The Supreme Court in the United States

The U. S. Constitution vested judicial power in one supreme court, known as the Supreme Court of the United States of America. As such, this Court is the "highest" court in the land, and all other Federal and State courts, which are established by Congress, are inferior. It is the President who has the sole power to nominate the Justices. After nomination, appointment of the Justices is made after the Senate has reviewed the nominee and given consent. The Supreme Court is made up of the Chief Justice and Associate Justices, the number of which is dictated by Congress.

Currently there is one Chief Justice, eight Associate Justices, and one Retired Justice. The Supreme Court also consists of other personnel who ensure that procedures are carried out appropriately. The personnel include an Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice, a Clerk, a Librarian, a Marshal, a Reporter of Decisions, Court Counsel, a Curator, a Director of Data Systems, and a Public Information Officer. The Supreme Court's scope and jurisdiction is more than any other court in the United States.

It has jurisdiction and final authority to hear appeals in almost all cases that have been decided in Federal courts as well as cases decided in a State's highest court if the issue involved a Federal question. Its jurisdiction extends to all cases in law and in equity that pertain to any treaties made by and/or signed by the United States. It also has original jurisdiction over cases that involve (1) ambassadors or other public ministers and consuls; (2) admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; and (3) controversies between (a) the U. S.

and another party, (b) two or more states, and (c) a state and citizens of another state(s). The duration of a Supreme Court term commences on the first Monday in October and ends on the first Monday of October in the following year. The term is separated into two-week intervals of sittings and recesses. In general, during the sittings, the Court hears the cases, and during the recesses, the Court writes the opinions. Several thousand petitions may be filed in one term, but only a select few will be heard, therefore, it is also during the recesses that the Justices review the petitions to determine who will be heard.

This process of hearing cases and reviewing petitions is undertaken throughout the year until May and/or June. In May or June, the Court sits only to give its orders and opinions. At the end of June, the Court takes a recess, and spends this time reviewing more petitions to determine which will be heard in the fall when the new term begins. It is through its discretionary power of writ of certiorari that the Supreme Court decides most of which cases will be heard. (The New York Times, 2007, p. 642). The U. S. Supreme Court's purpose is in most part to hear cases and deliver opinions that have resulted from their interpretation of the law.

Its role in recent history, however, has been extended to some degree as a body that also helps shape, even make, rules and laws. For example, the U. S. Supreme Court has been granted by Congress – from time to time – to outline rules of procedure for lower courts. Also, due to the use of Supreme Court opinions as precedent in lower courts that ultimately help determine the outcome of a case, the Supreme Court in effect shapes and makes laws – particularly constitutional law – via interpretation and opinion making.

Conversely, it also has the power to invalidate federal laws through "judicial review". The latter resulted from the Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court case wherein the Supreme Court declared a federal law as unconstitutional. The latter also demonstrates the important role of the Supreme Court, and that is, it helps maintain the balance of power among the three branches of government. Another reason why the Supreme Court is very important is that many of its decisions have an impact not only on law, as mentioned, but on the life of every U.

S. citizen and society in general. In turn, society has had an impact on the Supreme Court’s decisions. For example, in the mid-19th century, slavery existed and the Supreme Court upheld that notion by asserting that African-Americans were not full citizens. Yet, as society changed, so did the Supreme Court, and in the 1950’s schools were forced to desegregate. As a result of the latter Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights movement gained more momentum as did the subsequent changes in American society.

This result is positive in many ways, as it helps shape not only laws, but culture into one that reflects the values of the U. S. Constitution. A negative, however, of the Supreme Court is that Justices are appointed by the President, and are often a reflection of that President’s political beliefs. Their terms are for life, so another President of a different political persuasion cannot remove the Justices. Further, a recent U. S. News study shows that Justices do vote according to their political beliefs. (Ewers, 2008). (See also Perry, 1994 , p. 192).

Another negative is that the Supreme Court is much more secretive than any of the other two branches of government. (Perry, 1994, p. 46). Oral arguments before the Court are public, but the debates among the Justices when deciding a case are private. Likewise, the Justices are under no obligation to answer any questions about a certain case, or to explain how or why they decided a case as they did. Though the Supreme Court works well as it is, some changes may be beneficial, such as making the debates public so as to add the element of transparency to the Supreme Court.

Given that some Justices may be politically motivated, even though in theory they should not be, a good checks and balance system may be found in forcing them to defend their decisions. The Justices – like all of us – are not infallible, therefore, controversies and questions are bound to be raised from time to time, and by making the basis of their decisions public, we have an opportunity to evaluate their work and in effect continue to maintain the balance of power and the transparency that is necessary for a successful democracy.


The New York Times (Contributor William Safire). (2007). The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. New York: Macmillan. Perry, H. W. (1994). Deciding to Decide: Agenda Setting in the United States Supreme Court. Boston: Harvard University Press. The Supreme Court of the United States. (2008). About the Supreme Court. Retrieved on December 30, 2008, from http://www. supremecourtus. gov. Ewers, Justin, (May 12, 2008). Ranking the Politics of Supreme Court Justices. U. S. News. Retrieved on December 30, 2008, from http://www. usnews. com/articles/news/national/2008/05/12/ranking-the-politics-of-supreme-court-justices. html.