Supreme Court Buliding

Where the Executive and Legislative branches are elected by the people, members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial Branch, leaves Congress significant discretion to determine the shape and structure of the federal judiciary. Even the number of Supreme Court Justices is left to Congress — at times there have been as few as six, while the current number (nine, with one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices) has only been in place since 1869. The Constitution also grants Congress the power to establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court, and to that end Congress has established the United States district courts, which try most federal cases, and 13 United States courts of appeals, which review appealed district court cases.

Federal judges can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. Judges and justices serve no fixed term — they serve until their death, retirement, or conviction by the Senate. By design, this insulates them from the temporary passions of the public, and allows them to apply the law with only justice in mind, and not electoral or political concerns.

Generally, Congress determines the jurisdiction of the federal courts. In some cases, however — such as in the example of a dispute between two or more U.S. states — the Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction, an authority that cannot be stripped by Congress.

The courts only try actual cases and controversies — a party must show that it has been harmed in order to bring suit in court. This means that the courts do not issue advisory opinions on the constitutionality of laws or the legality of actions if the ruling would have no practical effect. Cases brought before the judiciary typically proceed from district court to appellate court and may even end at the Supreme Court, although the Supreme Court hears comparatively few cases each year.

Federal courts enjoy the sole power to interpret the law, determine the constitutionality of the law, and apply it to individual cases. The courts, like Congress, can compel the production of evidence and testimony through the use of a subpoena. The inferior courts are constrained by the decisions of the Supreme Court — once the Supreme Court interprets a law, inferior courts must apply the Supreme Court’s interpretation to the facts of a particular case.

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution.

The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Supreme Court Justices; the number is set instead by Congress. There have been as few as six, but since 1869 there have been nine Justices, including one Chief Justice. All Justices are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and hold their offices under life tenure. Since Justices do not have to run or campaign for re-election, they are thought to be insulated from political pressure when deciding cases. Justices may remain in office until they resign, pass away, or are impeached and convicted by Congress.

The Court’s caseload is almost entirely appellate in nature, and the Court’s decisions cannot be appealed to any authority, as it is the final judicial arbiter in the United States on matters of federal law. However, the Court may consider appeals from the highest state courts or from federal appellate courts. The Court also has original jurisdiction in cases involving ambassadors and other diplomats, and in cases between states.

Although the Supreme Court may hear an appeal on any question of law provided it has jurisdiction, it usually does not hold trials. Instead, the Court’s task is to interpret the meaning of a law, to decide whether a law is relevant to a particular set of facts, or to rule on how a law should be applied. Lower courts are obligated to follow the precedent set by the Supreme Court when rendering decisions.

In almost all instances, the Supreme Court does not hear appeals as a matter of right; instead, parties must petition the Court for a writ of certiorari. It is the Court’s custom and practice to “grant cert” if four of the nine Justices decide that they should hear the case. Of the approximately 7,500 requests for certiorari filed each year, the Court usually grants cert to fewer than 150. These are typically cases that the Court considers sufficiently important to require their review; a common example is the occasion when two or more of the federal courts of appeals have ruled differently on the same question of federal law.

If the Court grants certiorari, Justices accept legal briefs from the parties to the case, as well as from amicus curiae, or “friends of the court.” These can include industry trade groups, academics, or even the U.S. government itself. Before issuing a ruling, the Supreme Court usually hears oral arguments, where the various parties to the suit present their arguments and the Justices ask them questions. If the case involves the federal government, the Solicitor General of the United States presents arguments on behalf of the United States. The Justices then hold private conferences, make their decision, and (often after a period of several months) issue the Court’s opinion, along with any dissenting arguments that may have been written.

The Judicial Process

Article III of the Constitution of the United States guarantees that every person accused of wrongdoing has the right to a fair trial before a competent judge and a jury of one’s peers.

The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution provide additional protections for those accused of a crime. These include:

  • A guarantee that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law
  • Protection against being tried for the same crime twice (“double jeopardy”)
  • The right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
  • The right to cross-examine witnesses, and to call witnesses to support their case
  • The right to legal representation
  • The right to avoid self-incrimination
  • Protection from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments

Criminal proceedings can be conducted under either state or federal law, depending on the nature and extent of the crime. A criminal legal procedure typically begins with an arrest by a law enforcement officer. If a grand jury chooses to deliver an indictment, the accused will appear before a judge and be formally charged with a crime, at which time he or she may enter a plea.

The defendant is given time to review all the evidence in the case and to build a legal argument. Then, the case is brought to trial and decided by a jury. If the defendant is determined to be not guilty of the crime, the charges are dismissed. Otherwise, the judge determines the sentence, which can include prison time, a fine, or even execution.

Civil cases are similar to criminal ones, but instead of arbitrating between the state and a person or organization, they deal with disputes between individuals or organizations. If a party believes that it has been wronged, it can file suit in civil court to attempt to have that wrong remedied through an order to cease and desist, alter behavior, or award monetary damages. After the suit is filed and evidence is gathered and presented by both sides, a trial proceeds as in a criminal case. If the parties involved waive their right to a jury trial, the case can be decided by a judge; otherwise, the case is decided and damages awarded by a jury.

After a criminal or civil case is tried, it may be appealed to a higher court — a federal court of appeals or state appellate court. A litigant who files an appeal, known as an “appellant,” must show that the trial court or administrative agency made a legal error that affected the outcome of the case. An appellate court makes its decision based on the record of the case established by the trial court or agency — it does not receive additional evidence or hear witnesses. It may also review the factual findings of the trial court or agency, but typically may only overturn a trial outcome on factual grounds if the findings were “clearly erroneous.” If a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal proceeding, he or she cannot be retried on the same set of facts.

Federal appeals are decided by panels of three judges. The appellant presents legal arguments to the panel, in a written document called a “brief.” In the brief, the appellant tries to persuade the judges that the trial court made an error, and that the lower decision should be reversed. On the other hand, the party defending against the appeal, known as the “appellee” or “respondent,” tries in its brief to show why the trial court decision was correct, or why any errors made by the trial court are not significant enough to affect the outcome of the case.

The court of appeals usually has the final word in the case, unless it sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings. In some cases the decision may be reviewed en banc — that is, by a larger group of judges of the court of appeals for the circuit.

A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, may file a petition for a “writ of certiorari,” which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, is not obligated to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves a new and important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. (There are also special circumstances in which the Supreme Court is required by law to hear an appeal.) When the Supreme Court hears a case, the parties are required to file written briefs and the Court may hear oral argument.

Members of the Supreme Court of the United States

Name State App’t From Appointed by President Judicial Oath Taken Date Service Terminated
Chief Justices
Jay, John New York Washington (a) October 19, 1789 June 29, 1795
Rutledge, John South Carolina Washington August 12, 1795 December 15, 1795
Ellsworth, Oliver Connecticut Washington March 8, 1796 December 15, 1800
Marshall, John Virginia Adams, John February 4, 1801 July 6, 1835
Taney, Roger Brooke Maryland Jackson March 28, 1836 October 12, 1864
Chase, Salmon Portland Ohio Lincoln December 15, 1864 May 7, 1873
Waite, Morrison Remick Ohio Grant March 4, 1874 March 23, 1888
Fuller, Melville Weston Illinois Cleveland October 8, 1888 July 4, 1910
White, Edward Douglass Louisiana Taft December 19, 1910 May 19, 1921
Taft, William Howard Connecticut Harding July 11, 1921 February 3, 1930
Hughes, Charles Evans New York Hoover February 24, 1930 June 30, 1941
Stone, Harlan Fiske New York Roosevelt, F. July 3, 1941 April 22, 1946
Vinson, Fred Moore Kentucky Truman June 24, 1946 September 8, 1953
Warren, Earl California Eisenhower October 5, 1953 June 23, 1969
Burger, Warren Earl Virginia Nixon June 23, 1969 September 26, 1986
Rehnquist, William H. Virginia Reagan September 26, 1986 September 3, 2005
Roberts, John G., Jr. Maryland Bush, G. W. September 29, 2005
Associate Justices
Rutledge, John South Carolina Washington (a) February 15, 1790 March 5, 1791
Cushing, William Massachusetts Washington (c) February 2, 1790 September 13, 1810
Wilson, James Pennsylvania Washington (b) October 5, 1789 August 21, 1798
Blair, John Virginia Washington (c) February 2, 1790 October 25, 1795
Iredell, James North Carolina Washington (b) May 12, 1790 October 20, 1799
Johnson, Thomas Maryland Washington (a) August 6, 1792 January 16, 1793
Paterson, William New Jersey Washington (a) March 11, 1793 September 9, 1806
Chase, Samuel Maryland Washington February 4, 1796 June 19, 1811
Washington, Bushrod Virginia Adams, John (c) February 4, 1799 November 26, 1829
Moore, Alfred North Carolina Adams, John (a) April 21, 1800 January 26, 1804
Johnson, William South Carolina Jefferson May 7, 1804 August 4, 1834
Livingston, Brockholst New York Jefferson January 20, 1807 March 18, 1823
Todd, Thomas Kentucky Jefferson (a) May 4, 1807 February 7, 1826
Duvall, Gabriel Maryland Madison (a) November 23, 1811 January 14, 1835
Story, Joseph Massachusetts Madison (c) February 3, 1812 September 10, 1845
Thompson, Smith New York Monroe (b) September 1, 1823 December 18, 1843
Trimble, Robert Kentucky Adams, J. Q. (a) June 16, 1826 August 25, 1828
McLean, John Ohio Jackson (c) January 11, 1830 April 4, 1861
Baldwin, Henry Pennsylvania Jackson January 18, 1830 April 21, 1844
Wayne, James Moore Georgia Jackson January 14, 1835 July 5, 1867
Barbour, Philip Pendleton Virginia Jackson May 12, 1836 February 25, 1841
Catron, John Tennessee Jackson May 1, 1837 May 30, 1865
McKinley, John Alabama Van Buren (c) January 9, 1838 July 19, 1852
Daniel, Peter Vivian Virginia Van Buren (c) January 10, 1842 May 31, 1860
Nelson, Samuel New York Tyler February 27, 1845 November 28, 1872
Woodbury, Levi New Hampshire Polk (b) September 23, 1845 September 4, 1851
Grier, Robert Cooper Pennsylvania Polk August 10, 1846 January 31, 1870
Curtis, Benjamin Robbins Massachusetts Fillmore (b) October 10, 1851 September 30, 1857
Campbell, John Archibald Alabama Pierce (c) April 11, 1853 April 30, 1861
Clifford, Nathan Maine Buchanan January 21, 1858 July 25, 1881
Swayne, Noah Haynes Ohio Lincoln January 27, 1862 January 24, 1881
Miller, Samuel Freeman Iowa Lincoln July 21, 1862 October 13, 1890
Davis, David Illinois Lincoln December 10, 1862 March 4, 1877
Field, Stephen Johnson California Lincoln May 20, 1863 December 1, 1897
Strong, William Pennsylvania Grant March 14, 1870 December 14, 1880
Bradley, Joseph P. New Jersey Grant March 23, 1870 January 22, 1892
Hunt, Ward New York Grant January 9, 1873 January 27, 1882
Harlan, John Marshall Kentucky Hayes December 10 1877 October 14, 1911
Woods, William Burnham Georgia Hayes January 5, 1881 May 14, 1887
Matthews, Stanley Ohio Garfield May 17, 1881 March 22, 1889
Gray, Horace Massachusetts Arthur January 9, 1882 September 15, 1902
Blatchford, Samuel New York Arthur April 3, 1882 July 7, 1893
Lamar, Lucius Quintus C. Mississippi Cleveland January 18, 1888 January 23, 1893
Brewer, David Josiah Kansas Harrison January 6, 1890 March 28, 1910
Brown, Henry Billings Michigan Harrison January 5, 1891 May 28, 1906
Shiras, George, Jr. Pennsylvania Harrison October 10, 1892 February 23, 1903
Jackson, Howell Edmunds Tennessee Harrison March 4, 1893 August 8, 1895
White, Edward Douglass Louisiana Cleveland March 12, 1894 December 18, 1910*
Peckham, Rufus Wheeler New York Cleveland January 6, 1896 October 24, 1909
McKenna, Joseph California McKinley January 26, 1898 January 5, 1925
Holmes, Oliver Wendell Massachusetts Roosevelt, T. December 8, 1902 January 12, 1932
Day, William Rufus Ohio Roosevelt, T. March 2, 1903 November 13, 1922
Moody, William Henry Massachusetts Roosevelt, T. December 17, 1906 November 20, 1910
Lurton, Horace Harmon Tennessee Taft January 3, 1910 July 12, 1914
Hughes, Charles Evans New York Taft October 10, 1910 June 10, 1916
Van Devanter, Willis Wyoming Taft January 3, 1911 June 2, 1937
Lamar, Joseph Rucker Georgia Taft January 3, 1911 January 2, 1916
Pitney, Mahlon New Jersey Taft March 18, 1912 December 31, 1922
McReynolds, James Clark Tennessee Wilson October 12, 1914 January 31, 1941
Brandeis, Louis Dembitz Massachusetts Wilson June 5,1916 February 13, 1939
Clarke, John Hessin Ohio Wilson October 9, 1916 September 18, 1922
Sutherland, George Utah Harding October 2, 1922 January 17, 1938
Butler, Pierce Minnesota Harding January 2, 1923 November 16, 1939
Sanford, Edward Terry Tennessee Harding February 19, 1923 March 8, 1930
Stone, Harlan Fiske New York Coolidge March 2, 1925 July 2, 1941*
Roberts, Owen Josephus Pennsylvania Hoover June 2, 1930 July 31, 1945
Cardozo, Benjamin Nathan New York Hoover March 14, 1932 July 9, 1938
Black, Hugo Lafayette Alabama Roosevelt, F. August 19, 1937 September 17, 1971
Reed, Stanley Forman Kentucky Roosevelt, F. January 31, 1938 February 25, 1957
Frankfurter, Felix Massachusetts Roosevelt, F. January 30, 1939 August 28, 1962
Douglas, William Orville Connecticut Roosevelt, F. April 17, 1939 November 12, 1975
Murphy, Frank Michigan Roosevelt, F. February 5, 1940 July 19, 1949
Byrnes, James Francis South Carolina Roosevelt, F. July 8, 1941 October 3, 1942
Jackson, Robert Houghwout New York Roosevelt, F. July 11, 1941 October 9, 1954
Rutledge, Wiley Blount Iowa Roosevelt, F. February 15, 1943 September 10, 1949
Burton, Harold Hitz Ohio Truman October 1, 1945 October 13, 1958
Clark, Tom Campbell Texas Truman August 24, 1949 June 12, 1967
Minton, Sherman Indiana Truman October 12, 1949 October 15, 1956
Harlan, John Marshall New York Eisenhower March 28, 1955 September 23, 1971
Brennan, William J., Jr. New Jersey Eisenhower October 16, 1956 July 20, 1990
Whittaker, Charles Evans Missouri Eisenhower March 25, 1957 March 31, 1962
Stewart, Potter Ohio Eisenhower October 14, 1958 July 3, 1981
White, Byron Raymond Colorado Kennedy April 16, 1962 June 28, 1993
Goldberg, Arthur Joseph Illinois Kennedy October 1, 1962 July 25, 1965
Fortas, Abe Tennessee Johnson, L. October 4, 1965 May 14, 1969
Marshall, Thurgood New York Johnson, L. October 2, 1967 October 1, 1991
Blackmun, Harry A. Minnesota Nixon June 9, 1970 August 3, 1994
Powell, Lewis F., Jr. Virginia Nixon January 7, 1972 June 26, 1987
Rehnquist, William H. Arizona Nixon January 7, 1972 September 26, 1986*
Stevens, John Paul Illinois Ford December 19, 1975 June 29, 2010
O’Connor, Sandra Day Arizona Reagan September 25, 1981 January 31, 2006
Scalia, Antonin Virginia Reagan September 26, 1986
Kennedy, Anthony M. California Reagan February 18, 1988
Souter, David H. New Hampshire Bush, G. H. W. October 9, 1990 June 29, 2009
Thomas, Clarence Georgia Bush, G. H. W. October 23, 1991
Ginsburg, Ruth Bader New York Clinton August 10, 1993
Breyer, Stephen G. Massachusetts Clinton August 3, 1994
Alito, Samuel A., Jr. New Jersey Bush, G. W. January 31, 2006
Sotomayor, Sonia New York Obama August 8, 2009
Kagan, Elena Massachusetts Obama August 7, 2010


Notes: The acceptance of the appointment and commission by the appointee, as evidenced by the taking of the prescribed oaths, is here implied; otherwise the individual is not carried on this list of the Members of the Court. Examples: Robert Hanson Harrison is not carried, as a letter from President Washington of February 9, 1790 states Harrison declined to serve. Neither is Edwin M. Stanton who died before he could take the necessary steps toward becoming a Member of the Court. Chief Justice Rutledge is included because he took his oaths, presided over the August Term of 1795, and his name appears on two opinions of the Court for that Term.

The date a Member of the Court took his/her Judicial oath (the Judiciary Act provided “That the Justices of the Supreme Court, and the district judges, before they proceed to execute the duties of their respective offices, shall take the following oath . . . ”) is here used as the date of the beginning of his/her service, for until that oath is taken he/she is not vested with the prerogatives of the office. The dates given in this column are for the oaths taken following the receipt of the commissions. Dates without small-letter references are taken from the Minutes of the Court or from the original oath which are in the Curator’s collection. The small letter (a) denotes the date is from the Minutes of some other court; (b) from some other unquestionable authority; (c) from authority that is questionable, and better authority would be appreciated.