This article is from the Legal Research FAQ, by Mark Eckenwiler with numerous contributions by others.
Atop the pyramid is the United States Supreme Court. The Court
hears appeals from the Circuits Courts, from the highest courts of the
respective states (only where a federal issue is involved), or (very
rarely) from a District Court decision. The Court also occasionally
acts as a trial court over certain constitutionally defined categories
of cases, such as lawsuits between states.
In its appellate capacity, the Court is not obliged to entertain
any given case. Rather, the Justices vote on whether or not to "grant
certiorari"; by tradition, a vote of 4 in favor is sufficient to
qualify the case for a hearing. In the vast majority of cases, the
Court declines to hear the appeal ("denies cert."). A denial of
certiorari has no precedential effect, and is not to be taken as a
reliable indicator of the Court's views on the merit of the appeal.
While this may seem harsh, it should be considered in light of the
fact that the Court decides only 100-150 cases each Term, out of the
6000 petitions for certiorari annually.
The Supreme Court serves as the final authority of law in the
United States. As a result, it is often called upon to resolve
conflicts between the Circuits, e.g., in interpreting federal
statutes. Petitions for certiorari are more likely to be granted when
they involve such issues. (For example, at the time this FAQ was
written, the Circuits were split over whether an organization must
have an "economic motive" before it can be successfully sued under
civil RICO. The Second Circuit [in a case involving Croatian
terrorists] and the Seventh Circuit [in a case involving Operation
Rescue] had held that an economic motive is required; other circuits
disagreed. In late January 1994, the Supreme Court resolved the split
in a unanimous opinion rejecting the Seventh Circuit's position. See
_National Org. for Women v. Scheidler_, No. 92-780.)
There are currently nine Justices, although that number varied
(substantially at times) prior to the 20th century. Like District and
Circuit Court judges, Supreme Court Justices must be confirmed by
majority vote of the Senate before taking office.
The highest ranking Justice is the Chief Justice of the United
States (*not* the "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court"). The Chief
Justice, who must be confirmed to that position even if s/he is
already an Associate Justice when nominated, has special
administrative and ceremonial functions. In addition, s/he always has
the power to select who will write the opinion for the side on which
the Chief Justice votes in a given case. When the Chief Justice is in
the majority, s/he may write the Opinion of the Court himself/herself,
or may assign it to another Justice on the same side.
When a Justice retires, s/he may continue to serve actively as
a judge, albeit not at the Supreme Court. Retired Justices are
often invited to sit on Circuit Court panels. See 28 USC sec. 294.
An excellent encyclopedia-style source of detailed information
about the Supreme Court -- its history, its members past and
present, and numerous important decisions -- is _The Oxford
Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States_. Woodward and
Armstrong's _The Brethren_ offers an informative look into the
Court's internal dynamics. And for a full narrative history of the
Court, see Bernard Schwartz's _A History of the Supreme Court_
(Oxford Univ. Press 1993).
Current Supreme Court opinions are available at