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Understanding How the U.S. Supreme Court Works

4 min read

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By Matt Jacobson

Supreme Court cases can affect the lives of average Americans. Learn how the highest court in the U.S. works and how Supreme Court decisions impact legal cases across the country.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the U.S. and is the top level of the United States Judicial Branch, one of the three branches of government. The Court meets in the Supreme Court building residing in Washington, D.C.

How Many Justices Are on the Supreme Court?

There are currently nine justices on the Supreme Court. This hasn’t always been the case, though. The original Supreme Court had just six members, and the actual number of justices has varied between five and 10 throughout U.S. history. An Act of Congress is required to change the number of Supreme Court justices.

How Are Supreme Court Justices Chosen?

Supreme Court justices are appointed by the President of the United States and the nomination is approved by the Senate. This typically involves a series of hearings during which Senators from both parties question the potential justice to ensure the nominee can fulfill the role. The Senate holds a vote and a simple majority is required to confirm the president’s appointment. Once approved, Supreme Court justices hold office for life.

Who Is on the Supreme Court Right Now?

The Supreme Court includes one chief justice and eight associate justices. As of September 2021, the Supreme Court justices include:

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Who Is In Charge of the Supreme Court?

The chief justice presides over the Supreme Court during both public sessions when the entire court is listening to a case and private sessions when the justices are debating the merits of the case between themselves. John G. Roberts is the current chief justice and has served in this position since 2006.

When a vacancy occurs in the chief justice position, the president can either appoint a new Supreme Court justice to the position of chief justice or promote one of the associate justices to that position and then appoint a new Supreme Court justice to the now-open associate justice position.

Note: Congress has to approve either decision.


What Does SCOTUS Mean?

SCOTUS is a nickname for the Supreme Court sometimes used in social media posts and news articles. It is made up of the first letters of the phrase “Supreme Court of the United States.”

How Many Cases Does the Supreme Court Hear Each Year?

Each year, the Supreme Court gets petitioned to hear between 7,000 and 8,000 cases, but the justices only accept a small portion of these. The Court hears approximately 80 cases per year. When the Supreme Court agrees to hear a case, this is called granting certiorari.

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What Kind of Cases Does the Supreme Court Hear?

Typically, cases chosen for a hearing are those that involve questions of constitutionality or that will affect people throughout the entire country, not just the people involved in one specific case. Some types of cases the Supreme Court hears include:

How Do Cases Reach the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court is the final level of the federal judicial system, but there are a few ways that cases can reach them.

Most Supreme Court cases today originate in federal district court. There are 94 district courts in the United States. Once a case is decided in the district court, the losing party can appeal the decision to the circuit court. There are 13 circuit courts in the country. These circuit courts can opt to hear the case or let the judgement of the lower court stand. If the circuit court hears the case, the losing party can then appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then decides whether to let the circuit court judgement stand or to hear the case.

Another way that cases reach the Supreme Court is through state court systems. If a case has been appealed all the way through a state system to the state Supreme Court for that state, the losing party can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court as a final appeal effort.

In rare cases, the justices may hear cases that originate directly in the Supreme Court. This includes cases that are between two states and cases involving diplomatic issues, such as a case against an ambassador.

What Is the Rule of Four?

To take on a case, four of the currently serving nine justices must agree to hear the case. This is referred to as the Rule of Four.

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What Happens During a Supreme Court Case?

Once the Supreme Court decides to grant certiorari, the lawyers for both sides file written briefs supporting their positions. The court then typically has the lawyers from both sides of the case come in to present oral arguments in front of the justices. The justices then consult in private to discuss the case and vote on the issues presented. Cases are decided by a simple majority, so once five of the nine justices agree, the case is decided. The Court may then write a formal opinion describing why the decision was made. Sometimes, the justice or justices who disagree with the majority decision may also present a written dissenting opinion.

The Supreme Court justices may also opt to grant certiorari and then either affirm or reverse the lower court’s decision without collecting written briefs or hearing oral arguments.

How Can You Find Out About Recent Supreme Court Cases?

Many Supreme Court cases are reported in the news as soon as they occur. The American Bar Association provides short online summaries of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions for interested parties to read. You can also find all written Supreme Court opinions published in the Court’s official publication, the United States Reports.

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