What is the Supreme Court?

The United States Supreme Court is the highest of the federal courts and has the final word on appeals from the federal circuit courts.

What kinds of cases does the Court consider?

The Supreme Court hears only about 100 of the roughly 7,000 cases appealed to it each year. When the Court accepts a case, it grants a writ of certiorari -- hence the expression "the Court granted (or denied) cert."

An appeal from the circuit courts must be based on an assertion that the circuit court's interpretation of the law or Constitution was incorrect. Generally, the Supreme Court only accepts cases where two or more circuit courts of appeal have disagreed, or where an unusually important point of law is in dispute.

The US Supreme Court also hears appeals from state supreme courts where it is alleged that the state decision violated the federal Constitution.

In addition, the Court hears disputes between states. These cases are filed directly with the Court and are very rare. One example was when New York and New Jersey argued over who owned Ellis Island (New Jersey won).

What is the role of the Chief Justice?

The Chief Justice also sets the agenda for and chairs meetings of the justices where they decide what cases to accept, and he presides over the court's oral arguments.

When he is in the majority in a particular case, the Chief Justice assigns the majority opinion to another justice to write, or he can decide to write it himself. (When the chief Justice is in the minority, the most senior justice in the majority assigns the opinion.)

As de facto head administrator of the federal courts, the Chief Justice appoints various officers of the court and members of boards and committees. He also authors an annual report.

As head of the Judiciary Conference, he leads efforts to lobby Congress on behalf of the courts regarding judicial pay, any need for additional judicial seats in a particular court, and courthouse construction and repair.

Finally, the Chief Justice presides over Senate impeachment trials of the President.

How are Supreme Court justices appointed?

The Supreme Court's nine justices are appointed for life. They are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The nominations process for justices, including the Chief Justice, is the same as for circuit court judges.

Once the President sends the name to the Senate, hearings are held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee votes to approve or disapprove the nominee. When a nominee is approved by a majority vote of the committee, the nomination is sent to the floor of the Senate where it debated and voted on.

Senators who oppose the nominee may decide to debate the nomination indefinitely. This means of preventing a vote is called a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to end debate, or conversely, 41 votes to prevent a vote on a nominee. Confirmation itself requires a simple majority of those present and voting, no more than 51.

How often have Supreme Court nominations been rejected?

The nomination by President George Washington in 1795 of John Rutledge to be the Chief Justice was the first to be rejected by the Senate. The rejection is attributed to Rutledge's view of the Jay Treaty, which he proclaimed to be pro-British. The Senate made it clear then that a nominee's views would be considered as well as his qualifications.

A total of 28 nominees have been rejected. Some were voted down, some withdrew when failure was imminent, and one even had his seat abolished to deprive the sitting president, Andrew Johnson, of a nomination to the Court.

Presidents Nixon and Reagan each suffered the rejection of two nominees for various reasons. In 1987, an epic struggle defeated President Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Court. His extreme views provoked the opposition of civil rights, civil liberties, and women's groups, among others.

What is at stake when the Court's members change?

Since the 1960s, the Court has become the object of struggle over questions of individual and states' rights, including the right to choose abortion. The current Court has often split five to four on cases involving abortion rights, separation of religion and state, and so-called states' rights cases, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor providing the "swing" vote.

After five years of not ruling on cases involving the principles behind Roe v. Wade, the court has accepted another case impacting a woman's right to choose for the 2005-2006 term, and a second case is expected to be added later. With the impending retirement of Justice O'Connor and possibly Justice Rehnquist and others, a new court could place new restrictions on the right to choose. New religion-state separation cases are also on the docket.

What is the status of the filibuster and Supreme Court appointments?

After Republican majority leader Sen. William Frist (R-TN) announced his intention in the spring of 2005 to take a vote to change the rule allowing filibusters, seven Democrats and seven Republicans joined together to announce their opposition to a rules change and their commitment to use the filibuster only in extraordinary circumstances.

How long has it been since the last vacancy on the Supreme Court?

The last appointment to the court was 11 years ago, in 1994. The present Justices have been together longer than any other group on the court. Chief Justice Rehnquist is only the 15th Chief Justice since the Court began, and he is expected to retire within the next year due to illness. If two vacancies occur at the same time, it would be the first such instance in 34 years. It is expected that any two nominees would be handled separately by the Senate.

Who are the current members of the Court?

William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice, appointed to the Court 9/25/71 by President Richard Nixon; elevated to Chief Justice on 9/25/86 by President Ronald Reagan

John Paul Stevens,
appointed 12/17/75 by President Gerald Ford

Sandra Day O'Connor,
appointed 9/22/81 by President Ronald Reagan; announced her intention to retire upon confirmation of a successor on 7/1/05

Antonin J. Scalia,
appointed 9/25/86 by President Ronald Reagan

Anthony M. Kennedy,
appointed 2/11/88 by President Ronald Reagan

David H. Souter,
appointed 10/3/90 by President George Bush

Clarence Thomas,
appointed 10/18/91 by President George Bush

Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
appointed 8/5/93 by President William Clinton

Stephen G. Breyer,
appointed 8/3/94 by President William Clinton

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