created by Congress. The Court holds both original and appellate jurisdiction, but the latter is used quite a bit more often. Like other federal courts, the Supreme Court may exercise the power of judicial review, or the power to declare federal or state laws, as well as the actions of federal and state executives, unconstitutional. The decisions of the Supreme Court may not be appealed to any other body; as Justice Robert H. Jackson once famously remarked, "We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final."

The Supreme Court meets in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Supreme Court building. The court is sometimes referred to by the acronyms SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) and USSC (United States Supreme Court).



The Judiciary Act of 1789 implemented the entire federal judicial branch, including the Supreme Court. It was also the first act by Congress to be partially invalidated by the Supreme Court.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 implemented the entire federal judicial branch, including the Supreme Court. It was also the first act by Congress to be partially invalidated by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was established by the Constitution of the United States, which was implemented in 1789; under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Court was to be composed of six members—though the number of justices has been nine for almost all of its history, this number is set by Congress, not the Constitution.

The Jay Court (1789–1795)

The first Chief Justice of the United States was John Jay. Perhaps the most controversial of the Supreme Court's early decisions was Chisholm v. Georgia, in which it held that the federal judiciary could hear lawsuits against states. Soon thereafter, responding to the concerns of several states, Congress proposed the Eleventh Amendment, which granted states immunity from lawsuits in federal courts. The Amendment was ratified in 1795.

The Rutledge and Ellsworth courts (1795–1801)

No major cases/rulings came from this time.

The Marshall Court (1801–1835)

One of the most significant periods during the history of the Court was the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801 to 1835). In the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall held that the Supreme Court could overturn a law passed by Congress if it violated the Constitution, legally cementing the power of judicial review. The Marshall Court also made several important decisions relating to federalism. Marshall took a broad view of the powers of the federal government—in particular, the interstate commerce clause and the necessary and proper clause. For instance, in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Court ruled that the interstate commerce clause and other clauses permitted Congress to create a national bank, even though the power to create a bank is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Similarly, in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Court found that the interstate commerce clause permitted Congress to regulate interstate navigation.

The Marshall Court also made several decisions restraining the actions of state governments. The notion that the Supreme Court could consider appeals from state courts was established in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) and Cohens v. Virginia (1821). In several decisions, the Marshall Court confirmed the supremacy of federal laws over state laws. For example, in the aforementioned decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, the Court held that a state could not tax an agency of the federal government. At the same time, however, the Marshall Court held in the landmark case Barron v. Baltimore (1833) that the Bill of Rights restricted the federal government alone, and did not apply to the states. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court would in later years hold that the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying the Bill of Rights to the states.

The Taney Court (1836–1864)

In 1836, Marshall was succeeded as Chief Justice by Roger B. Taney, who had a somewhat more limited view of the powers of the federal government. At a time when sectional tensions between the North and South were high, many of the Supreme Court's decisions—particularly those relating to slavery—met with controversy and contention. Most controversial was the Taney Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, sued for his freedom on the grounds that his master had taken him into Illinois and Minnesota, both of which prohibited slavery, for extended periods of time. Taney, however, ruled that members of the African race, "beings of an inferior order," were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Consequently, he ruled that Scott therefore had no standing to file the lawsuit. Moreover, he held that the Missouri Compromise, under which Congress prohibited slavery in certain territories that formed part of the Louisiana Purchase, was unconstitutional. The controversial decision met with vigorous opposition from abolitionists, and contributed to the tensions that led to the Civil War during the next decade. The Civil War culminated in a victory for the Union and in the abolition of slavery (see the Thirteenth Amendment).

The Chase Court (1864–1873)

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice. Chase had strong anti-slavery credentials and had previously served Lincoln as Secretary of the Treasury. His post-Civil War tenure featured several key decisions affirming the indestructibility of the Union. Chase was considered highly ambitious, even for a politician. In 1872, Chase, while serving on the Supreme Court, also attempted a run for the Presidency, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Chase continued to serve as Chief Justice until his death in 1873.

The Waite and Fuller courts (1874–1910)

In the aftermath of the Civil War Congress passed and the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which, among other things, prevented states from abridging the "privileges and immunities of citizens," from denying due process of law, and from denying equal protection of the laws to any person. Many cases that came before the Court in the post–Civil War era involved interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court under Chief Justice Morrison Waite held that Congress could not prohibit racial discrimination by private individuals (as opposed to governments) on the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment. Later, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court under Chief Justice Melville Fuller determined that the equal protection clause did not prohibit racial segregation in public facilities, as long as the facilities were equal (giving rise to the famous term "separate but equal"). The sole dissenter in that case was John Marshall Harlan, the "Great Dissenter."

The White and Taft courts (1910–1930)

In the early twentieth century, the Supreme Court established that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the "liberty of contract." On the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment and other provisions of the Constitution, it controversially overturned many state and federal laws designed to protect employees. The first important decision of the era was Lochner v. New York (1905), in which the Court overturned a New York law limiting the number of hours bakers could work each week. In Adair v. United States (1908), the Court overruled a federal law which forbade "yellow dog contracts" (contracts that prohibited workers from joining unions). Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923) involved a decision that a District of Columbia minimum wage law was unconstitutional.

In 1925, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in Gitlow v. New York, establishing the doctrine of incorporation, under which provisions of the Bill of Rights were deemed to restrict the states. Originally, as Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), the Bill of Rights restricted only the federal government; however, during the twentieth century, the Supreme Court held in a series of decisions the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying certain provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. The first such decision was Gitlow, in which the Supreme Court incorporated the protection of freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment. Important decisions relating to incorporations were made during later decades, especially the 1960s.

The Hughes, Stone, and Vinson courts (1930–1953)

During the 1930s, the Supreme Court continued to enforce a Federal laissez-faire approach, overturning many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, which were designed to combat the Great Depression, by 5–4 margins. Most notably, the National Industrial Recovery Act was overturned in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act was struck down in United States v. Butler (1936). In response, President Roosevelt proposed the Judiciary Reorganization Bill (called the "court-packing bill" by its opponents), which would have increased the size of the Supreme Court and permitted the appointment of additional (presumably pro-New Deal) Justices. The bill, however, had many opponents (including John Nance Garner, Roosevelt's Vice President), and was defeated in Congress.

Soon after the proposal of the court-packing plan, however, the Supreme Court ended the trend that had prevailed since Lochner. Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously voted with the conservative bloc in invalidating New Deal legislation, began to vote on the opposite side. Roberts' decision spelled the end of the Lochner era; Roberts' switch from the conservative to the liberal side, perhaps motivated by Roosevelt's threats to pack the Court, has been dubbed the "switch in time that saved nine." The four conservative Justices who continued to vote to overturn New Deal programs—James McReynolds, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter and Pierce Butler—were dubbed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Their foremost liberal opponents on the bench were the "Three Musketeers": Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Harlan Stone. As the Horsemen retired, Roosevelt, the longest-serving President in history, obtained opportunities to replace them with more liberal Justices. In 1945, eight of the nine sitting Justices had been appointed by President Roosevelt, the sole exception being Owen Roberts.

The Warren Court (1953–1969)

In 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, who was then governor of California, Chief Justice. Warren's term as Chief Justice, which lasted until 1969, was arguably one of the most significant in the history of the Court. Under him, the Court made a long series of landmark decisions. Notable members of the liberal wing of the Court aside from Warren included Hugo Black, William O. Douglas (the longest-serving Justice in the Court's history) and William J. Brennan. The first important case of Warren's tenure was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the Court unanimously declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, effectively reversing the precedent set earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson and other cases.

The Warren Court also made several controversial decisions relating to the Bill of Rights. The doctrine of incorporation, which had first taken root in Gitlow v. New York, was applied fully to most provisions of the Bill of Rights. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Court declared that officially sanctioned prayer in public schools was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Similarly, in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), it struck down mandatory Bible readings in public schools. The Court also expanded and incorporated the rights of criminal defendants, on the basis of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court incorporated the Fourth Amendment and ruled that illegally seized evidence could not be used in a trial. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) established that states were required to provide attorneys to indigent defendants. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) held that the police must inform suspects of their rights (including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) before being interrogated. (The decision is the source of the famous Miranda warning.) Another significant and controversial decision made by the Warren Court was Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which established that the Constitution protected the right to privacy.

The Burger Court (1969–1986)

Chief Justice Earl Warren was succeeded by Warren E. Burger, who served from 1969 to 1986. The Burger Court is best remembered for its ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973), which held that there is a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion in some circumstances. The Court also made important decisions relating to the First Amendment. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), it established the "Lemon test" for determining if legislation violates the establishment clause. Similarly, it established the "Miller test" for laws banning obscenity in Miller v. California (1973). Other rulings include Landmark Communicatons v. Virginia in which the court ruled for fining a newspaper for revealing the identity of a judge under investigation by a state commision (H. Warrington Sharp.) The Burger Court also established a moratorium on capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia (1972), holding that states generally awarded death sentences arbitrarily and inconsistently. The moratorium, however, was lifted four years later in Gregg v. Georgia (1976). Also in United States v. Nixon the court ruled that the courts have the final voice in determining constitutional questions and that no person, not even the President of the United States, is completely above law.

The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Chief Justice William Rehnquist served from Burger's retirement in 1986 until his own death on September 3, 2005. The Rehnquist Court generally took a limited view of Congress's powers under the commerce clause, as exemplified by United States v. Lopez (1995). The Court made numerous controversial decisions, including Texas v. Johnson (1989), which declared that flag burning was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment; Lee v. Weisman (1992), which declared officially-sanctioned, student-led school prayers unconstitutional; Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), which voided laws prohibiting late-term abortions; and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down laws prohibiting sodomy. (Some commentators see these decisions as part of the "culture wars.") Another controversial decision of the Rehnquist court in 2003 was Gratz v. Bollinger which upheld affirmative action. Perhaps the most controversial decision made by the Court came in Bush v. Gore (2000), which ended election recounts in Florida following the presidential election of 2000, allowing George W. Bush to become the forty-third U.S. President.

The Roberts Court (2005—)

Chief Justice John Roberts was confirmed by the Senate on September 29, 2005 and presided over the Court for the first time on October 3, 2005, the day the 2005-2006 session opened.


President George W. Bush stands with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, as they pose for photos with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices, October 3, 2005.
President George W. Bush stands with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, as they pose for photos with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices, October 3, 2005.

The Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court; instead, Congress has the power to fix the number of Justices. Originally, the total number of Justices was set at six. As the country grew geographically, the number of Justices steadily increased. The court was expanded to seven members in 1807, nine in 1837 and ten in 1863. In 1866, however, Congress passed the Judicial Circuits Act, which provided that the next three Justices to retire would not be replaced; thus, the size of the Court would eventually reach seven by attrition. Consequently, one seat was removed in 1866 and a second in 1867. By the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, the number of Justices was again set at nine (the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices), where it has remained ever since. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court. His plan would have allowed the President to appoint one new, additonal, justice, for every justice who reached a pre-set age but did not retire from the bench, until the Court reached a maximum size of fifteen justices. Ostensibly, this was to ease the burdens of the docket on the elderly judges, but it was widely recognized that the President's actual purpose was to add Justices who would favor his New Deal policies which had been regularly ruled as unconstitutional by the Court. However, the plan failed in Congress.

The power to appoint Justices belongs to the President. As a general rule, Presidents nominate individuals that broadly share their ideological views. However, Presidents tend to exercise restraint, as nominees with views perceived as extreme may be blocked by the Senate (see below). In many cases, a Justice's decisions may be contrary to what the nominating President anticipated. A famous instance was Chief Justice Earl Warren; President Dwight D. Eisenhower expected him to be a conservative judge, but his decisions are arguably among the most liberal in the Court's history.

The "advice and consent" of the Senate is required for any Supreme Court appointment. The confirmation process often attracts considerable attention from special interest groups, many of whom lobby senators to confirm or to reject. The Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearings, questioning nominees to determine their suitability. Thereafter, the whole Senate considers the nomination; a simple majority vote is required to confirm or to reject a nominee. Rejections are relatively uncommon; the Senate has explicitly rejected only twelve Supreme Court nominees in its history. The most recent rejection of a nominee came in 1987, when the Senate refused to confirm Robert Bork. In 1991, Clarence Thomas' nomination was almost derailed by allegations of sexual harassment; however, he was eventually confirmed by a vote of 52–48.

In some cases, the Senate may defeat a nominee by failing to take a final vote on him or her, rather than by explicit rejection. For example, the minority may filibuster a nominee, indefinitely prolonging debate and refusing to permit a vote. Furthermore, the President may withdraw a nomination, for instance if he or she feels that the nominee has little chance of being confirmed. Most recently, President George W. Bush granted a request by Harriet Miers to withdraw her 2005 nomination, citing her concerns about Senate requests for access to internal White House documents during the confirmation process.

While filibuster of a Supreme Court Justice may be an option to bar his nomination, no Supreme Court nominee has ever been filibustered when his nomination would seat him on the Court. As a sitting Associate Justice of the Court, Abe Fortas's nomination to become Chief Justice was successfully filibustered in 1968. President Johnson had nominated him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after Earl Warren retired from the Court.

Up until the 1980s, the approval process of Justices was frequently rather quick. From Truman through Nixon, Justices were typically approved in a month. From Reagan through Clinton, the duration of the approval process extended to much longer. Some speculate this is because of the increasing political role Justices play.

When the Senate is in recess, the President is constitutionally authorized to make a temporary appointment without the Senate's advice and consent. A recess appointee to the Supreme Court holds office not for life, but only until the end of the next Senate session (at most approximately two years). In order to continue to serve thereafter, the nominee must be confirmed by the Senate. In the history of the Supreme Court, two Chief Justices and six Associate Justices have received recess appointments. They were all subsequently confirmed for full terms with the exception of Chief Justice John Rutledge.

The Constitution provides that Justices "shall hold their Offices during good Behavior" (again, of course, unless appointed during a Senate recess). The term "good behavior" is interpreted to mean life. However, Justices may resign, retire into senior status, or be removed by impeachment and conviction (the last has never occurred). On average, a vacancy arises every two years; however, long stretches without any vacancies occur from time to time. For instance, no vacancy arose after Stephen Breyer's appointment in 1994 until Sandra Day O'Connor's announcement of her retirement from the Court in 2005—a period of eleven years. The Supreme Court's jurisprudence is often evaluated with respect to the service of a particular Chief Justice. Thus, for example, the Court between 1969 and 1986 is referred to as the "Burger Court" (after former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger) and the Court between 1986 and 2005 is referred to as the "Rehnquist Court" (after the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist).


The Constitution does not explicitly establish any qualifications for Justices of the Supreme Court. In fact it does not even specify citizenship or age as it does for the executive and legislative branches. However, Presidents normally nominate individuals who have prior legal experience. Typically, most nominees have judicial experience, either at the federal or state level. Several nominees have formerly served on federal Courts of Appeals, especially the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is often considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. Another source of Supreme Court nominees is the federal executive branch—in particular, the Department of Justice. Other potential nominees include members of Congress and academics. On the current Supreme Court, seven Justices previously served on federal courts (including three on the D.C. Circuit); two served on state courts; three were former law school professors; and three held full time positions in the federal executive branch.

Nominees to the Supreme Court, as well as to lower federal courts, are evaluated by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary. The panel is composed of fifteen federal judges (but not Supreme Court Justices), including at least one from each federal judicial circuit. The body assesses the nominee "solely to professional qualifications: integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament," and offers a rating of "well qualified," "qualified," or "not qualified." The opinions of the committee bind neither the President nor the Senate; however, they are generally taken into account.


Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

After the federal government was established in Washington, the court was housed in a small, basement room in the United States Capitol (see W. Rehnquist, The Supreme Court). It remained in the Capitol until 1935, with the exception of a period from 1812 to 1817 when the Court was absent from Washington due to the War of 1812. As the Senate expanded, it progressively outgrew its quarters, and the Court twice moved in to occupy a chamber abandoned by the Senate, first in 1810 [1] (a space it was to share "with several other courts, among them the United States Circuit Court and the Orphans' Court of the District of Columbia"; see Skifos), and again in 1860 [2] when the Court moved to The Old Senate Chamber (as it is now known) where it remained until its move to the current Supreme Court building. In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft argued for the Court to have its own building, to distance itself from Congress as an independent branch of government.

The Supreme Court building, located across the street from the U.S. Capitol, was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1932 and construction completed in 1935. The exterior façade of the Supreme Court building is made of marble quarried from Alabama, Vermont and Georgia, but for the courtroom itself, "Gilbert felt that only the ivory buff and golden marble from the Montarrenti quarries near Siena, Italy" would suffice. To this end, in May 1933, he petitioned the Italian premier, Benito Mussolini, "to ask his assistance in guaranteeing that the Siena quarries sent nothing inferior to the official sample marble". The front of the building bears the motto "Equal Justice Under Law."


Article Three of the United States Constitution outlines the jurisdiction of the federal courts of the United States. It provides:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

The jurisdiction of the federal courts was further limited by the Eleventh Amendment, which forbade the federal courts from hearing cases "commenced or prosecuted against [a State] by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." However, the Eleventh Amendment is not deemed to apply if a state consents to be sued. Moreover, the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress may abrogate the states' immunity from lawsuits in certain circumstances. In addition to constitutional constraints, the jurisdiction of the federal courts is also limited by various federal laws. For example, the federal courts may consider "Controversies ... between Citizens of different States" only if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000; otherwise, the case may only be brought in state courts (see diversity jurisdiction).

The Constitution specifies that the Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors and other diplomats, and in cases in which a state is a party. In all other cases, however, the Supreme Court has only appellate jurisdiction. The Supreme Court considers cases based on its original jurisdiction very rarely; almost all cases are brought to the Supreme Court on appeal. In practice, the only original jurisdiction cases heard by the Court are disputes between two or more states.

The power of the Supreme Court to consider appeals from state courts, rather than just federal courts, was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 and upheld early in the Court's history, by its rulings in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) and Cohens v. Virginia (1821). The Supreme Court is the only federal court that has jurisdiction over direct appeals from state court decisions, although there are a variety of devices that permit so-called "collateral review" of state cases.

The Supreme Court may only hear actual cases and controversies. It does not hear moot cases or issue advisory opinions. However, the Supreme Court does often hear test cases, or cases specifically designed to test the constitutionality of a statute (rather than to merely redress a particular wrong). Many significant Supreme Court cases were test cases; examples include Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Furthermore, the Court may consider some cases, such as Roe v. Wade, that become moot during the judicial process, if it appears that the legal issue involved is likely to arise again but would not be reviewable by the Court under a strict mootness analysis. "Roe" had already had her baby when the case came to the Supreme Court, because judicial activity (trials, appeals and so on) takes much longer than human gestation. Because future abortion cases would face the same time constraints, the Court decided the case in spite of its mootness.

The Supreme Court is not required to hear every case presented to it. In cases that are heard by a three-judge United States district court (a practice that formerly was somewhat common but has been limited to very few cases by legislation in recent years), there is a right of appeal directly to the Supreme Court, although the Court may dispose of these appeals by summary order if it does not believe they are important enough for full briefing and argument. In most instances, however, the party must petition the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. By custom, certiorari is granted on the vote of four of the nine Justices. In most cases, the writ is denied; the Supreme Court normally only considers matters of national or constitutional importance. If the Court refuses to grant certiorari, it does not comment on the merits of the case; the decision of the lower court stands unchanged as if Supreme Court review had not been requested.


A "term" of the Supreme Court commences on the first Monday of each October (this is where the phrase "First Monday" comes from), and continues until June or early July of the following year. Each term consists of alternating periods of approximately two weeks known as "sittings" and "recesses." Justices hear cases and deliver rulings during sittings; they discuss cases and write opinions during recesses.

Getting to the Court

A case is brought before the Supreme Court by way of: (1) a petition for writ of certiorari filed by a party to a case that has been decided by one of the United States courts of appeals or the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, or (in extremely rare cases) a case that is pending before a court of appeals but not yet decided, (2) a certified question or proposition of law from one of the United States courts of appeals, (3) a petition for writs of either mandamus, prohibition or habeas corpus (each of which is known as a petition for an extraordinary writ), or (4) a petition for writ of certiorari from a decision of one of the state courts, after all state appeals have been exhausted, involving an issue of Federal constitutional or statutory law.

If the Supreme Court grants the writ of certiorari (or the certified question or other extraordinary writ), then a briefing schedule is arranged for the parties to submit their briefs in favor of or against a particular form of relief. During this time, an individual or group that has an interest in a case but is not a party to the case can submit a motion to appear before the court as amicus curiæ ("friend of the court"). Except for certain specific categories (such as lawyers for state and local governments) or where all parties to the case consent, it is in the Court's discretion whether such motions are granted.

Cases that fall within the Court's original jurisdiction are initiated by filing a complaint directly with the Supreme Court, and normally are assigned to a special master appointed by the Court for the taking of evidence and a recommended decision, after which the Court may accept briefs and hear oral arguments as in an appellate case.


Before oral arguments, the parties to a case file legal briefs outlining their arguments. An amicus curiæ may also submit a brief in support of a particular outcome in the case if the Court grants it permission.

Oral Arguments

Thereafter, if the Court chooses to hold a hearing, each side has thirty minutes to present its case orally. In exceptional and controversial cases, however, the time limit may be extended. In the Court's early years, attorneys might argue a single case for hours or even days; but as the judicial workload increased, the time available for argument has been restricted. The late Chief Justice Rehnquist was noted for his especially strict enforcement of the argument time limits.

To file pleadings or to argue a case, an attorney must be a member of the Bar of the Court. (The primary requirement for admission to the Bar is that the attorney must have been admitted to practice in the highest court of a state or territory for at least the past three years.) Justices are allowed to interrupt the attorney speaking in order to ask him or her questions.


After oral arguments, Justices may discuss the case among themselves, determine the outcome, and write their opinions. The ruling of the Court is embodied in the "opinion of the Court," which represents the views of a majority of the Justices. The most senior Justice voting in the majority (which is the Chief Justice if he is in the majority) determines who writes the opinion of the court. The opinion of the Court is usually signed by the author; occasionally, the Supreme Court may issue an unsigned opinion per curiam. Other Justices who agree with the decision may choose to write concurring opinions; those who disagree may write dissenting opinions. The practice of issuing a single opinion of the Court was initiated during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall during the early nineteenth century. This custom replaced the previous practice under which each Justice, whether in the majority or the minority, issued a separate opinion. The older practice is still followed by appellate courts in many common law jurisdictions outside the United States.

Throughout the term, but mostly during the last months of the term—May, June, and, if necessary, July—the Court announces its opinions, and the Justices read their opinions. The decision of the Court is subsequently published.

Supreme Court decisions are typically cited as in the following example: "Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)." The citation consists of the names of the opposing parties; the volume number; "U.S." (signifying United States Reports, the official reporter of Supreme Court decisions); the page number on which the decision begins; and the year in which the case was decided. The names of the opposing parties are listed in the format "Petitioner v. Respondent" or "Appellant v. Appellee." The Reporter of Decisions is responsible for publication of the Court's rulings. Two other widely used citation formats exist: the Supreme Court Reporter and the Lawyer's Edition, corresponding to two privately-published collections of decisions. Citations to cases in the Supreme Court Reporter would be structured as follows: Snowden v. Hughes, 64 S.Ct. 397 (1944). Citations to cases in the Lawyer's Edition would be as follows: Snowden v. Hughes, 88 L.Ed. 497 (1944). Judicial opinions often use the citation from all three sources (the United States Reports, Supreme Court Reporter, and Lawyer's Edition), as seen here: Martin v. Texas, 200 U.S. 316, 26 S.Ct. 338, 50 L.Ed. 497 (1906).

Decisions of the Supreme Court are precedents that bind all lower courts, both federal and state. The Supreme Court generally respects its own precedents, but has in some cases overturned them.

Other functions

Each Justice on the Supreme Court is assigned to at least one of the United States' thirteen judicial circuits. The Chief Justice is usually allotted to the District of Columbia Circuit, the Federal Circuit and the Fourth Circuit; each Associate Justice is allotted to one or two judicial circuits.

Under the Judiciary Act of 1789, each Justice was required to "ride circuit," or to travel within the assigned circuit and consider cases alongside local judges. This practice, however, encountered opposition from many Justices, who complained about the difficulty of travel. Moreover, several individuals opposed it on the grounds that a Justice could not be expected to be impartial in an appeal if he had previously decided the same case while riding circuit. Circuit riding, however, was abolished in 1891. Now, the duty of a Supreme Court Justice in this regard is limited to hearing emergency petitions in the relevant circuit and some other routine tasks like addressing certain requests for extensions of time.

Checks and balances

The Constitution does not explicitly grant the Supreme Court the power of judicial review; nevertheless, the power of the Supreme Court to overturn laws and executive actions it deems unlawful or unconstitutional is a well-established precedent. Many of the Framers of the Constitution accepted the notion of judicial review; in Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton writes: "A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute." The Supreme Court first established its power to declare laws unconstitutional in Marbury v. Madison (1803), consummating the system of checks and balances.

The Supreme Court cannot directly enforce its rulings; instead, it relies on respect for the Constitution and for the law for adherence to its judgments. One notable instance of nonacquiescence came in 1832, when the state of Georgia ignored the Supreme Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia. President Andrew Jackson, who sided with the Georgia courts, is supposed to have remarked, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"; however, this quotation is likely apocryphal. State militia in the South also resisted to desegregate schools after the judgment Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s. More recently, many feared that President Richard Nixon would refuse to surrender the Watergate tapes, as he had been ordered to do by the Court in United States v. Nixon (1974). Nixon, however, ultimately complied with the Supreme Court's ruling.

The Constitution provides that the salary of a Justice may not be diminished during his or her continuance in office. This clause was intended to prevent Congress from punishing Justices for their decisions by reducing their emoluments. Together with the provision that Justices hold office for life, this clause helps guarantee judicial independence. However, as seen above, the President's practice of appointing justices with similar real, perceived or expected ideology can be seen to compromise judicial independence.

Current composition

As of November 3, 2005, the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, in order of seniority, are:

Name Date of Birth Home State Appt. by Conf. Vote First Day Prior Positions
John Roberts (Chief Justice) 1/27/55 Maryland G.W. Bush 78-22 9/29/05 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (2003–2005); Private practice (1993–2003); Deputy Solicitor General of the United States (1989–1993); Private practice (1986–1989)
John Paul Stevens 4/19/20 Illinois Ford 98-0 12/19/75 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (1970–1975); Private practice (1948–1970)
Sandra Day O'Connor 3/26/30 Arizona Reagan 99-0 9/25/81 Judge, Arizona Court of Appeals (1979–1981); Judge, Superior Court of Arizona (1975–1979)
Antonin Scalia 3/11/36 Virginia Reagan 98-0 9/26/86 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1982–1986); Professor, University of Chicago Law School (1977–1982)
Anthony Kennedy 7/23/36 California Reagan 97-0 2/18/88 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (1975–1988); Private practice (1963–1975)
David Souter 9/17/39 New Hampshire G.H.W. Bush 90-9 10/9/90 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1990–1990); Associate Justice, Supreme Court of New Hampshire (1983–1990)
Clarence Thomas 6/23/48 Georgia G.H.W. Bush 52-48 10/23/91 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1990–1991); Chairman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1982–1990)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 3/15/33 New York Clinton 97-3 8/10/93 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1980–1993); General Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union (1973–1980)
Stephen Breyer 8/15/38 Mass. Clinton 87-9 8/3/94 Chief Judge, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1990–1994); Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1980–1990); Professor, Harvard Law School (1967–1980)

During Court sessions, the Justices sit according to seniority, with the Chief Justice in the center, and the Associate Justices on alternating sides. Therefore, the current court sits as follows from left to right: Ginsburg, Souter, Scalia, Stevens, Roberts, O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer (who has been the junior justice for 11 years, the third longest period in history between appointments of an Associate Justice).

Justices Scalia and Thomas are generally perceived as the Court's conservative wing. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer are generally perceived as its liberal wing. Justices O'Connor and Kennedy are considered moderates and are hence the swing votes who often determine the outcomes of close cases. Chief Justice Roberts is generally thought to be in between Scalia and Thomas and the moderates, but has not been on the bench long enough for this to be ascertained.

On July 1, 2005, Justice O'Connor announced that she would retire from the Supreme Court when her successor is nominated and confirmed. President Bush nominated Judge John Roberts to replace O'Connor on July 19, 2005; however, following the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist on September 3, he re-nominated Roberts as the new Chief Justice. The President subsequently nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice O'Connor on October 3, 2005. Due to controversy, Miers withdrew her nomination on October 27, 2005. On October 31, 2005, President Bush nominated United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice O'Connor.

- If confirmed by the Senate, Alito would be the fifth Roman Catholic to serve on the current Supreme Court, creating the First Majority Catholic Supreme Court, joining two Jews and two Protestants. Together, Catholics (24% of the U.S. population) and Jews (2% of the population) would constitute 77% of the Supreme Court membership, leaving Protestants (whose denominations constitute a majority of the American population) with the smallest minority on the court in its history (First Minority Protestant Supreme Court). There is no religious test to be a Supreme Court justice in the U.S.

Ages of current justices

At the start of the 20052006 term, the ages of the justices were:

Justice Age
John Roberts
(Chief Justice)
Clarence Thomas 57
David Souter 66
Stephen Breyer 67
Anthony Kennedy 69
Antonin Scalia 69
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 72
Sandra Day O'Connor 75
John Paul Stevens 85
Average 68

See also


Suggested Readings

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