The Supreme Court

What Is It?

They don’t call it the highest court in the land for nothing – the Supreme Court has a lot of power. Over the past century, it has been behind some of the biggest shifts in American law and culture. Some of its cases are household names: Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Bush v. Gore to name a few.

Every year, the Supreme Court receives over 8,000 petitions from people hoping to have their cases heard, but the Justices will ultimately choose only a small slice of those cases – about 100 – to consider. What makes the Supreme Court want to take up a particular case?

For starters, almost all the cases that the Supreme Court considers are appeals of lower court decisions. Here’s an example: in 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (that’s a federal court that hears cases in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee), ruled that the Constitution allowed states to ban same-sex marriage. The plaintiffs (the people who brought the case originally) decided to appeal their case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it.

(What if the Supreme Court had decided not to hear the case? The lower court’s ruling would have been the final word on the matter.)

There are a few other main areas where the Supreme Court has power:

  • when there are disputes between states
  • when two lower courts disagree with each other
  • when a state court decision conflicts with a Supreme Court or other federal court decision
  • emergency petitions, from any of the 13 federal circuit courts, on matters that affect a fundamental right (For example, emergency requests to stop an execution are common. Or, in 2000, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on the Florida vote recount that handed the election to President George W. Bush.)
  • determining if laws, treaties, or regulations — at any level of government — violate the U.S. Constitution
  • determining if a presidential directive violates existing law or the U.S. Constitution

The Supreme Court term begins on the first Monday in October and continues until June or July of the following year. When the court agrees to hear a case, lawyers representing the two sides make their arguments, which are relatively brief, sometimes just 30 minutes per side. Typically, the only way to listen to live deliberations is to stand in line and get a ticket, but the Court began livestreaming audio during the Covid-19 pandemic (no video, though). No matter what, you can download and listen to recordings of previous hearings on the Supreme Court website.

In the days after the court has heard oral arguments, the Justices meet and take a vote to decide who won. The most senior Justice on the winning side then picks a Justice to write the court’s majority opinion, and that’s the final word on the matter. Justices who disagree can write “dissenting” opinions. While those dissenting opinions won’t have an impact on the case at hand, they can sometimes set the stage for decisions down the line.

Why It Matters to You

“Equal justice under the law.” These are the words written above the entrance to the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Has the Court always ensured equal justice under the law throughout American history? Not by a long shot. But the Court has also been behind some major changes in our country:

If you care about guns, you should know about District of Columbia v Heller.

Washington, D.C. had one of the strictest gun laws in the nation, banning almost all handguns and requiring long guns to be unloaded and either trigger-locked or disassembled. A man named Richard Heller argued that the law prevented him from defending himself in his own home. The Supreme Court sided with Heller, saying for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.

If you care about voting rules, you should know about Shelby County v. Holder.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, certain states and localities had to get permission from the Department of Justice before implementing new voting rules. This section of the law applied to places with a history of racial voter discrimination and was designed to make sure new rules didn’t discriminate against minority voters. In 2013, the Supreme Court found this section of the law unconstitutional. As a result, those states and localities don’t need approval from the federal government to change their voting rules.

If you care about money in politics, you should know about Citizens United v. FEC.

The Supreme Court decided in the 1970s that Congress could fight “corruption and the appearance of corruption” by regulating money in politics. The debate didn’t end there, though. In 2010, the Court ruled in favor of a nonprofit group called Citizens United that wanted to air a film criticizing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shortly before the primary election. The decision ultimately allowed corporations and outside groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.

If you care about religion, you should know about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Regulations under the Affordable Care Act require employers health insurance plans to cover birth control. Hobby Lobby, a national chain of craft stores dedicated to Christian principles, objected to this requirement. The Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, writing that the regulation put a major burden on the company’s religious liberty.

And those are just a few recent cases. Some older Supreme Court decisions are still having a massive impact on our lives. For example:

If you care about criminal justice, you should know about Miranda v. Arizona.

Say you just robbed a bank. Or, say you look like a person the police think just robbed a bank. Either way, if the cops arrest you, they must tell you that you have a right to remain silent and you have the right to an attorney (known as reading your Miranda Rights). That’s because of a 1966 Supreme Court ruling, and it matters to anyone who could potentially find themselves under arrest.

If you care about racial equality, you should know about Brown v. Board of Education.

Ever heard the phrase “separate, but equal?” It’s from an old Supreme Court case ruling that said racial segregation on trains (and everywhere else) was A-OK, so long as the accommodations offered were equal (they weren’t). Fast forward to 1951, when a group of parents in Topeka, Kansas sued the local school board over racial segregation. It took three years for their case to make its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution. That ruling helped open the doors for civil rights leaders to challenge policies that disenfranchised and discriminated against African-American citizens.

We could go on and on but you get the point: the Supreme Court has ultimate say on many of the issues we most like to yell at each other about. 

How to Make an Impact

If ever there were a branch of government protected from public influence, it’s the Supreme Court. In fact, the Court was designed to be as independent as possible. But that doesn’t stop people with opinions about a case from holding competing demonstrations outside the Supreme Court building and voicing their opinions to journalists and on social media. Does public opinion influence what the Supreme Court does? It’s hard to say. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can to make a difference:

Corner Office

How does someone get appointed to the Supreme Court? First, the president has to nominate them. During a presidential campaign, you’ll want to find out what kind of Justices each candidate wants to appoint to the Court. Are they pledging to appoint people who oppose or support abortion access? Support or kill the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare)? Factor in the answer when you cast your ballot.

Halls of Congress

Next, the Senate has to confirm (a.k.a. vote to approve) that person. If you think the Senate should reject or approve a Supreme Court nominee, tell your senator. The Senate will also hold hearings where they ask all kinds of questions about a nominee’s philosophy when it comes to various issues. Want your senator to ask about a specific matter? Did you watch the hearing and think they only asked lame softball questions? Let them know.

Congress also has the power to pass laws that would reform the Supreme Court. In fact, in 2021 the House of Representatives passed a bill (known as H.R. 1) that would do just that. Here’s the deal: federal judges have to follow an official code of conduct, but that requirement doesn’t apply to Supreme Court justices. H.R. 1 would change that. The bill has another requirement: when a special interest group spends money to support or oppose a Supreme Court nominee, they’d have to disclose their donors to the public.

Eyes on the Street

When the Supreme Court is considering a case, experts, advocates, and organizations routinely write in with their perspectives. They submit what are known as amicus briefs, which can provide expertise and urge the Court to think about the case in a particular way. Supporting groups that submit amicus briefs as part of their work can make a real impact.

On the Ground

In April of 2021, President Biden announced a 36-member bipartisan commission tasked with studying the Supreme Court, including lifetime appointments, the number of Justices, and the nomination and confirmation process. This commission will be taking public testimony, offering one avenue for citizens to get involved.

California pastors in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties filed an emergency bid asking the Supreme Court to overturn the governor’s Covid-19 restrictions, which restricted, among other things, indoor worship.

A high schooler was suspended for making crude statements on social media, and her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The University of Virginia School of Law’s student-led First Amendment Clinic wrote an amicus brief supporting the student.

Nineteen disability groups worked together nationally to file an amicus brief with the Supreme Court stressing that the Affordable Care Act should be upheld in the face of national lawsuits. The disability groups held the law’s provisions guaranteed protective services and provided great benefits for people with disabilities.

When President Trump nominated Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court, Maine Senator Susan Collins was considered one of the key lawmakers who could swing the vote either way. Protesters, mostly women, staged a sit-in at Collins’ office to persuade her to vote “no.”

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