Supreme Court

Imagine a group of judges with the power to counter the President or the entire Congress. You may know that there have only been 46 U.S. Presidents, but did you know there have only been 115 Supreme Court Justices? This article is about the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest level of the U.S. judicial system.   As the highest court in the U.S. federal government, decisions have a massive impact on the citizens, businesses, and even other branches/levels of government.  In this summary, we will examine the functions and structure of the court, as well its history and membership.

Supreme Court Supreme Court

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Table of contents

    Supreme Court Definition

    Have you ever heard of SCOTUS? This acronym refers to the Supreme Court of the United States. Currently made up of nine judges, called justices, this body is known as the highest court in America. The Supreme Court has the ability to have the final say on reviewing laws and policies.

    “Equal Justice Under Law '' is inscribed on the building above the main entrance for all to see. The mission of this court is to serve as the final decision maker in reviewing legal issues in the United States of America.

    Supreme Court, Photo of marble statue in front of columned building, U.S. Supreme Court, StudySmarterFig 1. U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.

    Supreme Court Structure

    The Supreme Court was organized and empowered by Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

    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.”

    -Article 3, Section 1

    Purposes of the Supreme Court

    The Supreme Court as we know it decides what violates the constitution and what doesn't. Sometimes this means deciding whether a citizen's rights have been violated, or whether the government has acted outside the scope of its powers. The court uses many tools to make these decisions: The original text; amendments; interpretations; and previous court decisions for example. In addition, the Court serves a ceremonial role in administering the Presidential Oath of Office during inaugurations, as well as overseeing pivotal procedures such as Presidential impeachment trials.

    Justices of the court deliberate and issue rulings, or "opinions," on a limited number of cases annually that impact U.S. law and policy. As designed in the Constitution, three branches of national government were established, with a separation of powers between each branch. In contrast to the judicial branch, the legislative branch is charged with making the laws while the executive branch is charged with carrying out the laws.

    Judicial Review

    The Supreme Court has the power to declare federal laws or Presidential actions unconstitutional. This clear example of checks and balances seeks to prohibit the legislative and executive branches from abusing their power under the Constitution. The federal courts and the Supreme Court have the unique power of judicial review in order to make sure the other branches do not become too powerful.

    The Supreme Court, Seal of the United States Supreme Court, StudySmarterFig 2. The seal of the United States Supreme Court

    Powers and Functions of the Supreme Court

    The basic functions of the Supreme Court are to:

    • Interpret the Constitution of the United States

    • Rule on cases where the Constitution or federal regulations or laws are questioned in the lower courts

    • Use the power of Judicial Review (established in Marbury v. Madison) to determine whether actions of the other two branches of government violate the constitution.

    Did you know? The Supreme Court oversees the inauguration of U.S. Presidents, but is not technically required to in the Constitution. Someone with the legal authority to administer an oath is required, and the Supreme Court Chief Justice is viewed as the best and most honored official to complete the task.

    Supreme Court Operations

    The Supreme Court holds annual sessions in Washington, D.C.starting on the first Monday in October. The session runs through June and occasionally into early July. During that time, the Justices hear cases, draft opinions and deliver decisions. Court opinions are heavily followed and reported in the news.

    Supreme Court Justices

    The Supreme Court Justices have a powerful role in the U.S. federal government. Each Supreme Court justice is nominated by the U.S. President and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, bringing a certain level of political discussion to the process. In a rare government instance, Supreme Court Justices serve for life. That means justices can serve in the role until they choose to retire or die. The Chief Justice and Associate Justices have considerable power.

    Supreme Court Chief Justice

    One of the nine justices serves as ‘Chief Justice,’ who acts as the chief administrator of the Court and helps facilitate decisions among the justices about which cases to hear. In this process, the justices usually receive 7,000-8,000 requests to hear cases each year. These are called Petitions for Certiorari, and are reviewed using a threshold known as the "Rule of Four." When at least 4 of the 9 justices are in favor of hearing arguments in a matter, they issue a Writ of Certiorari. Only about 80 cases per year are chosen by the court for review.

    Did you know? The Supreme Court of the U.S. is unique in that there are no term limits. Justices serve for as long as they wish, with impeachment the only method of removal (only used once).

    Members of the Supreme Court

    Since 1869, Federal law has fixed the number of Supreme Court Justices at 9. The current makeup of the court is listed below, with Republican appointees labeled in red and Democratic in blue.


    Appointed by President

    On the Court since

    Kentanji Brown Jackson

    Joe Biden


    Amy Coney Barrett

    Donald Trump


    Brett Kavanaugh

    Donald Trump


    Neil Gorsuch

    Donald Trump


    Elena Kagan

    Barack Obama


    Sonia Sotomayor

    Barack Obama


    Samuel Alito

    George W. Bush


    John Roberts (Chief Justice)

    George W. Bush


    Clarence Thomas

    George H.W. Bush


    Current Members of the U.S. Supreme Court 2022. StudySmarter Original.

    Politics and the Court

    The Supreme Court has political connections, as justices are nominated by individual U.S. Presidents based on their judicial beliefs and past rulings. Furthermore, a politically divided Senate must confirm the justice. Overall, the Court aims to be an independent government body, but has considerable power in shaping the course of American laws and operations.

    Supreme Court History

    Since its creation under the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Supreme Court has undergone minimal changes for most of U.S. History. Court composition has ranged between 5-10 justices, with the current number of 9 set in 1869. As long as Justices exhibit what the Constitution labels ‘good behavior,' they can remain in office unless they decide to retire or are forced out due to illness or death. The only case of impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice was in 1805 when Samuel Chase was impeached by the U.S. House for treason, but the Senate dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

    Supreme Court Interpretations

    Over its long history, the Supreme Court has ruled on issues ranging from free speech, gun ownership rights, abortion, and health care. On occasion, some decisions are so far-reaching and stand out as impacting the course of the nation’s legal system that they are known as landmark decisions.

    Landmark Supreme Court Decisions




    Marbury v. Madison


    Established judicial review precedent = Court has the power to strike down laws that violate the Constitution

    McCulloch v. Maryland


    Clarified and strengthened powers of Congress to use authority. In this case, to establish a national bank.

    Dred Scott v. Sandford


    Denied citizenship to enslaved people

    Plessy v. Ferguson


    Upheld ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation laws in the American South.

    Korematsu v. United States


    Upheld U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

    Brown v. Board of Education


    Overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, finding racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

    Miranda v. Arizona


    Required law enforcement to advise an individual of their rights during arrest.

    Tinker v. Des Moines


    Vietnam protest case that established guidelines for determining which restrictions on student speech violated the Constitution.

    Roe v. Wade


    Established the framework for the right to terminate a pregnancy during first two trimesters.

    U.S. v. Nixon


    Prohibited U.S. President from using power to withhold evidence from criminal investigation.

    District of Columbia v. Heller


    Upheld individuals’ right to keep and bear firearms.

    Obergefell v. Hodges


    Struck down state bans on same-sex marriage.

    Table of Landmark Supreme Court Decisions, StudySmarter Original

    Do you know what type of cases go to the Supreme Court? Challenges to federal laws or policies that have made their way up the federal court system may be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Typically, cases have importance to national policy and/or an impact on large numbers of U.S. citizens.

    Supreme Court - Key takeaways

    • The Supreme Court members (currently 9) are chosen by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
    • The Court decides whether Congressional laws and Presidential actions are constitutional.
    • The Court is one of three co-equal branches of the U.S. federal government.
    • The Supreme Court is the highest federal court, referencing their ability to have the final say on reviewing laws and policies.
    • The Court’s authority of judicial review serves as a check and balance on the legislative and executive branches.
    • Supreme Court decisions that have a significant impact on American law and society are known as landmark decisions.


    1. Fig 2. Seal of the United States Supreme Court - SDNY (48126560173).jpg ( by Ajay Suresh ( by CC BY 2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Supreme Court

    Who are the members of the Supreme Court?

    Currently, members of the Supreme Court are Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer,  John Roberts (Chief Justice), Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch,  Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.  In June 2022, Stephen Breyer is retiring with Ketanji Brown Jackson joining in October 2022.

    What is the Supreme Court and what is its purpose?

    The Supreme Court serves to interpret and protect the U.S. Constitution.  In selected court cases the 9 member court decides whether laws or policies enacted at the federal level are constitutional.

    How many justices are there in the Supreme Court?

     Since 1869, Federal law has fixed the number of Supreme Court Justices at 9. 

    How does the Supreme Court operate?

    The Supreme Court meets in annual sessions with periods of review, case hearings and development of written decisions.

    Who controls the Supreme Court?

    The Supreme Court is an independent, co-equal branch of government.  Justices are nominated by Presidents and approved by the Senate creating a loose political connection.

    What are the five powers of the Supreme Court?

     1- interpret the Constitution of the United States

     2- rule on cases where the Constitution or federal regulations or laws are questioned in the  lower courts

     3 - interpret laws to judge constitutionality

     4- -engage in judicial review

     5-  to secure the application of law according to the Constitution

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Supreme Court is the highest level of which branch of government?

    The Supreme Court is made up of how many justices?

    What legal document is the basis for Supreme Court decision-making?


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