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Supreme Court of the United States

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Supreme Court building at dusk.
Part of a series on the
US Constitution
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Defining moments in law

Not to be confused with the grumpy old Scotsman of the same name.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) consists of nine people appointed for life who sit in judgment on whether or not laws (local, state, or federal) comply with the US Constitution. The nine have the final say on how one must interpret federal laws. This power of the courts is called judicial review, and the precedent for its use by the SCOTUS was established in the 1802 case Marbury v. Madison. The Supreme Court also hears lawsuits between the component states of the U.S., as with the suit against Colorado's legalization of marijuana in 2014.[1]

The members, known as Associate Justices, are appointed by the President, and take office upon confirmation by the Senate. The last time the Senate voted not to confirm an appointment to the Supreme Court was in 1987 with Robert Bork. Since justices are appointed for life, appointments can become the most lasting legacy of a President.

One member, appointed the same way as the other Justices, serves as Chief Justice. Although still only having one vote on cases, the Chief Justice has the interesting and sometimes important power to assign the writing of majority decisions when they are in the majority to one of the associates. This can be used to influence the exact nature of a decision — the Chief Justice may vote with a four-justice minority (or more importantly, a five-justice majority) in order to assign the decision writing to a justice with a weaker stand than the other members of the majority.

In practice, the most powerful member of the Court is rarely the Chief Justice, but the one or two "moderate" members who are very often the swing voters on contentious issues. Anthony Kennedy is a recent example of such a judge. (See below.)

SCOTUS hears no more than 100 cases a year. Cases may be brought to the Court after they are appealed from a series of lower courts. In special cases, lawyers can petition for a hearing. The Court's opinions can also create precedents, directing other judges to follow their interpretation in similar cases. On occasion, the Supreme Court may revisit an issue in a new case and and issue a different ruling. Key issues dealt with by the Court in recent years include same-sex marriage, gerrymandering, trade-union fees, and Trump's travel bans.[2]

Current bench[edit]

Supreme Court Justices (April 2017–July 2018). Front row (left to right): Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts (Chief Justice), Clarence Thomas, and Stephen Breyer. Back row (left to right): Elena Kagan, Samuel A. Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Neil Gorsuch.

Due to the Court's conservative majority, its decisions have been some of the most conservative in decades, and each of the last four Republican Presidents (Reagan, Bush, and Trump) appointed the men responsible for such decisions as Citizens United, the anti-union Janus, Bush v. Gore, Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell, Trump's Muslim Travel Ban, and the striking down of parts of the Voting Rights Act over the past 40 years.[3] The liberal Justices were appointed by the last two Democratic Presidents since 1980 (Clinton and Obama). During Obama's first two years with a Democratic Congress, there were calls for the two remaining Clinton appointees to retire in 2010, in order for Obama to appoint younger replacements.[citation needed] However, this did not happen, giving Donald Trump the chance to appoint at least two justices.

  • Brett Kavanaugh (no nickname yet): Appointed by President Donald Trump to replace Anthony Kennedy,[5] his confirmation hearing was delayed due to multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Trump ordered an FBI investigation.[6] Environmentalists and gun control activists are worried about his views on said issues.[4]
  • Clarence Thomas (the Stoic): A George H. W. Bush nominee, this Justice questioned Barack Obama's eligibility to be President.[7][note 1] He adheres rigidly to originalism, meaning the Constitution should be interpreted strictly as it was originally meant, with total disregard for precedence or prior rulings. He has not asked a single question for nine years and can be seen writing his own opinions before lawyers get to argue. He voted against a decision to overturn a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minor, arguing that the First Amendment does not reach that far.[4]
  • Elena Kagan (the Writer): As Obama's second appointee, Kagan is the first Justice in decades who has not previously served as a judge and is the most junior on this Court. Her writing is comprehensible to the layperson without sacrificing legal acceptability. She is an aggressive questioner.[4]
  • Neil Gorsuch (no nickname yet): Nominated by Donald Trump to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia. He was forced through after Mitch McConnell removed the filibuster for Supreme Court picks, a year after McConnell himself refused to give a hearing to Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's choice the year before. He cements the conservative majority, as can be seen from the Court's recent rulings on Trump's travel bans, gerrymandering and trade union fees.[4]
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the Notorious RBG): The oldest liberal Justice, she is a Clinton appointee and is the last civil rights lawyer on the Court. She often writes dissents in politically charged cases. She voted against Burwell v Hobby Lobby, writing that religious exemption to Obamacare should not be extended to "closely held" for-profit corporations.[4]
  • Samuel Alito (the Prosecutor): This George W. Bush appointee is not always willing to stick rigidly to the freedom of speech in cases where said speech is hateful or harmful. However, he voted against an Illinois labor union case, arguing that workers do not have to pay dues to a labor union they do not support because such a requirement would be a violation of free speech. He does not ask many questions, but his questions are quite sharp, intended to unravel the logic of an argument.[4]
  • Sonia Sotomayor (the Public Justice): Sotomayor was both the first Hispanic person nominated to the Court and Barack Obama's first appointee. She is known for demystifying the Court and her experience with criminal trials. She cannot emphasize the importance of race in legal matters enough.[4]
  • Stephen Breyer (the Pragmatist): Another Clinton nominee, he has defended the Supreme Court's use of international law and is a stalwart advocate of abortion rights.[citation needed] He has faith in government and he believes that the Court must take into account the history and context of the law.[4]

Recent former justices[edit]

  • Anthony Kennedy (the Dignifier): Nominated by Ronald Reagan, octogenarian Kennedy not of the same political streak as John F. Kennedy and his clan. As to be the court's swing vote, Kennedy reliably votes with the conservatives on economic matters,[8] but he has a well-noted emphasis on "human dignity" that largely explains his votes with liberals on social issues like gay marriage. In fact, he argued that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional as it discriminates against same-sex couples and their children.[4] Incidentally, should he vote with the liberals (with no other partisan justices defecting), he chooses who will write the majority opinion, as he is senior to all those in the liberal wing.[note 2] He retired on July 31st, 2018.[9]

Other supreme courts[edit]

Of the US states, 48 have a single court of last resort (called the Court of Appeals in Maryland and New York, the Supreme Judicial Court in Maine and Massachusetts, and the Supreme Court elsewhere). Oklahoma and Texas each have two courts of last resort, a Supreme Court for civil matters and a Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal matters. A state supreme court's interpretation of its state constitution and its state statutory and common law is final and is binding on both lower state courts and all federal courts, including (at least in theory) the Supreme Court of the United States. Federal courts may still adjudicate whether a state's constitution and laws conflict with the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Thomas referred a procedural motion in such a case to the full court for consideration (which the court denied without recorded dissent), rather than Thomas just denying or granting the motion on his own authority. The case did not question Obama’s U.S. citizenship, but rather asserted that his previous secondary British (or Kenyan) dual citizenship disqualified him from being president. At no point did Thomas express agreement with the lawsuit’s assertions, although Thomas often expresses extreme positions with which no other Justice agrees.
  2. Sometimes Chief Justice Roberts rules with the liberal wing, as seen in King v. Burwell (2015), meaning he writes (or chooses who writes) the ruling. In any case, the opinion still has to be approved by a majority of justices to become the opinion of the court.