Like the name suggests, the Supreme Court is the highest, or most authoritative, U.S. court. It’s made up of 9 Justices whose judgments have big consequences for our government and our society.
You might remember from school that the Supreme Court is responsible for “checking” the other branches of government. This means it checks if laws and orders that Congress and the President issue are legal. It also has final say on other cases in the court system.
Something to remember: The Supreme Court was established by Article 3 of the Constitution.
Something else to remember: Sometimes,you’ll hear people refer to the Supreme Court as SCOTUS, which stands for Supreme Court of the United States.
What’s the Supreme Court do?
The Supreme Court hears about 100 cases a year, though it gets thousands of requests. Many of these come from lower court decisions that the loser is appealing. (Our national court system has 3 different levels, of which the Supreme Court is the “highest,” or has the most authority.)
Lots of people appeal court cases that they’ve lost, but the Supreme Court only hears the ones that most of the Justices are interested in. These cases often have important consequences for everybody in the U.S. For example, Miranda v. Arizona (1966) is the reason cops do the “You-have-the-right-to-remain-silent” bit every time they arrest somebody, and Loving v. Virginia in 1967 prevented states from making laws against interracial marriage.
The Supreme Court also does judicial review, which you’ll hear a lot about if you follow politics. Judicial review is when the Court reviews a law that Congress has just passed or an Executive Order the President has just issued to say if it’s legal.
Judicial review causes some controversy. You’ll sometimes hear people call it “legislating from the bench,” which means they think the Supreme Court is actually making law, not deciding if something is legal. The idea behind this critique is that instead of deciding if something is Constitutional or not, the Supreme Court is deciding if it agrees with it.
For example, imagine that Congress passes a law saying that no state can set speed limits. You can now drive as fast as you want on any road, and no state can make a law that says otherwise. But then, the Supreme Court decides to review the law, and decides it violates the 10th Amendment. If you’re passionately opposed to speed limits, and you don’t agree with the Supreme Court’s decision, you might think the Supreme Court is making a decision about what should be law.
Beyond appeals cases and judicial review, the Supreme Court also decides disagreements between states and between ambassadors, and it hears some military cases.
Right now, there are 9 Justices on the Supreme Court. You get to be a Justice if the President picks you and the majority of the Senate approves you. Then, once you are a Justice, you get to be one as long as you want — until you die, even. Justices serve for life.
Interesting fact: The Constitution doesn’t actually say that the Supreme Court has to have 9 Justices. In fact, the official number has changed 6 times over the course of our history.