How The Supreme Court Works: An Appeal to Justice

Have You Ever?

Let’s say your teacher gave you an unfair grade on an assignment. You talk to your upperclassmen friends and find out that the teacher has a history of assigning students unfair grades on this particular project. You decide that if your teacher won’t see reason, you’ll appeal to a higher authority - maybe the vice principal or principal, even. They might hear your story and agree with you or side with your teacher, or they might be too busy to listen to your complaint at all. Regardless of what happens, the outcome will affect not only you and your teacher, but the whole school. 


The Supreme Court works in a similar way. Its justices mainly review cases that have already received a decision of some kind from a lower court. What decision the justices reach will impact not just the people bringing forward the case, but the entire country.

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States and head of the judicial branch. Consisting of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, the Court mainly reviews cases brought up on appeal. These cases normally concern issues of national importance.

The History

The Supreme Court had its first assembly in 1790. It’s the only court directly established by the Constitution, which also granted Supreme Court Justices lifetime tenures. This means that while they’re appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, justices can’t be fired from their position. They hold their positions until they either die or retire. The Constitution provided the Supreme Court independence from leaders of the other two branches, allowing justices to make decisions that they truly believe in rather than popular ones. 

How Cases Are Reviewed

The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over all courts concerning federal law, which means it has the final say on appeals. Once the nine justices have reached a decision, that’s it - there is no higher authority that can challenge the ruling. 

The Court has original jurisdiction on a comparatively small number of issues. This means that if a case fits certain criteria, the Supreme Court can hear the case initially instead of having to review it on appeal. If a state is a party (either plaintiff or defendant) or foreign ministers or ambassadors are involved, the Supreme Court can be the first and only court to hear that case and decide upon it.

Almost all cases the Supreme Court Justices hear fall under the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. If a party has exhausted appeals from lower courts, they can petition for a writ of certiorari. It’s a formal request that the Supreme Court reviews the case. The justices receive thousands of such requests yearly, but they can only review about one percent of them. 

The Court grants certiorari when they decide to hear a case. The justices vote to decide which cases they’ll review. If four of the nine justices agree to hear the case, that case will be heard by the Supreme Court. This means of determining reviewal is called the Rule of Four. The Court normally reviews cases that involve the Constitution or raise a big federal question.

Once a case is accepted, both parties submit briefs explaining their arguments to the Court. Persons or groups not directly involved in the case can submit amicus curiae briefs to try to sway the justices to either side. These “friends of the court” are normally impassioned interest groups who deeply care about the issues being debated. Their amicus briefs can provide justices unique perspectives on arguments.

After reviewing all the many briefs, lawyers present oral arguments. During these presentations, justices can and will interrupt with questions. In fact, most of the scheduled time is used answering inquiries. After both sides have been heard, the justices convene in private to make their decision. For a final ruling to be given, five of the justices must agree on whether to affirm or overturn the lower court’s ruling.

The Court writes down its ruling, called the holding, along with its legal reasoning or rationale in a statement called the majority opinion. The holding and rationale establish precedence for all lower courts. This helps all courts make future rulings that are in line with what the Supreme Court intended. For example, the holding of Brown v. Board found that Olive Brown’s daughter should not have been denied entry to the nearby public school. However, it was the rationale that “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks are inherently unequal that essentially told lower courts that any business, service, etc. that used this argument was in violation of the law.

If a justice agrees with the majority holding but for different legal reasons, they can write a concurring opinion. If a justice disagrees with the holding of the majority, they can write a dissenting opinion. While these opinions hold no weight in precedence, they’re still important. Only the Supreme Court can overrule a Supreme Court decision. This normally happens many years after the first decision is reached. Historically, justices have used these opinions when explaining the Court’s change in reasoning.

Why Care?

The Supreme Court might only hear about eighty or so cases a year, but the justices are far from inactive. Their decisions are far reaching and long-lasting. Some of the most important movements in American history have had momentous, pivotal events played out in the courtroom. While they get less media attention than congresspeople, senators, or the president, the Supreme Court Justices are just as important, if not more so. Through judicial review, the Court checks the power of the executive and legislative branches. The Supreme Court acts as defender of the Constitution and the people it affects. 

Think Further

  1. How do you feel about the Supreme Court’s caseload? Do you think justices should be reviewing more or less cases annually? Why?
  2. Which types of cases do you think are more important for the Supreme Court to review: appeals or original ones? Why?
  3. What are some other landmark cases the Supreme Court decided on? How are their effects still felt today?


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Learn More

  1. Casper, Gerhard and Richard A. Posner. “A Study of the Supreme Court’s Caseload.The Journal of Legal Studies, no 2, Jun 1974, pp 339-375. Doi: 10.1086/467517.
  2. Dahl, Robert A. “Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court As a National Policy-Maker.” Role of the Supreme Court, No 1, 1957.
  3. Hughes, Charles Evans. The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Foundation, Methods and Achievements. Beard Books, 2000.
  4. Supreme Court of the United States, “About the Court.” Supreme Court of the United States.