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The Judicial Branch

9c. The Supreme Court: What Does It Do?

Supreme Court Justices
Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the eight associate justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court for life. They will remain on the Court until they retire, resign, are impeached, or die.

The justices are somehow different from other well-known figures in government. They dress in long black robes. They almost never appear on magazine covers, and they seem to stay on the court forever. They announce their decisions periodically, then disappear into their "Marble Palace."

In anger, President Franklin Roosevelt once called them "nine old men." What connections do they have to real-world government and politics, and what work do they do? The power of the Court is reflected in the work it does, and its decisions often shape policy as profoundly as any law passed by Congress or any action taken by the president.

The Power of Choice

Amistad Movie Poster
The Supreme Court chose to hear the case United States v. the Claimants of the Amistad (1841) because of its implications to the United States's foreign relations. The case was documented in Steven Spielberg's 1997 movie, Amistad.

The Court receives about 7,000 petitions every year. It has almost complete control over which cases it will hear. The justices choose about 90 percent of their 100 to 120 cases by writ of certiorari, an order to send up a case record from a lower court.

Typically, the justices discuss any cases one of them has recommended from earlier readings. The Rule of Four governs their choices: if four justices vote to hear a case, all nine agree to it.

How do they choose their cases? Generally, the Court considers only cases that have far-reaching implications beyond the two parties involved in the dispute. For example, a case in which a student sues an assistant principal for searching a locker may shape the privacy rights of all students in public schools. The court also tends to hear cases in which two lower courts have reached conflicting decisions. And it tends to look closely at lower court decisions that contradict earlier Supreme Court decisions.

Hearing and Deciding a Case

Thurgood Marshall
NAACP lawyers congratulate each other on the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Attorney Thurgood Marshall, center, was later named the first African American justice of the Supreme Court.

Hearings begin in October every year, and the last cases are usually heard in June. The justices receive briefs, or summaries of arguments, from the lawyers ahead of time. Often they receive amici curiae, or briefs prepared by interest groups or government agencies that support one side or the other. The hearings are open to the public and are strictly timed. Each side has 30 minutes to present its case, and the justices typically ask questions and even debate one another during the allotted time.

After the public hearing the justices meet together privately to discuss the case. They share their opinions, debate the issues, and eventually come to a conclusion. Each justice takes a side individually, and because there are nine justices (an uneven number), one side always wins.

Announcing and Implementing a Decision

When the Court announces a decision, the individual justice's opinions are revealed. A unanimous decision (9-0) indicates that the justices were in total agreement. This vote is rare because the cases that have been chosen are the tough ones. Decisions are usually split 6-3, 7-2, or 5-4.

Along with the decisions, the justices release explanations for each side. A majority opinion is prepared (usually by the senior justice on that side), and the justices whose point of view did not prevail release a dissenting opinion. A justice who agrees with the majority decision but reaches the same conclusion for different reasons sometimes presents a concurring opinion.

Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court comprises one chief justice, and a number of associate justices that is determined by Congress. Today, there are a total of nine justices.

The power of the Court to implement its decisions is limited. For example, in the famous 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the justices ruled that racial segregation (separate but equal) in public places is unconstitutional. But, it took many years for school districts to desegregate.

The Court has no means (such as an army) to force implementation. Instead, it must count on the executive and legislative branches to back its decisions. In the Civil Rights Movement, the Court led the way, but the other branches had to follow before real change could take place.

Despite the Supreme Court's limitations in implementing decisions, the justices often set policies that lead to real social change. So even though justices don't do a great deal of their work in public, and most Americans don't have a good sense of what they do, their decisions are very important. The Supreme Court has real power in the American political system.

On the Web
Brown v. Board of Education Timeline
Think segregation in America is over? The Supreme Court decided in the landmark case Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that "separate but equal" had no place in public schools. But 28 years after the case was decided, Linda Brown filed another lawsuit alleging that the Topeka school system was still segregated. Find out about Supreme Court actions taken as late as 1994 to enforce desegregation in schools nationwide.
Partial Birth Abortion Decision
Ever since the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, abortion has been an issue that has divided the American people. Read CNN's coverage of the latest Supreme Court decision that affects a woman's right to choose. The piece defines the issue and gives excerpts from the majority and dissenting opinions. It also explains the impact of this decision on laws banning partial birth abortion throughout the nation.
A History of the Supreme Court
Think freshmen only get picked on in high school? The newest Justice of the Supreme Court has to vote last and take handwritten notes on whether or not the Court will hear arguments. How has the form and function of the Supreme Court changed over the centuries? This FindLaw website explains the original appearance and responsibilities of the court, as well as how it has grown into its present form. The duties of the Justices, clerks, and other officials are addressed, as well as the decision making process itself.
U.S. Supreme Court Plus
Groundbreaking as an institution, rooted in tradition, and governed by strict procedure, the Supreme Court is one of the most historically significant bodies in American government. At this USSCplus website, learn about the history and importance of the highest court in the land. A clickable photograph of the Supreme Court justices leads you to short biographies on each one, as well as a section on the Court building itself.
Roe v. Wade: 25 Years Later
Nothing so divides the American populace as the issue of abortion rights. CNN tracks both sides of the issue in this presentation marking the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. See how the original case was decided and how it affects women and Washington politics today.
Who is Jane Roe?
in 1970, Norma McCorvey was a 21-year-old woman pregnant with her third child and seeking an abortion. Today, she is a staunch antiabortion activist. See what changed her mind.
FDR's Court Packing Bill
What does a President do when the Supreme Court doesn't agree with his or her policies? Usually, nothing. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt had other ideas. In 1937, the Supreme Court was filled with older, conservative men who struck down a number of New Deal programs. Roosevelt proposed increasing the size of the court to get the programs through — and failed! Read the text and listen to a recording of Roosevelt's fireside chat radio program that introduced the plan to the American people.
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