The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. As the Judicial Branch of the U.S. government, it serves to balance the powers of the Legislative and Executive branches and stands as the final word in any given legal dispute. Once the Supreme Court has made a decision, no other court can review or overturn that decision.
Today, the authority of the Supreme Court is very clear. Roughly 5,000 cases are submitted to the court every year, but it only has time to take on 100 to 150 of them. Usually, the Supreme Court only accepts cases that:
- involve some crucial question related to the U.S. Constitution
- have been appealed from a lower federal court
- involve treason, ambassadors or disputes with other countries
The Supreme Court did not always have this power, however. The Constitution is very vague about the authority of the court, saying only that its "Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution." The specifics, such as where and when the court would meet, how many justices there would be and exactly what is covered under "cases arising under this Constitution" were left to Congress to decide later. It wasn't until Justice John Marshall's 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison that the Supreme Court's authority to judge matters of constitutionality was determined.
When the Supreme Court renders a decision (by a simple majority, or at least five of the nine justices), all other courts in the country follow the precedent set by that decision. So when a case comes before the Court, the ruling affects not only the specific case and law in question, but all similar laws and cases nationwide. For example, if the Supreme Court decided that a law in Maine banning signs on front lawns with anti-war messages was unconstitutional, any state or municipality with the same kind of law would be unable to prosecute anyone for breaking it. Judges all the way from county courts to state supreme courts would look to the Supreme Court's decision and throw out the case because it was based on an unconstitutional law.
Supreme Court justices have a great deal of power for another reason, too: They are appointed for life. That means that they never have to face re-election, and they don't have to make sure that their decisions please the president who appointed them. The average justice serves for 14 years and retires at age 71 [ref].
When a justice retires, he or she usually tries to time it with the Court's summer recess so a replacement can be found before the next session. If a replacement hasn't been found in time, the Court can operate with however many justices are present. If the Court operates with an even number of justices, and a decision results in a tie, the lower court decision in the case is "passively upheld." That is, it is upheld for that particular case, but the Supreme Court doesn't issue an opinion or set any kind of legal precedent. Thus, a similar case could come before the Supreme Court in the future.
Next, we'll find out how Supreme Court justices are nominated and approved.