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Lawyer Library: Guide to the US Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court is the highest-ranking federal judicial body in the United States. The Court consists of one chief justice and eight associate justices, who can only be nominated by the President of the United States. Also known as the High Court, the Supreme Court mainly presides over appellate cases. The Court is located in Washington, D.C. in the United States Supreme Court Building.

Supreme Court History

The Supreme Court was established in the original United States Constitution upon its ratification on June 21, 1788. Although established ostensibly in 1788, it would be nearly two years before an actual gathering of the Supreme Court took place. When the first US Congress met on March 4, 1789, their main priority was to fulfill Article III, section I of the Constitution and create a physical "Supreme Court." The Constitution states, "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."

The First Congress brought these words to fruition by enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, which led to the creation of the original Supreme Court. Due to the fact that the Constitution merely established the Supreme Court, the Judiciary Act was left with completing the details. The Judiciary Act set the original number of justices (six) and established the rudimentary federal court system. The rudimentary system included 13 District Courts that presided over small crimes and civil suits. Most importantly, the Judiciary Act resulting in the first Supreme Court gathering on February 1, 1790 in New York's Merchant Exchange Building. Although their first meeting was in 1790, the Supreme Court presided over their first case in 1793.

The Supreme Court of the United States-History: Detailed history of the Supreme Court

History of the Supreme Court: An overview of the history of the Supreme Court

The US Constitution: Article III, section I of the Constitution helped establish the Supreme Court

Size of the Court

Although the Supreme Court was established in the Constitution, there were several ambiguous areas, one of which was size. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number of justices at six. The original Supreme Court consisted of a Chief Justice (John Jay) and five Associate Justices.

In the years following the first Judiciary Act, the number of justices changed frequently. The Judiciary Act of 1801 set the number of justices at five, only to be raised to six one year later with the Repeal Act of 1802. The largest Supreme Court was in 1863, when the number reached ten. The Judiciary Act of 1869 set the number at nine, where it remains to this day. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Congress to increase the number of justices to fifteen.

Appointment and Confirmation

A Supreme Court Justice can only be appointed by a sitting President and must be confirmed by the US Senate. The President's power to appoint justices is granted in the second article of the US Constitution. The President may appoint anyone they want because the Constitution does not list any requirements. Since it is a life tenure position, appointment vacancies occur when a justice retires or passes away.

After a President appoints an individual, he or she must go through a rigorous confirmation process. The justice nominee first meets with the Senate Judiciary Committee, then undergoes Senate Judiciary Confirmation Hearings. After the hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on whether to send the nominee to the full Senate. The nominee must receive a majority vote of 51% in order to be confirmed.

Supreme Court Justice Biographies

John G. Roberts:

John Roberts Biography

Supreme Court Under John Roberts: A New York Times piece examining the direction the Supreme Court has taken under Chief Justice Roberts.

Antonin Scalia:

Antonin Scalia Biography

NPR Interview With Antonin Scalia: A three-part interview with Justice Antonin Scalia in which he discusses: life, the Supreme Court, politics and The Constitution.

Anthony Kennedy:

Anthony Kennedy Biography

Anthony Kennedy Discusses 'Freedom': An American Bar Association meeting in which Justice Anthony Kennedy discusses the meaning of "Freedom."

Clarence Thomas:

Clarence Thomas Biography

Biography of Clarence Thomas: A biography of Justice Clarence Thomas that appears on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Website.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biography

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the WRP: Article discussing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her role in co-founding the Women's Rights Program at the ACLU.

Stephen Breyer:

Stephen Breyer Biography

On the Issues: Stephen Breyer: Justice Stephen Breyer's stance on crime in various Supreme Court decisions.

Samuel Alito:

Samuel Alito Biography

Samuel Alito Published Opinions: Comprehensive collection of Justice Samuel Alito's published opinions on numerous topics including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, criminal law and reproductive rights among others.

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor Biography

Background on Sonia Sotomayor: Official White House Press Release from May 2009 when President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court

Elena Kagan

Elena Kagan Biography

President Barack Obama's Confirmation Speech: A Whitehouse speech in which Barack Obama honored the confimation of Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court

Resources

Lawyer Resources