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The Power of the United States Supreme Court

November 5, 2021

In recent years, there has been increased public interest in the United States Supreme Court. Politics surrounding the Court has sparked a national conversation regarding whether the institution is truly objective. Recently, due to partisan division, we’ve witnessed a president being denied his constitutional right to appoint a justice. Meanwhile, multiple justices were appointed by presidents who didn’t win the popular vote, and multiple justices were accused of sexual assault and harassment during their confirmation hearings. 

The increasing political division surrounding the Court, the potential criminal behavior of some of the justices, and one party changing the appointment rules to superimpose its own mandate has sparked outrage and has left many in this country to wonder: Will access to safe and legal abortions throughout the nation last? Will same-sex marriage continue to be legal? If the Court is tasked, again, with deciding the next president, will the justices be fair, or will they engage in payback to the party that is responsible for them sitting on the Court? 

We must keep up this conversation and the pressure for Supreme Court reforms. But before we embark on those conversations within our circles, there are a few things to know about the Court’s origin and the power it has in our government. 

What is the Supreme Court, and when was it established? 

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States for all cases and disputes relating to the Constitution and the laws in our country. 

The Constitution established the United States Supreme Court, and, following the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Court met for the first time in 1790. The Court is made up of one chief justice and “such number of Associate Justices as may be fixed by Congress.” Judges are nominated to the Court by the president, and nominations are confirmed or rejected by the United States Senate. 

Since the mid-1800s, there have been nine judges, but according to the Constitution, there is no rule that prevents more or fewer judges from sitting on the Court. The chief and associate justices are responsible for ensuring that all Americans receive equal justice under the law by serving as the ultimate arbiters of the law. The Court interprets, and therefore protects, the United States Constitution and its people. 

What is a Supreme Court justice, and what do they do? 

The Supreme Court receives 7,000 to 8,000 petitions each year and agrees to take on approximately eighty cases each term. Supreme Court justices listen to oral arguments on the eighty cases granted certiorari. Cases granted certiorari–typically, but aren’t limited to–the following three categories: (1) a case regarding national importance, such as Bush v. Gore, (2) a lower-court ruling that invalidates federal law, such as Gonzales v Raich, or (3) settling a split decision between lower courts, such as Obergefell v. Hodges

Additionally, the justices are responsible to one or more of the thirteen federal circuits to oversee emergency applications and other business related to the lower courts. Furthermore, justices can pause the implementation of an order issued by a circuit court, determine the bond for a defendant, or halt the deportation of an undocumented person. The justices also have the power to act on applications that request to stay an execution.  

What is a Supreme Court term? 

Established by law, the Court begins its term on the first Monday of October and commences late June or early July. 

The court alternates every two weeks from sitting sessions and intervening recesses. Sittings are when justices hear oral arguments and deliver opinions on cases. Intervening recesses are when the Court considers new business and crafts decisions, which are also known as opinions. 

How long are Supreme Court arguments? 

On average, each side has thirty minutes to make their oral argument and persuade the Court that the way they are interpreting the law is correct. Some cases, although very rare, are granted up to one hour to make their case. There are no juries or witnesses because almost all cases that come before the Court are reviews of decisions already made by lower courts. Before justices make their decision, they consider the records shared with them, which include lower-court decisions, evidence, and briefs from both parties, and have an oral argument period, during which justices are permitted to ask any questions they may have regarding the case.

Supreme Court decisions are virtually final. In rare situations, a ruling can be altered through a constitutional amendment or through the Court issuing a new ruling. After the Court’s interpretation of a law, Congress can take legislative action. 

Now that you know about the power of the Supreme Court, how the Court functions, and its origins, you are equipped to help ensure that the Court-reform discussion continues, so that one day soon we’ll have a Supreme Court that is indisputably impartial and fair. 


Photo Credit: Ian Hutchinson