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The U.S. Supreme Court - Overview

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. Since its creation in 1789, the Court's decisions have shaped the nation's laws and public policies, for better or worse.

This article provides an in-depth look at the highest appellate court in the United States. It describes the Court's structure and what types of cases it can adjudicate. It then discusses its importance in United States history, including examples of landmark court opinions.

Constitutional Origin of the Supreme Court

Congress has the constitutional power to establish the federal courts. It used this power to create the Supreme Court via the Judiciary Act of 1789. This Act also established the lower federal courts and the U.S. Attorney General's Office.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution provides that the judicial power of the United States is vested in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's function is to resolve conflicts and controversies regarding federal laws.

The Supreme Court's term begins on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Sunday in October of the following year. The Court is often in recess from late June until the first Monday in October.

Supreme Court Structure: Chief Justice and Associate Justices

Since 1869, the U.S. Supreme Court has consisted of nine seats. The Chief Justice of the United States presides over the Court's procedures and is the leader of the Supreme Court. Eight Associate Justices fill the other seats.

The Chief Justice and Associate Justices sit on the Supreme Court for life. When a Justice steps down or dies, the President nominates a Justice to fill the vacancy. The U.S. Senate must confirm the nominee before they become a Justice. Nominees often have served as federal judges, but a nominee is not required to do so.

The Chief Justice is not only in charge of the Supreme Court's procedures but is also the head of the United States Judicial Branch. This means they not only run the highest court in the county, but they are also in charge of the entire federal court system.

The Chief Justice's duties concerning the Supreme Court include the following, among others:

  • Preside over the Court's case selection process
  • Conduct the Supreme Court's hearings
  • Supervise the Justices' discussions about cases before the Court
  • Ensure the Supreme Court's efficiency
  • Supervise over 500 Supreme Court staff members

Although the Chief Justice is the Supreme Court's leader, they and the other Associate Justices are all equal. In other words, the Chief Justice is not the boss of the Associate Justices and cannot direct them to, for example, decide a case in a certain way.

Court Officers

Court officers assist the Court in performing its functions. Court officers include the following:

  • The Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice
  • The Court Clerk
  • The Reporter of Decisions
  • The Librarian
  • The Marshal
  • The Director of Budget and Personnel
  • The Court Counsel
  • The Curator
  • The Director of Data Systems
  • The Public Information Officer

The Chief Justice appoints the Administrative Assistant. The Court appoints the Clerk, Reporter of Decisions, Librarian, and Marshal. In consultation with the Court, the Chief Justice appoints all other court officers.

Supreme Court Jurisdiction: What Cases Can the Court Decide?

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases. Jurisdiction refers to a court's ability to apply the law and render a decision in a particular case. In other words, jurisdiction is a court's ability to hear a case and decide its outcome.

Article III, Section II of the U.S. Constitution states that the Court has original jurisdiction over some matters and appellate jurisdiction over all other matters. Original jurisdiction means the Court conducts a full trial over the dispute. Appellate jurisdiction means the Court will review the lower court's record for errors.

The Court has original jurisdiction over the following cases and controversies:

  • Disputes between two or more states
  • Cases involving United States ambassadors or public ministers

The Supreme Court rarely hears cases over which it has original jurisdiction.

The Court has appellate jurisdiction over any case or controversy that involves a question of federal law or the Constitution. The majority of cases the Court decides involve appeals from the U.S. Court of Appeals or a state's supreme court.

How Does the Supreme Court Decide Which Cases To Adjudicate?

In general, the Supreme Court only hears appeals from a U.S. Court of Appeals or a state's highest court. In practice, that means the petitioner (the person requesting the Supreme Court's review) must exhaust their appeals in the state or federal court systems as follows:

The party that wants the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case must file a petition for certiorari. The Court receives approximately 7,000 petitions for certiorari per year and issues a writ of certiorari (i.e., it grants a review) in about 100 to 150 cases per year.

The Supreme Court Justices vote on which cases to review. At least four Justices must vote to review a case for the Court to grant a review. It's typical for the Court to only hear cases that are of national importance or when the federal Circuit courts are split on the issue.

What Happens When the Supreme Court Decides To Hear a Case?

Once the Supreme Court decides to review a case, it will place it on its docket. The parties often write briefs to the Court explaining why they believe their arguments should prevail. The petitioner files their brief first, and the respondent then files a reply brief.

The Supreme Court also sometimes allows non-parties to the case to file briefs regarding the case's issues. These groups, although not a party to the case, generally must have an interest in the case's outcome. Such interested groups are known as amicus curiae (“friend of the court"), and they may file amicus briefs if the court allows it. If the U.S. government is not involved in the case, the Solicitor General may file a brief on behalf of the government.

The Supreme Court holds oral arguments in the cases it reviews. The Court sets aside one hour for oral arguments per case. Oral arguments allow the Justices to ask the parties pointed questions about the case.

After oral arguments, the Supreme Court Justices convene a Justices' Conference to discuss the case. Then, all Justices vote on the case. 

Once the Justices cast their votes and know the case's outcome, the Chief Justice decides who will write the Court's opinion. If the Chief Justice dissents with the decision (i.e., they are not in the majority), the most senior Justice decides who will write the Court's opinion. Any Justice who concurs with, or dissents from, the majority may write their own opinion.

In certain circumstances, Justices may have to recuse themselves from the case (e.g., they have a conflict of interest). If a Justice recuses themself from a case and the Justices' vote results in a tie, the lower court's ruling will stand.

Landmark Supreme Court Decisions

The Supreme Court's decisions shape American laws and policy. Lower courts must abide by the Supreme Court's precedential decisions. What the Court says becomes the law of the land concerning how all other courts interpret laws. Its importance in American history and the current political landscape cannot be overstated.

Below are overviews of some of the most important Supreme Court cases. This section does not provide a comprehensive list of cases. Instead, it provides several cases that may serve as a jumping-off point for you to do your own research.

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857): The Supreme Court and Chief Justice Roger Taney tried to resolve all constitutional questions about slavery in the United States in the Dred Scott case. Unfortunately, the Court went as pro-slavery as it could. It held that Black people could never be United States citizens, and, therefore, they did not receive any Constitutional rights. It also held that Congress could not outlaw slavery in the U.S. territories. The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) overruled Dred Scott. The case is considered one of the worst decisions in the Supreme Court's history.
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): In Brown, the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in schools. Brown overruled Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where the Court had ruled racial segregation was constitutional so long as the facilities were generally equal (i.e., “separate but equal"). Brown was a significant win for the civil rights movement and bolstered Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence regarding the equal protection of the law.
  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966): The Supreme Court's decision in Miranda had a massive effect on criminal law and procedure in the United States. The Court's holding requires law enforcement officers to read an arrestee their Miranda rights before interrogating the suspect. The Miranda rights inform a suspect that they have the right to remain silent and they have the right to an attorney.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973): In Roe, the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy, from the Due Process Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment, protected a fundamental right to choose to have an abortion. The Court held the right was not absolute, but it provided a right to abortions. In 2022, the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson overruled Roe by holding that the Constitution does not provide a right to abortion. In doing so, it returned the power to regulate abortions to the individual states.

Consider reading FindLaw's section on the U.S. Constitution for more in-depth information. You can also browse FindLaw's article, The Worst Supreme Court Decisions of All Time, for a look at the times the Supreme Court got it wrong.

Rulemaking Power

In our system, Congress makes the rules and the judiciary interprets the rules. Sometimes, Congress confers upon the Supreme Court the power to create court rules that the lower courts must follow.

The Supreme Court can also make its own rules to ensure its procedures allow it to be effective and efficient when resolving disputes. Congress has the power to reject or accept any rules the Supreme Court prescribes.

For more information about the Supreme Court, browse these links from the Supreme Court's website:

To look for a specific Supreme Court case, visit FindLaw's Supreme Court Case search tool.

Questions? Contact an Attorney

If you have a civil case or the government has charged you with a crime, consider contacting an attorney near you. Although it's a long shot that the Supreme Court of the United States will consider your case, an attorney can provide helpful legal advice about your case's strengths and weaknesses. They can also help if you plan to appeal a judgment or verdict. 

Contact a civil litigation or criminal defense attorney for more information.

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