February 27


About the Supreme Court of the United States

The U.S. Constitution only establishes one court – the Supreme Court. This is the ‘court of last resort’, the highest court in the country. Often referred to as simply the Supreme Court, or sometimes by the acronym SCOTUS (Supreme Court Of The United States).

What do you know of this court? How was this court created? What jurisdiction does this court have? How are judges selected? Read this article to find some answers to these questions!

Article III Courts

The 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. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

Article III, Section 1
U.S. Constitution

The Constitution expressly gives the Congress power to establish “inferior courts”, i.e. courts below the Supreme Court.  District Courts are trial courts – sometimes called courts of first instance. Circuit Courts are appellate courts (courts of second instance). Additionally, there are other specialty courts.

Courts established pursuant to the Constitution are called “Article III” courts and its judges are “Article III” judges – because it is Article III of the Constitution that establishes the judiciary. 

These judges have certain protections from partisan pressure, such as lifetime appointments. As Article III states, judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour”. Once formally appointed, a judge is appointed for life and can only be removed for bad behavior by the impeachment process.

Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

Article III of the Constitution clearly sets out the jurisdiction of the court. It hears appeals from lower federal courts as well as state supreme courts. 

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.

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.

Article III, Section 2
U.S. Constitution

Most of the cases it hears are discretionary – the court can choose to accept or reject a case. When a party wants to appeal to the Supreme Court, they file a Petition for Certiorari. The court will grant or deny this.  If granted, the court will issue a Writ of Certiorari and order the parties to submit briefs.

Normally oral arguments are scheduled after the briefs’ are submitted. Frequently, amicus curiae briefs are also submitted to the court by third parties; these are “friends-of-the-court” who, although not  a party to the case, want to make arguments to the court to help with its decision. Often these are by academics (law professors) or NGO’s that are arguing for a certain public policy.

Each year, there are 7000-8000 Petitions for Certiorari filed with the court. The court will hear only about 80 of these cases.

Appointment of Justices

Judges appointed to the Supreme Court are called justices. The Court has one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices.

Originally, the Court had six justices but this has changed over time; it has had nine justices since 1869.

The president nominates judges for the District and Circuit Courts, as well as justices for the Supreme Court. The Senate will approve or reject the nomination by taking a vote. Before the full senate votes, the Judiciary Committee of the senate will hold hearings. The committee will question the nominee as well as others.

Starting in the 1980’s. the hearings for supreme court nominees became very contentious and often are very newsworthy. Some of the more contentious hearings were for Judge Robert Bork, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Conference Room

When the justices meet to discuss cases, they meet alone in this conference room. The junior Associate Justice (the most recently appointed) is responsible to answer the door.

Current Justices on the Court

The Roberts Court, November 30, 2018. Seated, from left to right: Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito. Standing, from left to right: Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Photograph by Fred Schilling, Supreme Court Curator's Office.

The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (note: this includes the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and does not include Justice Barrett who was appointed in late 2020).

Appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

Chief Justice

John Roberts

Appointed in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

Appointed in 1994 by President William Clinton.

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

Appointed in 2006 by President George W. Bush.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito 

Appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

Associate Justice

Sonia Sotomayor

Appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

Associate Justice

Elena Kagan

Appointed in 2017 by President Donald Trump.  

Associate Justice

Neil Gorsuch

Appointed in 2018 by President Donald Trump.  

Associate Justice

Brett Kavanaugh

Appointed in 2020 by President Donald Trump.  

Associate Justice

Amy Coney Barrett

Keep Learning

Do you have any more questions about the Supreme Court? If so, comment below!

Are you an expert now? Take our quiz and test your Supreme Court knowledge!



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