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Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States (also referred to as "SCOTUS") is the highest federal court. Although it was explicitly recognized in Article III of the Constitution, it was not formally established until passage of the Judiciary Act Of 1789 (1 Stat. 73) and was not organized until 1790. Though its size and jurisdiction have changed over time, the Supreme Court has fulfilled its two main functions: acting as the final interpreter of state and federal law and establishing procedural rules for the federal courts.
The Supreme Court, sometimes called the High Court, is comprised of a chief justice and eight associate justices. Article III provides that the justices of the Court are to be appointed by the president of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. Once appointed, a justice may not be removed from office except by congressional impeachment. Because of this provision, many justices have remained on the bench into their eighties.
In 1789 the Court initially consisted of six members, but membership was increased to seven in 1807. In 1837 an eighth and ninth justice were added, and in 1863 the number rose to ten. Congress lowered the number to eight to prevent President Andrew Johnson from appointing anyone, and since 1869 the Court has consisted of nine justices.
The only modern attempt to alter the size of the Court occurred in 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to "pack" the Court by trying to add justices more sympathetic to his political ideals. Between 1935 and 1937, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional numerous pieces of Roosevelt's New Deal program that attempted to regulate the national economy. Most of the conservative judges who voted against the New Deal statutes were over the age of 70. Roosevelt proposed that justices be allowed to retire at age 70 with full pay. Any judge who declined this offer would be forced to have an assistant with full Voting Rights. This plan was met with hostility by Democrats and Republicans and ultimately rejected as an act of political interference.
When the office of chief justice is vacant, the president may choose the new chief justice from among the associate justices but does not need to do so. Whenever the chief justice is unable to perform his or her duties or the office is vacant, the associate justice who has been on the Court the longest performs the duties. The Court can take official action with as few as six members joining in deliberation. However, extremely important cases will sometimes be postponed until all nine justices can participate.
The Court sits in Washington, D.C., and begins its term on the first Monday in October of each year. It may also hold adjourned terms or special terms whenever required. These special calendars are reserved for emergency matters that usually occur when the Court is in recess between July and October. Between October and June 30 of the following year, the Court hears oral arguments for each case in its courtroom, confers and votes on the case, and then assigns a justice to write the majority opinion. An opinion must be released on every case by the end of the Court's term. However, if the Court cannot agree on how to resolve a case, it may hold the case over until the next term and schedule further oral arguments.
Administration of the Court
The law provides for the appointment of a clerk of the Supreme Court, a deputy clerk, a marshal, a court reporter, a librarian, judicial law clerks, secretaries to the justices, and an administrative assistant to help with court management. The law provides for the printing of Supreme Court decisions to ensure that they will be available to the public. The Court also disseminates its opinions electronically through its website. In addition, it posts its court calendar, docket, and orders on its website.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court authority to hear certain appeals brought from the lower federal courts and the state courts. The Court was also given power to issue various kinds of orders, or writs, to enforce its decisions.
Article III of the Constitution declares that the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction "[i]n all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party…" Original juris diction is the authority to hear a case from the outset. Nevertheless, Congress has enacted legislation giving the district courts concurrent jurisdiction in cases dealing with ambassadors and foreign consul as well as in cases between the U.S. government and one or more state governments. The Supreme Court retains exclusive jurisdiction only in suits between state governments, which often involve boundary disputes. These cases arise infrequently and are usually placed before special masters who hear the evidence, make findings, and recommend a decision that is acceptable to the Court.
Article III states that the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction extends to all federal cases "with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make." Appellate cases coming to the Court from the lower federal courts usually come from the 13 courts of appeals, although they may come from the Court of Military Appeals or, under special circumstances, directly from the district courts. Appellate cases may also come from the state courts of last resort, usually a state's supreme court.
Until 1891 losing parties in the lower federal courts and state courts of last resort had the right to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court. The Court's docket was crowded with appeals, many of which raised routine or frivolous claims. In 1891 Congress created nine courts of appeals to correct errors in routine cases. (28
U.S.C.A. ch. 3). This reduced the Supreme Court's caseload, but parties often retained statutory rights to have their cases reviewed by the Court.
In 1925 Congress reformed, at the Court's insistence, the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction by restricting the categories of cases in which litigants were afforded an appeal by right to the Supreme Court. In addition, the Judiciary Act of 1925, 43 Stat. 936, gave the Court the power to issue writs of certiorari to review all cases, federal or state, posing "federal questions of substance." The writ of certiorari gives the Court discretionary review, allowing it to address some issues and ignore others. Because of these reforms, the courts of appeals are the final decision-making courts in 98 percent of federal cases.
In 1988 Congress passed the Act to Improve the Administration of Justice, 102 Stat. 663. This law eliminated most appeals by right to the Supreme Court, requiring the Court to hear appeals only in cases involving federal civil rights laws, legislative reapportionment, federal antitrust actions, and a few other matters. As a result of this growth in discretionary jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has the ability to set its own agenda.
A party who seeks review of a decision petitions the Court for a writ of certiorari, an ancient pleading form that grants the right for review. The justices deliberate in private on whether the issues presented by the case are significant enough to merit review. They operate under an informal rule of four, which means that certiorari will be granted if any four justices favor it. If certiorari is granted, the justices can decide the case on the papers submitted or schedule a full argument before the Court. If certiorari is denied, the matter ends there. With discretionary review, the justices have complete freedom in deciding whether to hear the case, and no one may question or appeal their decision.
The Supreme Court also has special jurisdiction to answer certified questions sent to it from a federal court of appeals or from the U.S. Claims Court. The Supreme Court can either give instructions that the lower court is bound to follow or require the court to provide the record so that the Supreme Court can decide the entire lawsuit. Certification is rarely used.
The decisions of the Supreme Court, whether by a denial of certiorari or by an opinion issued following oral argument, are final and cannot be appealed. A Supreme Court decision based on an interpretation of the Constitution may be changed by constitutional amendment. Congress may modify a decision that is based on the interpretation of an act of Congress by passing a law that directs the Court as to congressional intent and purpose. However, Congress has no power to modify a High Court decision that is based on the Court's interpretation of the Constitution. Finally, the Court may overrule itself, although it rarely does so.
Congress has conferred upon the Supreme Court the power to prescribe rules of procedure that the Court and the lower federal courts must follow. The Court has promulgated rules that govern civil and criminal cases in the district courts, bankruptcy proceedings, admiralty cases, copyrights cases, and appellate proceedings.
Related Resources on FindLaw
- US Supreme Court Center
- The U.S. Supreme Court - Overview
- The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court News and Information Blog
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Baum, Lawrence. 2004. The Supreme Court. 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Fried, Charles. 2004. Saying What the Law Is: The Constitution in the Supreme Court. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Haines, Charles Grove. 2002. The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politics. Union, N.J.: Law-book Exchange.
Langran, Robert. 2003. The Supreme Court: A Concise History. New York: Peter Lang.
Rehnquist, William H. 2002. The Supreme Court. New York: Vintage Books.
U.S. Supreme Court. Available online at <http://www.supremecourtus.gov> (accessed October 21, 2003).