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Law and Politics

The U.S. Supreme Court

America's highest court in the land

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WHAT IT IS

  • The United States Constitution established the Supreme Court as part of the judicial branch of government.

  • The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States and is comprised of 9 Justices. [U.S. Courts]

  • The Supreme Court hears about 80 cases every year. [The Washington Post]

WHY IT MATTERS

 

CIVICS: Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states, [National Constitution Center]

 “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 number of justices on the court was first established to be six by the Judiciary Act of 1789. Over history, it has fluctuated from six to five to ten. There is no constitutional requirement for the number of sitting justices. [National Constitution Center]

 

SOCIAL: The Supreme Court decides fewer than 100 cases a year and has the power to settle conflicts between each state and the federal government.  A Supreme Court decision can strike down legislation or policy, and creates legal precedent. Many believe this creates the final say on controversial topics. [BBC]

 

BACKGROUNDS

Many believe that the Supreme Court should be impartial and remain out of politics. [The Wall Street Journal] This is not a constitutional requirement.

 

Yet, many feel Supreme Court Justices have political views that often align with the politics of the president that nominated them. [Newsweek]

 

Each Justice’s background contributes to their opinions on issues such as abortion, gun rights, or presidential power. [USA Today]

 

Some former Supreme Court Justices, such as Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor, sided with their liberal colleagues on some issues and the conservative Justices on others. They were called "swing Justices." [The New York Times]

 

IN SESSION

The Supreme Court is in session from October to late June or early July. [Supreme Court of the United States]

 

The court hears cases of national significance relating to the constitution or national laws. [U.S. Courts]

 

A case is placed "on the docket" if the Justices agree to hear it. [U.S. Courts]

 

Once a ruling is "struck", the precedent is set and can be difficult to reverse. Some argue this gives the Supreme Court the power to set law. [Boston University]

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First row: Elena Kagan, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel A. Alito, Brett M. Kavanaugh

 

Second row: Neil M. Gorsuch, John G. Roberts, Jr., Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. [Supreme Court of the United States]

  • Supreme Court Justices receive lifetime appointments and remain on the court until they retire or pass away.
  • U.S. presidents nominate Supreme Court Justices whenever there is a vacancy on the court. [The New York Times]

  • Recent presidents have tended to nominate someone with substantial judicial experience. [The Wall Street Journal]

  • A nominee must be confirmed by the Senate before an appointment to the Supreme Court becomes official. [Georgetown Law]

  • If a nominated Justice isn’t confirmed by the time a new session begins, the court hears cases with eight Justices instead of nine. [NPR]

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • May 2020: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court will for the first time hear cases remotely and live stream arguments to the public. [NPR]

  • Oct. 2018: President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. The Senate confirmed Kavanaugh amid sexual harassment allegations. [Reuters], [Vox]

  • Apr. 2017: Neil Gorsuch, another Trump appointment, was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2017. [TIME]

  • Former President Barack Obama appointed Circuit Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016. The Republican-controlled Congress did not hold a vote for political reasons, and Garland was not confirmed. [NPR]

  • Aug 5, 2020: Approval of the Supreme Court is around 58%, the highest since 2009. [Gallup News]

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • The majority of Democratic and Republican voters believe Supreme Court appointments are a “very important” voting issue. [Pew Research Center]

  • Should Supreme Court justices receive lifetime appointments? Some experts say an 18-year term makes more sense. [The Washington Post]

  • All opinions published by the Supreme Court are accessible here.

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This article is aligned with Purple for Democracy,

a movement to support democracy through non-partisan, non-political content. 

Learn more about the Purple movement here

 

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