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The Purpose and Processes of the Supreme Court of the United States


R.A. Smith is a veteran of Public Service in the U.S. with over twenty years of Public Agency leadership and policy experience.

Equal Justice Under the Law

Supreme Court

Supreme Court

The Judicial Branch and The Role of The Supreme Court

Because the Constitution of the United States guarantees its citizens a balance of power in the federal government, three branches share the responsibilities entrusted to the government. The responsibility of the Legislative Branch, known as Congress, is to make laws to serve and protect the citizens of the United States. The responsibility of the Executive Branch is to enforce and carry out the laws. The Judicial Branch is responsible for evaluating and interpreting the constitutionality of the laws and how they are applied.

The Judicial Branch of the federal government is comprised of lower federal trial courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals and the the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court hears cases appealed from lower federal courts, and also from state courts if federal laws are involved. The court rarely hears new cases. In balancing the legislative process, the Supreme Court can overturn unconstitutional laws.

In session from October to late June or July, the Supreme Court reviews written arguments of several thousands of cases each year. Seventy to Eighty of those cases are granted oral arguments, where each side in the case is given 30 minutes before the Justices. Typically the Justices ask clarifying questions of the attorneys, to assist them in their decisions on the case.

Supreme Court cases are decided before the Court's session ends, but the case could be under review for the entire session. After reviewing the arguments, the Justices vote on the case and write their opinions. The majority opinion becomes the Court's decision, but votes can change after opinions are read. If the Court is not full, there may not be a majority opinion, and in that event, the decision of the lower Court will stand.

Wisdom of The Supreme Court

We have the oldest written constitution still in force in the world, and it starts out with three words, 'We, the people.'

— Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Fuller Court 1899

The Fuller Court 1899

The Nomination Process For Supreme Court Justices

With the separation of powers of the federal government designed into the process, the United States Constitution gives the President the responsibility of nominating individuals for appointment to the Supreme Court. The Senate has the responsibility of confirming the appointment. There are no set minimum qualifications for Justices. In fact nominees have been appointed who had not even attended law school.

The length of service for a Justice is described by the Constitution as "during good behavior". This essentially translates to holding the seat as long as desired, unless impeached from office. The average length of service has been about sixteen years. The Chief Justice is appointed by the President, and confirmed by the Senate. Prior Supreme Court experience is not required for the Chief Justice position.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to set the number of members on the Supreme Court. Though the size of the Court has varied since its original six member origins, it has been set at nine members, one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, since 1869. A quorum of six Justices is required for a decision.

Just as the criteria by which the President chooses his nominees are his choice alone, the confirmation process is at the pleasure of the Senate. Traditionally the President has conferred with the Senate prior to announcing the nomination, sharing background information to aid in the confirmation process. Confirmation usually begins with hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, before moving to a vote of the full Senate.

Originally the confirmation process was planned to ensure that the nominees were qualified. But the Senate is a political institution, and Senators often vote with politics in mind. A major political shift has taken place in the confirmation process over the last thirty-five years. Where the process didn't originally consider questions about judicial decision making, the Robert Bork confirmation hearing of 1987 marked a significant move toward politically based questioning.

Wisdom of The Supreme Court

Common sense often makes a good law.

— Justice William O. Douglas

The Confirmation Process Changes

Partisan Politicians Appointing Impartial Jurists

Since the rejection of Robert Bork's nomination in 1987 by a divided but bipartisan majority, Senate confirmation hearings have become openly partisan war, fought largely in highly publicized, often televised, primetime rancorous battles. In this format, Senate committee members present their case, for or against the nominee, to the public in often long-winded oratory meant to garner media and public support for their party's decision. Questions, when asked of the nominee, are no longer framed to highlight his or her qualifications for interpreting constitutional law, but are more aimed at exposing his or her partisan and social leanings, as well as their personal human flaws for public consumption. Character and/or material witnesses are deposed or brought in to testify at the hearings in emotional cross-examination spectacles that often leave both witness and nominee in anger or tears.

Ironically, the original intent of tasking only the Senate with confirmation responsibility, was to distance the process from the public's closest representatives in Congress (the House of Representative), thereby insulating nominees from the very partisan and political scrutiny they now commonly face. Confirmation hearings are often accompanied by public protests and demonstrations. Race and gender of the nominees are often announced to the public prior to the name in order to gauge or to soften public opinion. Media plays a huge role in swelling support or dissent far in advance of the hearings. Even before a presidential candidate is elected, his or her preferences for Supreme Court nominees is queried and scrutinized by Congress, the media and the public.

Wisdom of The Supreme Court

If we desire respect for the law we must first make the law respectable.

— Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Integrity of The Supreme Court

With American history currently in public disdain, and arguably in danger of complete denigration and rejection, the Supreme Court of the United States must retain its integrity. The unimpeded interpretation of the Constitution is the oversight required to keep the Republic whole in times of division within and between the Legislative and Executive Branches of the Federal Government. The separation of powers in Washington D.C. has never been more important or more at risk.

Wisdom of The Supreme Court

I think that the legitimacy of the court would be undermined in any case if the court made a decision based on its perception of public opinion.

— Justice Samuel Alito

Overview of The Court


Wisdom of The Supreme Court

We care about this institution more than our individual egos and we are all devoted to keeping the Supreme Court in the place that it is, as a co-equal third branch of government and I think a model for the world in the collegiality and independence of judges.

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg

For Additional Information

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