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Encyclopedia > United States Supreme Court
The Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C., (large image)

The Supreme Court of the United States, located in Washington, D.C., is the highest court (see supreme court) in the United States; that is, it has ultimate judicial authority within the United States to interpret and decide questions of federal law. It is head of the judicial branch of the United States Government. The other two branches of the United States Government are the executive branch and the legislative branch. The Supreme Court is sometimes known by the acronym SCOTUS.


Structure and powers

The powers of the Supreme Court are established in the first and second sections of Article Three of the Constitution:

Article III

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 Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Section 2:
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. (...)

The Supreme Court is the only court required by the United States Constitution. All other federal courts are created by U.S. Congress. The justices (currently nine) are appointed for life by the President of the United States and confirmed by majority vote by the Senate. One of these nine serves as Chief Justice; the remaining members are designated Associate Justices.

As with all federal courts, the jurisdiction of the court is limited. While the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in a few cases such as suits between states, most of its work consists of appellate review of cases from state supreme courts or from lower federal courts. Its jurisdiction is limited by Article III of the U.S. Constitution to "cases" and "controversies" arising under federal law. Thus, for example, cases that arise from the state supreme courts may only be heard by the United States Supreme Court if they present an issue of federal law. Where the state court decided the case on an independent and adequate state ground, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to hear it.

In addition, although the Constitution states the outer limits of the court's power, it also gives Congress the ability to limit its jurisdiction. Although Congress has authorized review of lower court decisions by direct appeal in limited circumstances, most cases are brought to the court by petition for a writ of certiorari, which the court has discretion to grant or deny. If the court grants certiorari, the case is placed on its calendar for briefing and oral argument. If the court denies certiorari, it does not decide the merits of the case, and the lower court's decision remains in force.

Group photo of current justices. Clockwise from upper left: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, and Antonin Scalia.


When deciding a case, each justice can write his or her own opinion; all these statements are made public. There is usually one opinion for the majority of the justices, which is designated the "Opinion of the Court". In addition to the majority opinion, there are often concurring and dissenting opinions. Usually, the majority opinion is signed by its author, but sometimes the court will issue an unsigned opinion "per curiam", particularly if it summarily reverses a lower court's decision without full briefing or oral argument. The majority opinion is usually preceded by a summary called a "syllabus", which concisely summarizes the case and the decision. The syllabus is accompanied by a disclaimer that it is prepared by the reporter of decisions and does not constitute a part of the court's opinion.

The practice of issuing an opinion of the court was initiated during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall in the early nineteenth century. This replaced the previous practice by which each justice would announce a separate opinion. The former practice is still followed by appellate courts in many common law jurisdictions outside the United States.

Case reporters and citations

Supreme Court decisions are cited as in the following example: Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 118 (1973). The parts of the citation are as follows:

  • the opposing parties (see below)
  • the number of the reporter volume in which the decision was published
  • "U.S.", signifying United States Reports, the official reporter for the U.S. Supreme Court
  • the page number where the decision begins
  • the page number(s) of the specific material cited
  • the year the case was decided

The listed names are given in the format "Petitioner v. Respondent", where the petitioner is the party that requested certiorari after having lost the previous decision in the case, and the respondent is the party having prevailed in the lower court. Where the case has come to the court by an appeal of right, as in what is called "probable jurisdiction," the appealing party (the "appellant") is named first. In cases involving a federal agency (for example, the United States Department of Justice), the head of the agency is often named as a party to the case, such as Ashcroft v. ACLU. The v. stands for versus, Latin for "against." In speaking, it is sometimes read as "vee", sometimes as "versus", and sometimes as "against."

In addition to the official United States Reports, Supreme Court cases are also reported in the Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct), published by West Publishing Company and including cases decided since 1882, and the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer's Edition first and second editions (L.Ed. and L.Ed.2d), with cases since 1790 published by the Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company. Both include everything in the official United States Reports as well as editorial features such as annotations and topic headers.

A case cite will often list in a parallel cite where the case can be found in all three reporters, as in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 (1973).

The reporter of decisions is responsible for publication of the Court's rulings.

Current Justices

As of 2004, the United States Supreme Court Justices are:

Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas are generally considered to be conservative. Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Stevens are generally considered to be liberal. Justices Kennedy, Souter, and O'Connor are typically seen as moderates, and hence are the swing votes who often decide cases.

See also: List of Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States


The Supreme Court convened for the first time on February 1, 1790 in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City. It moved to Philadelphia and finally to Washington, DC as the location of the national capital changed. For much of its history, it met in various spaces within the Capitol (and in a private house for a brief period when the Capitol was burned during the War of 1812). In 1935 it was finally moved to an independent structure more befitting its independent stature within the federal government. The United States Supreme Court building was designed by architect Cass Gilbert, and built between 1932 and 1935. It is located across the street from the Capitol.

The Court achieved its current influence in the life of the United States during the tenure of the Chief Justice John Marshall. He was appointed to the office by John Adams in the final days of Adams' presidency. As a political opponent of the Jeffersonian Republicans, Marshall delivered a number of opinions that they found uncongenial, strengthening the Judicial branch at the expense of the Executive branch and asserting the Court's monopoly on the interpretation of the Constitution. Foremost among these cases was Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803). On February 20, 1809 a decision by the Supreme Court stated that the power of the federal government was greater than any individual state.

John Marshall continued in office long enough to serve as Chief Justice during President Andrew Jackson's term of office. His court found the policy of Indian Removal to be unconstitutional, but Jackson purportedly replied: "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it." It is worth noting that the Supreme Court, unlike the Legislative or the Executive branches, has no budgetary or military power at its disposal. It relies solely upon respect of the constitution for adherence to its judgments. Jackson was later responsible for the Trail of Tears, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling (today, legal scholars use the label of executive nonacquiescence for such behavior). At the conclusion of United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), many feared that Richard Nixon would refuse to turn over the Watergate tapes and become the second president to defy the court. Nixon, however, complied.

Congress determines the number of justices on the Court. There have been nine justices on the Court since 1869. There were originally six until 1807 when 7th justice was added. In 1837 an 8th and 9th were added with a 10th in 1863. The Judicial Circuits Act of 1866 called for the removal of three seats as justices retired. One was removed in 1866 and a second in 1867. Before the third could be removed, Congress passed the Circuit Judges Act of 1869 which raised the number of seats back to nine. Since 1869, the Court has been kept at nine both for political reasons as well as practical necessity. Subsequent attempts to change the number of justices have since been rejected.

The last notable attempt to alter the number of justices was on February 5, 1937 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed an increase in the size of the Court to fifteen justices, one additional seat for each justice over age 70, to deal with a Court unwelcoming of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Many politicians at the time and historians since scorned this plan to "pack the court". The proposal failed on July 22 when the United States Senate voted against it.

Several years ago, the Supreme Court delivered a highly controversial 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), that ended weeks of bitter legal maneuvering between lower courts following the 2000 presidential election.

As of December 2004, there has not been a vacancy on the bench for over ten years. However, with Justice Rehnquist's illness, there is much speculation over Potential nominees to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Notable decisions

Notable statements

See also

External links

  Results from FactBites:
United States Supreme Court (142 words)
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The court began in 1789 with six members and was increased to seven in 1807, to nine in 1837, and to ten in 1863.
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