Supreme Court of the United States

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"Scotus" redirects here. For the medieval theologian, see Duns Scotus

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States of America. As such, the Court provides the leadership of the Judicial Branch of the Federal Government.

The Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, who are nominated by the President and confirmed with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Appointed to serve for life, they can only be removed by resignation or impeachment. No justice has ever been removed from office, though many have retired or resigned.

The Supreme Court is the only court established by the United States Constitution; all other federal courts are created by Congress. The Court holds both original and appellate jurisdiction, but the latter is used quite a bit more often. Like other federal courts, the Supreme Court may exercise the power of judicial review, or the power to declare federal or state laws, as well as the actions of federal and state executives, unconstitutional. The decisions of the Supreme Court may not be appealed to any other body; as Justice Robert H. Jackson once famously remarked, "We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final."

The Supreme Court meets in Washington, D.C., in the United States Supreme Court building. The court is sometimes referred to by the acronyms SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) and USSC (United States Supreme Court).



Main article: History of the Supreme Court of the United States

The History of the Supreme Court is generally told in terms of the Chief Justices who have presided over it.

Initially, during the tenures of Chief Justices Jay, Rutledge, and Ellsworth (1789–1801), the Court lacked a home of its own and any real prestige.

That changed forever during the Marshall Court (1801–1835), which declared the Court to be the supreme arbiter of the Constitution (see Marbury v. Madison), and made a number of important rulings which gave shape and substance to the Constitutional balance of power between the Federal government (referred to at the time as the "general" government) and the states.

The Taney Court (1836–1864) made a number of important rulings (for example, Sheldon v. Sill, holding that, while Congress may not limit the subjects the Supreme Court may hear, the Constitution does not so restrain it where lower courts are concerned) but is primarily remembered for its ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the case which may have helped precipitate the Civil War.

In the years following the Civil War, the Chase, Waite, and Fuller courts (1864–1910) began to interpret the new civil war amendments to the Constitution, and developed the doctrine of substantive due process (Lochner v. New York; Adair v. United States); under the White and Taft courts (1910–1930), the substantive due process doctrine reached its first apogee (Adkins v. Children's Hospital), and the Court held that the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states (Gitlow v. New York).

During the Hughes, Stone, and Vinson courts (1930–1953), the court gained its own accommodation (see United States Supreme Court building, and radically changed its interpretation of the Constitution, in order to facilitate the New Deal (West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish).

The Warren Court (1953–1969) made a number of alternately celebrated and controversial rulings expanding the application of the Constitution to civil liberties, leading a renaissance in substantive due process. It held that segregation was unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education), that the Constitution protects a general right to privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut), that schools cannot have voluntary prayer (Engel v. Vitale) (or, a fortiori, mandatory bible readings, Abington School District v. Schempp), dramatically increased the scope of the doctrine of incorporation (Mapp v. Ohio; Miranda v. Arizona), wrote an equal protection clause into the Fifth Amendment, held that the states may not apportion a chamber of their legislatures in the manner in which the United States Senate is apportioned (Baker v. Carr; Reynolds v. Sims), and that the Constitution requires active compliance (Gideon v. Wainwright).

The Burger Court (1969–1986) ruled that abortion was a constitutional right (Roe v. Wade), reached muddled and controversial rulings on affirmative action (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) and campaign finance regulation (Buckley v. Valeo), that death penalty was unconstitutional (Furman v. Georgia) and then that the death penalty was not unconstitutional (Gregg v. Georgia).

The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005) narrowed the focus of Roe v. Wade (Planned Parenthood v. Casey) but dramatically circumscribed the ability of states to regulate abortion (Stenberg v. Carhart), and began to limit the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause (United States v. Lopez; United States v. Morrison).


Size of the court

File:Supreme Court October 2005.jpg
President George W. Bush stands with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, as they pose for photos with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices, October 3, 2005.

The Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court; instead, Congress has the power to fix the number of Justices. Originally, the total number of Justices was set at six by the Judiciary Act of 1789. As the country grew geographically, the number of Justices steadily increased. The court was expanded to seven members in 1807, nine in 1837 and ten in 1863. In 1866, however, Congress wished to deny President Andrew Johnson any Supreme Court appointments, and therefore passed the Judicial Circuits Act, which provided that the next three Justices to retire would not be replaced; thus, the size of the Court would eventually reach seven by attrition. Consequently, one seat was removed in 1866 and a second in 1867. By the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, the number of Justices was again set at nine (the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices), where it has remained ever since. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court (see Court-packing Bill); his plan would have allowed the President to appoint one new, additional justice for every justice who reached the age of seventy but did not retire from the bench, until the Court reached a maximum size of fifteen justices. Ostensibly, this was to ease the burdens of the docket on the elderly judges, but it was widely recognized that the President's actual purpose was to add Justices who would favor his New Deal policies, which had been regularly ruled unconstitutional by the Court. The plan failed in Congress and the court changed course to accommodate the President's desires (see The switch in time that saved nine). In any case, Roosevelt's long tenure in the White House allowed him to appoint a large number of Justices.

Nomination, confirmation and tenure of Justices

Per Article II §2 of the United States Constitution, the power to appoint Justices belongs to the President of the United States, acting with the advice and consent of the Senate. As a general rule, Presidents nominate individuals who broadly share their ideological views. However, nominees whose views are perceived as extreme may be blocked by the Senate (see List of Failed Nominations to the Supreme Court of the United States). In many cases, a Justice's decisions may be contrary to what the nominating President anticipated. A famous instance was Chief Justice Earl Warren; President Eisenhower expected him to be a conservative judge, but his decisions are arguably among the most liberal in the Court's history. He later called the appointment the "the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made."

While the President may nominate anyone, the "advice and consent" of the Senate is required for appointment. The confirmation process often attracts considerable attention from special interest groups, many of whom lobby senators to confirm or to reject. The Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearings, questioning nominees to determine their suitability. Thereafter, the whole Senate considers the nomination; a simple majority vote is required to confirm or to reject a nominee. Rejections are relatively uncommon; the Senate has explicitly rejected only twelve Supreme Court nominees in its history. The most recent rejection of a nominee came in 1987, when the Senate refused to confirm Robert Bork. In 1991, Clarence Thomas's nomination was hampered by allegations of sexual harassment, but the Senate eventually confirmed him by a vote of 52–48.

In some cases, the Senate has defeated a nominee by failing to take a final vote on them, rather than by explicit rejection. For example, a filibuster indefinitely prolongs debate thereby preventing a vote; or the nominee may simply not be reported out of the Judiciary Committee. Furthermore, the President may withdraw a nomination; for instance, if the President feels that the nominee has little chance of being confirmed. Most recently, President George W. Bush granted a request by Harriet Miers to withdraw her 2005 nomination, citing her concerns about Senate requests for access to internal White House documents during the confirmation process.

While filibuster of a Supreme Court Justice may be an option to bar their nomination, no nominee for Associate Justice has ever been filibustered. As a sitting Associate Justice of the Court, Abe Fortas's nomination to become Chief Justice was successfully filibustered in 1968. President Johnson had nominated him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after Earl Warren retired.

Until the 1980s, the approval process of Justices was frequently quick. From the Truman through Nixon administrations, Justices were typically approved in a month. From the Reagan through Clinton administrations, however, the process took much longer.

When the Senate is in recess, the President may make a temporary appointment without the Senate's advice and consent. Such a recess appointee to the Supreme Court holds office only until the end of the next Senate session (at most, approximately two years). To continue to serve thereafter, the nominee must be confirmed by the Senate. Of the two Chief Justices and six Associate Justices who have received recess appointments, only Chief Justice John Rutledge was not subsequently confirmed for a full term.

The Constitution provides that Justices "shall hold their Offices during good Behavior" (unless appointed during a Senate recess). The term "good behavior" is interpreted to mean life. However, Justices may resign, retire into senior status, or be removed by impeachment and conviction (the last has never occurred). On average, a vacancy arises every two years; however, long stretches without any vacancies occur from time to time. For instance, no vacancy arose for the eleven years between Stephen Breyer's appointment in 1994 and Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death in 2005.

The Supreme Court's jurisprudence is often evaluated with respect to the service of a particular Chief Justice. Thus, for example, the Court between 1969 and 1986 is referred to as the "Burger Court" (for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger) and the Court between 1986 and 2005 is referred to as the "Rehnquist Court" (for Chief Justice William Rehnquist).

Qualifications for membership

The Constitution does not explicitly establish any qualifications for Justices of the Supreme Court. In fact it does not even specify citizenship or age as it does for the executive and legislative branches. However, Presidents normally nominate individuals who have prior legal experience. Typically, most nominees have judicial experience, either at the federal or state level. Several nominees have formerly served on federal Courts of Appeals, especially the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is often considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. Another source of Supreme Court nominees is the federal executive branch—in particular, the Department of Justice. Other potential nominees include members of Congress and academics. On the current Supreme Court, seven Justices previously served on federal courts (including three on the D.C. Circuit); two served on state courts; three were former law school professors; and three held full time positions in the federal executive branch.

Nominees to the Supreme Court, as well as to lower federal courts, are evaluated by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary. The panel is composed of fifteen federal judges (but not Supreme Court Justices), including at least one from each federal judicial circuit. The body assesses the nominee "solely to professional qualifications: integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament," and offers a rating of "well qualified," "qualified," or "not qualified." The opinions of the committee bind neither the President nor the Senate; however, they are generally taken into account.

Other functions

Each Justice on the Supreme Court is assigned to at least one of the United States's thirteen judicial circuits. The Chief Justice is usually assigned to the District of Columbia Circuit, the Federal Circuit and the Fourth Circuit; each Associate Justice is assigned to one or two judicial circuits.

Under the Judiciary Act of 1789, each Justice was required to "ride circuit," or to travel within the assigned circuit and consider cases alongside local judges. This practice, however, encountered opposition from many Justices, who complained about the difficulty of travel. Moreover, several individuals opposed it on the grounds that a Justice could not be expected to be impartial in an appeal if he had previously decided the same case while riding circuit. Circuit riding was abolished in 1891. Now, the duty of a Supreme Court Justice in this regard is limited to hearing emergency petitions in the relevant circuit and some other routine tasks like addressing certain requests for extensions of time.

Currently, circuits are assigned as follows: District of Columbia Circuit, John G. Roberts, Jr., For the First Circuit, David H. Souter, For the Second Circuit, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, For the Third Circuit, David H. Souter, For the Fourth Circuit, John G. Roberts, Jr., For the Fifth Circuit, Antonin Scalia, For the Sixth Circuit, John Paul Stevens, For the Seventh Circuit, John Paul Stevens, For the Eighth Circuit, Clarence Thomas, For the Ninth Circuit, Sandra Day O’Connor, For the Tenth Circuit, Stephen Breyer, For the Eleventh Circuit, Anthony M. Kennedy, For the Federal Circuit, John G. Roberts, Jr.,

Current membership

The current Justices of the United States Supreme Court, in order of seniority, are:

Name Date of Birth Age* Home State Appt. by Conf. Vote First Day Prior Positions
John Roberts (Chief Justice) 1/27/55 50 Maryland G.W. Bush 78-22 9/29/05 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (2003–2005); Private practice (1993–2003); Deputy Solicitor General of the United States (1989–1993); Private practice (1986–1989)
John Paul Stevens 4/19/20 85 Illinois Ford 98-0 12/19/75 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (1970–1975); Private practice (1948–1970)
Sandra Day O'Connor 3/26/30 75 Arizona Reagan 99-0 9/25/81 State Senator, Arizona (1969–1975); Judge, Superior Court of Arizona (1975–1979);Judge, Arizona Court of Appeals (1979–1981)
Antonin Scalia 3/11/36 69 Virginia Reagan 98-0 9/26/86 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1982–1986); Professor, University of Chicago Law School (1977–1982)
Anthony Kennedy 7/23/36 69 California Reagan 97-0 2/18/88 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (1975–1988); Professor, McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific (1965–1988); Private practice (1963–1975)
David Souter 9/17/39 66 New Hampshire G.H.W. Bush 90-9 10/9/90 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1990–1990); Associate Justice, Supreme Court of New Hampshire (1983–1990)
Clarence Thomas 6/23/48 57 Georgia G.H.W. Bush 52-48 10/23/91 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1990–1991); Chairman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1982–1990)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 3/15/33 72 New York Clinton 97-3 8/10/93 Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1980–1993); General Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union (1973–1980)
Stephen Breyer 8/15/38 67 Mass. Clinton 87-9 8/3/94 Chief Judge, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1990–1994); Circuit Judge, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1980–1990); Professor, Harvard Law School (1967–1980)

*Age is at the start of the 2005-2006 term. Average age is 68 years. Samuel A. Alito, Jr., nominated to replace Justice O'Connor, is 55 years old.

Seniority and seating

During Court sessions, the Justices sit according to seniority, with the Chief Justice in the center, and the Associate Justices on alternating sides. Therefore, the current court sits as follows from left to right: Ginsburg, Souter, Scalia, Stevens, Roberts, O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer (who has been the junior justice for 11 years, the third longest period in history between appointments of an Associate Justice).

Political leanings

Justices Scalia and Thomas, the court's two Originalists are generally perceived as the Court's conservative wing. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer are generally perceived as its liberal wing. Justices O'Connor and Kennedy are considered moderates and are hence the swing votes who often determine the outcomes of close cases. Chief Justice Roberts is generally thought to be in between Scalia and Thomas and the moderates, but has not been on the bench long enough for this to be ascertained.

Pending vacancy

On July 1, 2005, Justice O'Connor announced that she would retire from the Supreme Court when her successor is nominated and confirmed. President Bush nominated Judge John Roberts to replace O'Connor on July 19, 2005; however, following the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist on September 3, Bush re-nominated Roberts as the new Chief Justice. The President subsequently nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice O'Connor on October 3, 2005. Due to controversy, Miers withdrew her nomination on October 27, 2005. On October 31, 2005, President Bush nominated United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice O'Connor. The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Alito's nomination in January 2006.


Main article: United States Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court occupied various spaces in the United States Capitol until 1935, when it moved into its own purpose-built home at One First Street Northeast, Washington, DC. The four-story building was designed in a classical style sympathetic to the surrounding buildings of the Capitol complex and Library of Congress by architect Cass Gilbert, and is clad in marble quarried chiefly in Vermont. The building includes space for the Courtroom, Justices' chambers, an extensive law library, various meeting spaces, and auxiliary services such as workshop, stores, cafeteria and a gymnasium. The Supreme Court building is within the ambit of the Architect of the Capitol, but maintains its own police force, separate from the Capitol Police.


Main article: Procedures of the Supreme Court of the United States

Article Three of the United States Constitution outlines the jurisdiction of the federal courts of the United States:

The 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.

The jurisdiction of the federal courts was further limited by the Eleventh Amendment, which forbade the federal courts from hearing cases "commenced or prosecuted against [a State] by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." However, the Eleventh Amendment is not deemed to apply if a state consents to be sued (see Sovereign immunity). Moreover, the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress may abrogate the states' immunity from lawsuits in certain circumstances. In addition to constitutional constraints, the jurisdiction of the federal courts is also limited by various federal laws. For example, the federal courts may consider "Controversies ... between Citizens of different States" only if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000; otherwise, the case may only be brought in state courts (see diversity jurisdiction).

The Constitution specifies that the Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors and other diplomats, and in cases in which a state is a party. In all other cases, however, the Supreme Court has only appellate jurisdiction. The Supreme Court considers cases based on its original jurisdiction very rarely; almost all cases are brought to the Supreme Court on appeal. In practice, the only original jurisdiction cases heard by the Court are disputes between two or more states.

The power of the Supreme Court to consider appeals from state courts, rather than just federal courts, was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 and upheld early in the Court's history, by its rulings in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) and Cohens v. Virginia (1821). The Supreme Court is the only federal court that has jurisdiction over direct appeals from state court decisions, although there are a variety of devices that permit so-called "collateral review" of state cases.

The Supreme Court may only hear actual cases and controversies. It does not hear moot cases or issue advisory opinions. However, the Supreme Court does often hear test cases, or cases specifically designed to test the constitutionality of a statute (rather than to merely redress a particular wrong). Many significant Supreme Court cases were test cases; examples include Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Furthermore, the Court may consider some cases, such as Roe v. Wade, that become moot during the judicial process, if it appears that the legal issue involved is likely to arise again but would not be reviewable by the Court under a strict mootness analysis. "Roe" had already had her baby when the case came to the Supreme Court, because judicial activity (trials, appeals and so on) takes much longer than human gestation. Because future abortion cases would face the same time constraints, the Court decided the case in spite of its mootness.

The Supreme Court is not required to hear every case presented to it. In cases that are heard by a three-judge United States district court (a practice that formerly was somewhat common but has been limited to very few cases by legislation in recent years), there is a right of appeal directly to the Supreme Court, although the Court may dispose of these appeals by summary order if it does not believe they are important enough for full briefing and argument. In most instances, however, the party must petition the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. By custom, certiorari is granted on the vote of four of the nine Justices. In most cases, the writ is denied; the Supreme Court normally only considers matters of national or constitutional importance. If the Court refuses to grant certiorari, it does not comment on the merits of the case; the decision of the lower court stands unchanged as if Supreme Court review had not been requested.

Court reports and citation style

Supreme Court decisions are typically cited as in the following example: "Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)." The citation consists of the names of the opposing parties; the volume number; "U.S." (signifying United States Reports, the official reporter of Supreme Court decisions); the page number on which the decision begins; and the year in which the case was decided. The names of the opposing parties are listed in the format "Petitioner v. Respondent" or "Appellant v. Appellee." The Reporter of Decisions is responsible for publication of the Court's rulings. Two other widely used citation formats exist: the Supreme Court Reporter and the Lawyer's Edition, corresponding to two privately-published collections of decisions. Citations to cases in the Supreme Court Reporter would be structured as follows: Snowden v. Hughes, 64 S.Ct. 397 (1944). Citations to cases in the Lawyer's Edition would be as follows: Snowden v. Hughes, 88 L.Ed. 497 (1944). Judicial opinions often use the citation from all three sources (the United States Reports, Supreme Court Reporter, and Lawyer's Edition), as seen here: Martin v. Texas, 200 U.S. 316, 26 S.Ct. 338, 50 L.Ed. 497 (1906).

Decisions of the Supreme Court are precedents that bind all lower courts, both federal and state. The Supreme Court generally respects its own precedents, but has in some cases overturned them.

Checks and balances

The Constitution does not explicitly grant the Supreme Court the power of judicial review; nevertheless, the power of the Supreme Court to overturn laws and executive actions it deems unlawful or unconstitutional is a well-established precedent. Many of the Founding Fathers accepted the notion of judicial review; in Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton writes: "A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute." The Supreme Court first established its power to declare laws unconstitutional in Marbury v. Madison (1803), consummating the system of checks and balances.

The Supreme Court cannot directly enforce its rulings; instead, it relies on respect for the Constitution and for the law for adherence to its judgments. One notable instance of nonacquiescence came in 1832, when the state of Georgia ignored the Supreme Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia. President Andrew Jackson, who sided with the Georgia courts, is supposed to have remarked, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"; however, this quotation is likely apocryphal. State militia in the South also resisted to desegregate schools after the judgment Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s. More recently, many feared that President Richard Nixon would refuse to surrender the Watergate tapes, as he had been ordered to do by the Court in United States v. Nixon (1974). Nixon, however, ultimately complied with the Supreme Court's ruling.

The Constitution provides that the salary of a Justice may not be diminished during his or her continuance in office. This clause was intended to prevent Congress from punishing Justices for their decisions by reducing their emoluments. Together with the provision that Justices hold office for life, this clause helps guarantee judicial independence. However, as seen above, the President's practice of appointing justices with similar real, perceived or expected ideology can be seen to compromise judicial independence.

See also

  • Justices


Suggested Readings

  • Garner, Bryan A. Black's Law Dictionary. Deluxe 8th ed. West, 2004. ISBN 0314151990.
  • Irons, Peter and Howard Zinn. A People's History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking, 1999. ISBN 0670870064.
  • Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court. New York: Knopf, 2001. ISBN 0375409432.
  • Urofsky, Melvin and Paul Finkelman. A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States. 2 vols. New York: Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0195126378 & ISBN 0195126351.

External links

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