One of the only things the Constitutional Convention
could agree on vis a vis
the judicial branch
was that there should be a single court of last resort
for the United States of America
, and so the Supreme Court was the only component of the federal court system
outlined in the Constitution.
How big is it?
Considering that it is theoretically as powerful as Congress or the president, the Court really isn't that big. It has a paltry annual budget of $30 million, which covers a payroll of 350 people. There are nine justices, 34 law clerks (3 or 4 assigned to each justice), five clerical officials, and fifteen messengers: the rest are janitors, electricians, and the like. The Supreme Court even has a tiny police force who mainly exist to guard the justices.
The law clerks are perhaps the most interesting figures in the Court, aside from the justices. They are generally graduates of prestige law schools (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc), and have experience in the lower federal courts. Most hang around the Supreme Court for a year, sort of like legal exchange students, and then return to the Real World to take up a position on a law faculty, or a healthy six-figure salary with a big-shot firm. Some, like Stephen Breyer and William Rehnquist, return to the Court as justices.
So how does a case get in?
99% of the Supreme Court's cases get there through a "writ of certiorari" from the Court. To get the writ, one of the parties in a circuit court or state court of last resort case must submit a detailed petition to the Supreme Court, outlining the case, the decision, and why it merits judicial review. Four justices have to approve the case in order for the writ to be issued, and in 98% of petitions, the court denies the writ for one reason or another, usually because they're too busy to look at it.
There are two other ways to get in. One way is through "certification," where a lower court can certify a legal question and send it to the Supreme Court for review. This almost never happens. The other way to get in is by appeal: while this used to be common, the only cases that can be appealed to the Court nowadays are denials of injunctive relief by three-court panels in the United States District Courts, generally dealing with specific areas of civil rights, election law, and antitrust.
Actually, there is technically a fourth way to get in: original jurisdiction. If a case involves two states, an ambassador, or a public consul, the Supreme Court is the trial court where the case is first heard. Most of the time, the Court finds a way to get out of hearing these cases: only 175 such cases have been decided by the Court in the last 200 years. Perhaps the most famous of these was where New Jersey sued New York claiming a portion of Ellis Island. (They won, incidentally.)
So then what happens?
If you get in—not that you'll ever get in, but if you do—both sides of the case have to submit painfully detailed briefs to the Court. The oral argument itself is only an hour long (not including the mandatory opening "Oyez" procedure). It is divided into one 30-minute argument for each side, and usually consists of the justices endlessly interrogating the lawyer behind the podium.
At the end, the justices leave and talk amongst themselves for a while. Two out of three cases will be dismissed with a ruling approximately twenty words long. The remaining (and extraordinarily lucky) one-third of cases get lengthy written opinions, often in combination with similar cases presented in the same session. In either case, game over: you can't appeal, except (maybe) by holding the justices at gunpoint.
Man, this sounds kind of, um, crappy.
Well, get over it. The Supreme Court has only 43 lawyers, and those 43 individuals have to figure out what to do with eight thousand cases every term. They accomplish this by throwing out everything they don't find compelling, and a good part of what they do find compelling but don't find compelling enough.
Why don't they fix the system so the caseload isn't as burdensome?
Warren Burger and Roman Hruska already tried this in the 1970's by postulating a new federal court of appeals. It led to a legal cold war, where everybody argued about whether the new court should screen cases for the Supreme Court, or whether the Supreme Court should send cases to the new court. Nobody agreed, and the argument ended up dying as soon as Burger left the Court.
So who actually runs the Supreme Court?
Congress defines the court's structure, and the Senate approves its justices, who are selected by the White House. There is also a body called the United States Judicial Conference, which is headed by the Chief Justice and brings together all of the United States' key federal judges twice a year in Washington, DC to discuss how the court system, including the Supreme Court, can be improved. Only Congress really has the power to make any large-scale changes in the Court, however: the Judicial Conference can only make administrative changes.
Who were the chief justices?
Who are some of the more notable historical justices?
- John Jay, 1789-95
- John Rutledge, 1795
- Oliver Ellsworth, 1796-1800
- John Marshall, 1801-35
- Roger Taney, 1836-64
- Salmon P. Chase, 1864-73
- Morrison R. Waite, 1874-88
- Melville W. Fuller, 1888-10
- Edward D. White, 1910-21
- William Howard Taft, 1921-30
- Charles Evans Hughes, 1930-41
- Harlan Stone, 1941-46
- Fred Vinson, 1946-53
- Earl Warren, 1953-69
- Warren Burger, 1969-86
- William Rehnquist, 1986-2005
- John G. Roberts Jr., 2005-present
know your leaders