The United States Supreme Court is the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to legal disputes in the United States. Judges on the Court are called “Justices.” It is made up of the Chief Justice of the United States, and eight lesser, or “Associate Justices.”
Once the Supreme Court rules on an issue, its judgment will be the law unless it later changes its mind, or a new law or constitutional amendment is passed.
The Constitution sets up the Supreme Court in Article III. Unlike lower-level trial courts, multiple judges vote on the outcome of a case, making them like a jury. How many Justices are on the Court is set by federal law, not the Constitution, and that number has been nine since 1869.
The Chief Justice and all Associate Justices are chosen the same way. They are nominated by the President, and then the Senate votes to approve or reject the candidate.
Supreme Court Justices serve lifetime terms. That doesn’t mean that they have to stay on the job until they die, but they cannot be fired if the President or Congress does not approve of their rulings. Supreme Court Justices may be removed only through the impeachment process, just like the President. The life-term is designed to protect Justices from the politics of the moment. They are not beholden to the short-term desires of the electorate, but the long-term interests of the country and its laws.
In Federalist Paper No. 78, Alexander Hamilton said about the Court, “It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment;”
There are two pathways for cases to reach the Court.
- When one state sues another state, or if a case involves a U.S. Ambassador, among others, the Supreme Court has “original jurisdiction.” That means the case may be brought directly to the Court for a judgment. Those cases are rare compared to the other type.
- Most cases are brought under the Court’s “appellate jurisdiction.” These happen when one party to a legal case is not satisfied with a lower court’s ruling. They may appeal the case to the Supreme Court for another chance to succeed.
The Constitution does not say how the Court should decide which appeals to take. That is determined by the Justices, who go by a “rule of four” system. If four Justices agree that they should take the case, they do. If not, the lower court ruling will stand.
When deciding cases, a simple majority is required for a ruling to go one way or another. If there is a tie, which may happen if there is a vacancy on the Court, for instance, then the lower court ruling will stand.
Justices on the Supreme Court have the option of writing their own opinion on a case, giving their reasoning for why they ruled for one party or another, or they may sign their name to another Justice’s opinion.
Traditionally the Supreme Court starts its calendar on the first Monday in October and finishes its work on all cases by July. Before the COVID-19 epidemic, the Court heard all its cases at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., but begun hearing virtual arguments when the pandemic broke out. While no videotape or photos are allowed of the Supreme Court in session, audio records are made and become publicly available eventually.