The Supreme Court of the United States

Wesley Bocxe

The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court of law in the judicial branch of the government. It is the most powerful court in the nation.

The court has nine members. It is made up of one chief justice and eight associate justices (judges). The president nominates the justices. They must then be confirmed by the Senate. Justices may serve for life or until they retire. Some justices have served for 30 years or more. Justice William O. Douglas served longer than any other justice. When he retired in 1975, he had been on the court for more than 36 years.

The Supreme Court meets in the Supreme Court Building. Built in 1935, it faces the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C. It is a beautiful white-marble building that looks like an ancient Greek temple. The front of the building features a row of majestic columns. Above the columns, these words are inscribed: "Equal Justice Under the Law."

What the Supreme Court Does

The Supreme Court was authorized by Article III of the Constitution. It says, "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." Congress decided how many justices the Supreme Court would have. The Supreme Court met for the first time in 1790.

The Supreme Court is the guardian and interpreter of the Constitution. It has the final say when it comes to the law. The court has many important powers. One is the ability to declare laws unconstitutional. This is known as the power of judicial review. Judicial review allows the Supreme Court to check the power of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. The court can also curtail the powers of state governments.

In most of its cases, the Supreme Court acts as an appeals court. That is, it reviews cases that were already decided in lower courts. Some of those cases come to the Supreme Court from U.S. appellate courts. Others come from state supreme courts. The Supreme Court confirms or overrules the decisions of these lower courts.

More than 7,000 cases make their way to the Supreme Court every year. But the court decides fewer than 250 of them. The justices decide only cases that involve important issues. Many of the cases have to do with constitutional issues. Others have to do with the laws of the United States.

At the hearings, lawyers sometimes give oral arguments. The justices can then ask them questions. The lawyers may also submit briefs, or summaries, of their positions. The justices discuss the cases and eventually vote. At least five of the nine justices must agree on the final decision.

The court's decisions are final. They serve as guidelines for every other court in the nation. Supreme Court rulings can be changed in only two ways. The Supreme Court itself can change a ruling. Or a ruling can be changed by amending the Constitution.

The Court at the Center of Controversy

In recent times, the justices have disagreed about how the court should interpret the Constitution. Some justices say the Constitution must be interpreted in light of the beliefs, needs, and circumstances of the day. These justices are called activists.

Other justices are called traditionalists. They say the court should try to determine what the intentions of the Founding Fathers of the nation were. The court should then make its decisions accordingly. When this is not possible, traditionalists say, the court should allow the executive or legislative branch of the government to decide the issue.

The court has had critics throughout its history. In the early 1800s, Chief Justice John Marshall made the Supreme Court very powerful. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson criticized this. They feared that the court's decisions gave the federal government too much power compared with the states' power.

President Abraham Lincoln attacked the court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). The ruling in that case declared that African Americans could not become U.S. citizens. It also said that Congress did not have the constitutional authority to outlaw slavery in the federal territories. Lincoln believed that the court's decision was not faithful to the Constitution.

Another famous confrontation occurred in 1937. That was during the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were out of work. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed programs through Congress to help the people and the economy. But the court declared many of his programs unconstitutional. As a result, Roosevelt tried to add more justices to the court. He wanted justices who were favorable to his programs. His plan was defeated in the Senate.

The Nation's Conscience

The role of the Supreme Court in American history has been monumental. In many cases, it has acted as the nation's conscience. Its power of judicial review makes possible a second look at actions by Congress and the president. Minorities have often gotten protection from the court that they could not get from Congress. And the court's ability to review justice in the 50 states means that local practices will not fall below acceptable national standards.

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