The Supreme Court - How It Works


The Supreme Court is the most powerful court in the United States. It was set up by the founding fathers of the United States in the third article of the Constitution.

The court is made up of nine members, called justices. There is one chief justice and eight associate justices. They are appointed by the president and can serve on the Supreme Court their whole lives. A justice can only be dismissed if they do something wrong or illegal. Each justice must be approved by the Senate before they take office.

The Supreme Court guards and defends the American constitution. It decides legal cases that arise between citizens, states and the federal government. In most cases the Supreme Court hears cases that have already been decided before a lower court. When someone who has lost a case thinks that the decision is wrong, he or she can appeal to higher courts. The highest court of appeal is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, can not deal with all the cases that are brought to it. Each year it hears about 250 cases, only choosing the ones that the justices think are most important.

When the Supreme Court hears a case both parties have the chance to bring their arguments before the justices, who may then ask questions. Parties can also present written papers that show their opinion. There are no witnesses at such a hearing and there is no jury allowed.

At the end of the hearing the justices vote on the case. They must reach a decision by majority vote. Then a justice is chosen to write down the opinion of what most justices think. In many cases not all justices have the same opinion on a topic.


supreme court building in Washington

The Supreme Court Building in Washington - UpstateNYer


When the Supreme Court decides something it is final. All the other courts in the country must decide an issue in the same way. A Supreme Court ruling can be turned around in two ways. Sometimes the members of Congress amend the constitution, or the Supreme Court itself may later on decide differently in a similar case.

For example, in 1895 the Supreme Court ruled that the government was not allowed to collect taxes from its citizens. Two decades later Congress passed the 16th Amendment, which gave the government the right to collect money from the people.

In another issue the Supreme Court changed its view on what it thought about how blacks and whites should live together. In 1896 it decided that blacks and whites should have separate public places, like schools, bus stops etc... In 1954 the court ruled that sending blacks and whites to different schools was against the constitution.

In the past 200 years the Supreme Court has made decisions on almost every aspect of American life. Here are some of them:

  • In 1857 the Supreme Court decided that slaves, even if they were free, could not become American citizens. After the Civil War the 14th Amendment overturned the decision and made blacks citizens.
  • In 1873 the court decided that women did not have the right to become a lawyer. In 1920 an amendment gave women the right to vote. But for many decades afterwards men and women were treated differently in society.
  • In 1973 the Supreme Court declared that women should have the right to abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.
  • In 200 the Supreme Court made a decision on the presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore. It did not allow Florida to recount its votes. Bush won the state and became president.
  • In 1964 the court ruled that newspapers could not be punished if they printed something wrong about a person unless they knew it was wrong.
  • Over the past decades the Supreme Court has also had different opinions about the death penalty. In 1972 it stated that the death penalty was unconstitutional in some states because it was a cruel form of punishment. After most states introduced lethal injection to kill inmates the court reversed its opinion in 1976.



United States Supreme Court - 2006 - 2009

United States Supreme Court 2006 - 2009


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  • abortion = a medical operation that kills an unborn baby
  • amend = to correct and make changes
  • appeal = to ask to change a decision because you think it is wrong
  • appoint = choose, select
  • approve = to say yes
  • argument = set of reasons to show that something is true
  • arise = come up
  • article = here: part of a the constitution
  • aspect = part, field, area
  • associate = someone who is at a lower level
  • case = legal argument
  • chief = main, most important
  • citizen = a person who lives in a country and has rights there
  • Civil War = the war between the southern and the northern states that lasted from 1861 to 1865; as a result slaves became free
  • constitution = a set of laws that a country is organized by
  • deal = work on
  • decide = to give an opinion
  • declare = to say officially
  • defend = protect
  • dismiss = send home, fire, lose your job
  • federal government = central government in Washington
  • final = the end result that cannot be changed
  • founding fathers = the first American settlers who fought against the British, signed the Declaration of Independence , created the first government and wrote the first constitution
  • illegal = against the law
  • jury = a group of 12 people who listen in court and decide if someone is guilty or not
  • justice = judge
  • lawyer = someone who gives people help on the law
  • legal case = to use the system of laws in court
  • majority vote = 5 of the 9 justices must agree
  • overturn = to change a decision
  • party = group of people who are involved in a case
  • pass = to make into a law
  • pregnancy = when a women is expecting a baby
  • recount = to count again
  • rule = here: declare, say
  • ruling = decision
  • separate = different
  • serve = to be a justice
  • similar = related, the same
  • slave = a person whom you own and who must work for you
  • society = people in general
  • take office = here: become a justice
  • topic = issue, problem
  • treat = to behave towards someone
  • vote = to elect a person for an official position
  • witness = a person who has seen something happen