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The Supreme Court

This article was approved by Jim Adler

The Supreme Court of the United States is the court with the highest level of federal judicial authority in the United States. Also informally called “SCOTUS,” it was established in 1789 by Article III of the Constitution. It is the only court that the Constitution specifically establishes, and its jurisdiction and function are outlined by the Constitution and further clarified by Constitutional amendments, such as the Eleventh Amendment.

Supreme Court

Supreme Court of the United States Building, Washington, DC Photo by 350z33 (Wikimedia Commons)

The function of the Supreme Court is to serve as the court of last resort when it comes to appealing legal decisions handed down by lower courts. In addition, the court has the power to assert jurisdiction over some cases. This means that the Supreme Court may hear certain cases without having to wait for them to go through lower courts first. Examples of such cases include those that involve disputes between states or between the federal government and a state government or involve diplomats. Its most well-known function is to judge the constitutionality of a given law, which means to decide whether a law in question is valid according to the court’s interpretation of the Constitution. This is because the Constitution is by definition the supreme law of the land. As it is the highest of all federal courts, a decision handed down by the Supreme Court is final, and no other court in the country may contradict it.

The Supreme Court was designed by the founding fathers to be a part of a system of checks and balances, or separation of powers. The major government powers in question are defined as branches, known as the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The legislative branch, Congress, passes bills, while the executive branch, headed by the president, signs the bills to turn them into laws. The Supreme Court is the head of the judiciary branch and decides whether these laws are acceptable according to the Constitution.

  • John Jay was appointed by George Washington as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.
  • The chief justice had an annual salary of $4,000 in 1789, and associate justices made roughly $500 less. As of 2015, the salaries are $258,100 for the chief justice and $246,800 for the associate justices.
  • John Marshall served for 34 years, from 1801 to 1835, as the chief justice. His tenure as Chief Justice was the longest in history but was the fourth longest-serving justice.
  • The justice who served the longest term was William O. Douglas, whose tenure lasted 36 years.
  • The only president to also serve on the Supreme Court was William Howard Taft, who became chief justice eight years after his presidency.
  • Since 1869, there have been nine justices on the Supreme Court; however, in 1789, the Judiciary Act called for only six.
  • George Washington appointed ten justices to the Supreme Court, more than any other president in U.S. history.

The president of the United States has the power to nominate a judge or other qualified individual for the position of Supreme Court justice; however, the Senate has the power to confirm this nomination or block it, again preserving the balance of the three major powers of government. Once the Senate confirms a nominee to the Supreme Court, the appointed justice holds this position for life or until they die, resign, or are impeached and removed.

A case that reaches the Supreme Court typically comes as an appeal from a lower court, either a state court or a federal appeals court. The term “petitioner” refers to someone who appeals to the Supreme Court, and the opposing party is called the “respondent.” The petitioner and respondent in an accepted case typically have half an hour to make their case before the Supreme Court, and they may be asked by the justices to answer questions during their presentation. A simple majority vote of the justices who are present is necessary for an official legal decision, although a justice may abstain. In this case, there is the possibility of a tied vote, in which case the lower court’s decision will stand. If the court refuses to hear a case, this also leaves the lower court’s decision as final. The decisions made by the justices of the Supreme Court are deliberated on in secret, and when deliberations are complete, the court will issue a majority opinion and a dissenting opinion. The majority opinion is written by a single justice, usually either the chief justice if they are part of the majority or the most senior jurist in the majority group. Any one of the justices may write a dissenting opinion. Sometimes a justice may issue a concurring opinion, which may agree partially with the majority opinion while disagreeing with other parts of the court’s decision. The majority opinion is the Supreme Court’s final and binding decision on a given legal dispute. The Supreme Court cannot enforce its own rulings, however, and it relies on law enforcement to uphold its decisions.

The Supreme Court is made up of eight associate justices and a chief justice, who is the leader of the tribunal. Chief Justice John G. Roberts has presided since 2005. The associate justices of the Roberts Court include Samuel A. Alito, Sonia M. Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy, Elena Kagan, and Ruth B. Ginsberg. Justice Antonin G. Scalia died on Feb. 13, 2016, leaving one seat open. His death has necessitated the selection of a replacement by President Barack Obama.

  • Articles of impeachment were filed against Samuel Chase in 1804; however, he was acquitted in March 1805.

The Supreme Court has had a major impact on American history through many of its decisions. One of the most controversial early decisions it issued was the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which determined that people of African descent were not citizens of the United States. Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, declared that racial segregation was acceptable under the Constitution, and Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 affirmed the Constitutional right to legal representation in a criminal case. Other landmark cases include Loving v. Virginia in 1967, which made interracial marriage legal across the country, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Other notable cases include the Citizens United case of 2010, which opened the doors to increased corporate funding of elections; Bush v. Gore, which decided the presidential election in 2000; the Arver v. United States decision of 1918, which preserved military conscription; and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that upheld the right to have an abortion.

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