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 U.S. 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. A recent example was when New York and New Jersey argued over who owned Ellis Island.

What is the judicial philosophy of the current Court?

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 is often split four to four on abortion rights cases, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor providing the "swing" vote. An epic and successful struggle ensued to defeat the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Court, whose extreme views provoked the opposition of civil rights, civil liberties, and women's groups, among others.

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 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.

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

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