A History Of The Supreme Court

Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that "[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

Under this section and the Judiciary Act of 1789, the United States Supreme Court was created. The Act organized the Supreme Court, the federal circuit courts and the federal district courts, established the Office of the Attorney General, and reserved the president's right to nominate justices for appointment to the United States Supreme Court with the advice and consent of the Senate.

When the Supreme Court was unveiled on February 2, 1790, six justices shared the bench. One justice was appointed as the Chief Justice and held additional administrative duties related both to the Supreme Court and to the entire federal court system. The other five were associate justices. At its creation, the judicial branch was by far the weakest and most timid of all three government branches, holding back from strongly upholding and deciding controversial issues. However, in 1801, Chief Justice John Marshall joined the Supreme Court and boldly asserted the judicial branch's authority and judicial rights.

In Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice Marshall asserted that the doctrine of judicial review permitted the Court to review the constitutionality of congressional legislation. Before the end of his 34 years, he succeeded in strengthening the central government and making the Judiciary branch, in some respects, the strongest branch of the national government.

Congress holds the power to set the number of Associate Justices sitting on the Supreme Court and that number has gradually changed over time. The current court composition of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices was established under an act passed on June 25, 1948 (28 U.S.C. 1). John Roberts, who entered duty on September 29, 2005, presides as the Chief Justice. The current Associate Justices are John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, and Stephen G. Breyer. Each justice is also assigned to one of the Court of Appeals for emergency response purposes.

Justices are appointed for life and Article III, section 1, of the Constitution further provides that "[t]he Judges, both of the Supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good behavior, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office." A Justice may, if so desired, retire at the age of 70 after serving for 10 years as a Federal judge or at age 65 after 15 years of service.

To assist in the performance of its functions, the Supreme Court appoints several clerks, a Reporter of Decisions, a librarian, and a marshal to service. Each Justice usually appoints four law clerks, many of whom are the cream of Ivy League law school graduates. The Chief Justice appoints the other Court officers, which includes the Administrative Assistant, the Court Counsel, the Curator, the Director of Data Systems, and the Public Information Officer, to assist him with his administrative duties. The library is open to members of the bar of the Court, attorneys for the various Federal departments and agencies, and members of Congress.

Each year, the Supreme Court receives 7,000 or so writs of certiorari, which are petitions from parties seeking review of their cases. These petitions do not result in automatic appeals. Just because a party wants to take its case "all the way to the Supreme Court," the Court will not necessarily hear the case. Instead, such a case must pass through the Court's screening process.

The screening process begins with the Court's law clerks, who sift through the petitions and settle upon a select few that they deem worthy of consideration by the justices. Next, inside a closed conference room, the Chief Justice leads the meeting in which the Justices discuss the petitions and vote aloud on which cases they find more significant and deserving of deliberation. Voting begins with the Chief Justice and is followed by the Associate Justices according to seniority. The most junior Justice, now Stephen G. Breyer, takes the handwritten notes that will be passed to a clerk for public announcement of their disposition of the petitions. To be considered, a case must receive at least four votes. Whether or not a case is accepted "strikes me as a rather subjective decision, made up in part of intuition and in part of legal judgement," Rehnquist wrote in his book, "The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is." In deciding whether to review a case, the Court will generally consider whether the legal question was decided differently by two lower courts and needs resolution by a higher court, whether a lower court decision conflicts with an existing Supreme Court ruling, and whether the issue could have broader social significance beyond the interests of the two parties involved. However, not all cases of significant social issues needing resolution are accepted by the Supreme Court. For example, last June, the Court declined to hear a case on the legality of college affirmative action programs; the case did not garner the required four votes.

The Court also receives another 1,200 applications of various kinds each year that can be acted upon by a single Justice.

Once the Court accepts a petition, it then schedules the case for oral arguments. While the Court discreetly reviews petitions, it hears each parties' oral arguments before the public -- anyone may sit in as an audience member in the Supreme Court's stately, burgundy draped, gold-trimmed courtroom. Cases are heard en banc, which means by open court, when a quorum of 2/3rds of the Justices is present. Therefore, six Justices are currently required. The public audience will view a 30 minute argument given by one lawyer from each side, and intense, vigorous questioning, including hypothetical inquiries, from the seated Justices. Questioning can be directed at the lawyers or at another Justice to bolster or sway opinions. The hypothetical questions are opportunities to pose slightly different factual situations to which a decision may have implications upon in the future. While a lawyer's appearance before the highest court often can be a tense, dramatic affair, it also can be a career highlight. Lawyers have been known to hang and frame the white quill pens they receive as a souvenir from the court. The court usually hears between one to three cases each day, on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each week. The Court's term begins, by law, the first Monday in October of each year and continues as long as the business before the Court requires, which is usually until about the end of June.


After oral arguments, the Justices will vote. Sometimes more than one round of voting will take place because the Justices may switch sides during the process, often turning a minority into a majority and vice versa. The first vote on a case is taken during the week of oral arguments. For cases heard on Monday, the Justices will vote on it on Wednesday afternoon. For oral arguments heard on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Justices will vote on Friday. After the vote, the most senior Justice in the majority assigns the task of writing the majority opinion. Likewise, the most senior justice in the minority also decides who will write the dissenting opinion. In addition, each Justice may write his or her own statements if they wish, but the majority opinion speaks for the final decision of the court. Throughout this process, the clerks are intimately involved, researching past cases that may support a ruling and even strategizing to sway opinions in one direction or another.

Each year the court decides about 150 cases of great national importance and interest, and about three-fourths of such decisions are announced in fully published opinions.

The Supreme Court is the highest court within the United States courts system and the powers allotted to the judicial branch of the government are vast. As stated in the Constitution (Art. III, sec. 2), "[t]he judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;--to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects." "In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make."

While Congress has no authority to change the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, it does control the Court's appellate jurisdiction. The basic statutes effective at this time in conferring and controlling jurisdiction of the Supreme Court may be found in 28 U.S.C. 1251, 1253, 1254, 1257-1259, and in various special statutes. Congress also has from time to time conferred upon the Supreme Court power to prescribe rules of procedure to be followed by the lower courts of the United States. Pursuant to these statutes, the Court has promulgated rules governing civil and criminal cases in the district courts, bankruptcy proceedings, admiralty cases, appellate proceedings, and the trial of misdemeanors before U.S. magistrate judges.

The Supreme Court is located across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The mailing address for the Court is One First Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20543.

FindLaw Career Center

      Post a Job  |  View More Jobs

    View More