How Does the U.S. Supreme Court Work?

Learn about the kinds of cases the U.S. Supreme Court hears, how the Court chooses the cases it will decide, and the steps in the Court's decision-making process.

By , Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

The U.S. Supreme Court is a federal court existing under the authority of Article III of the Constitution. It functions primarily as an appellate court, meaning a court that's authorized to review case decisions from other federal courts and from state courts. Most of what the Supreme Court does is shielded from public view, so it can be hard to understand how the Court works.

The Scope of the Supreme Court's Authority

The scope of the Supreme Court's authority is outlined in Article III of the Constitution. (See U.S. Const., art. III, § 2.) Like all federal courts, the Supreme Court can only hear and decide specific kinds of cases. Most of the cases the Supreme Court hears are either:

  • "federal question" cases, meaning cases arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, or
  • "diversity" cases, meaning cases between citizens of different states.

By far, most of the Supreme Court's work is done under its appellate jurisdiction. The Court hears appeals from decisions of lower federal courts—usually from circuit courts of appeals—or from state appeals courts. Appeals can involve criminal cases or civil cases.

Early on, the Supreme Court decided that it has the power to declare laws passed by Congress unconstitutional. (See Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)). Additionally, the Court found it has the authority to review decisions of state courts. (See Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816)).

Justices of the Supreme Court

Congress gets to decide how many judges—called Justices—sit on the Court. Today, that number is nine. All Justices must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They're appointed for life and can be removed from office only by death, resignation, or impeachment.

One Justice, called the Chief Justice of the United States, is responsible for the administrative management of the Court. The remaining eight Justices are called Associate Justices. Each of the nine Justices gets one vote when the Court decides cases, and all votes carry equal weight.

There aren't any formal or mandatory qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice. As a practical matter, though, most Justices come to the Court with some judicial experience from a federal or state appeals court. As a rule, they're graduates of top-tier, elite law schools and often have experience working in federal or state government.

How the Supreme Court Decides What Cases It Will Hear

The vast majority of cases the Supreme Court hears come to it by a petition for a writ of certiorari, commonly called a "cert petition." While that name sounds like a mouthful, it's just a fancy way of saying you must ask for permission to appeal your case to the Supreme Court. Unlike other federal (and most state) courts, the Supreme Court has almost complete discretion to choose both the cases it will hear and the issues from those cases it wants to decide.

In a typical year, the Supreme Court receives more than 7,000 cert petitions. It "grants cert"—agrees to decide—between 100 and 150 cases. The Court decides some of those cases summarily, without a formal, lengthy written opinion. In an average Term, the Court issues between 75 and 100 "merits decisions," or decisions on the merits explained in an opinion of the Court.

So how does the Court decide what cases it will hear? The Court is more likely to hear cases where one or both of these factors are present.

  • A lower court split. A split in the lower courts, when other federal or state courts have decided an important legal question in different and conflicting ways, can lead to confusion and uncertainty about what the law requires. Often, the Supreme Court will agree to hear a case so it can resolve the split and announce one unified rule of law.
  • An issue of great importance. When a case presents an issue of significant importance that the Court has yet to decide, the Court is more likely to hear the case to provide guidance for future parties.

(See U.S. Sup. Ct. R. 10.)

The Justices and their staffs review all cert petitions. The Justices then meet periodically to decide what cases they want to hear. During this process, the Justices follow an unwritten, informal rule called the "rule of four." If four or more Justices vote to grant cert, the Court will hear the case.

The Supreme Court's Decision-Making Process

Once the Supreme Court decides to hear a case, the case typically follows a predictable path that includes:

  • case briefing
  • oral arguments before the Court
  • the Justices vote on how to decide the case
  • the Justices exchange drafts of opinions, and
  • the Court announces its decision.

Case Briefing

Once a case is granted, the Court issues a briefing schedule. Each party must submit written briefs that describe:

  • the facts
  • the case history in the lower courts
  • the legal issues the Court has agreed to hear
  • their arguments, and
  • the relief they want the Court to grant.

Briefs must follow the Court's briefing rules. (See, for example, U.S. Sup. Ct. R. 24.) In most cases, the parties' briefs are the most important step in the case decision process. Justices sometimes form preliminary (or even final) conclusions about a case based on the contents of the briefs.

Arguments Before the Court

When it hears an appeal, the Supreme Court doesn't conduct a trial where witnesses testify and the Court receives evidence. Instead, each case is scheduled for oral argument. During oral argument, the lawyers for each side try to present their best arguments to the Justices.

On a typical "arguments day," the Supreme Court will hear two cases. As a rule, each side in the case gets one-half hour of argument time.

During most oral arguments, the Justices repeatedly interrupt the lawyers who are arguing to ask questions about the facts, issues, and law. Quite often, it's possible to figure out how a Justice is inclined to decide a case based on the questions they ask during arguments.

The Justices Vote on How to Decide the Case

Shortly after a case is argued, the Justices gather in the Chief Justice's library to discuss the case and take a preliminary vote on the outcome. This preliminary vote can be critically important. Among other things, it influences which Justice will write the Court's opinion. When the Chief Justice is "in the majority," meaning on the winning side of the case, the Chief Justice gets to decide which Justice will write the Court's opinion. When the Chief Justice isn't in the majority, the most senior Justice who is in the majority gets to make that decision.

The vote at this stage of the case isn't necessarily final. On occasion, a Justice will change their vote later. When this happens, it sometimes changes the outcome of the case.

The Justices Exchange Opinion Drafts

Once the preliminary vote is done (and sometimes, even before then), the Justices begin writing drafts of their opinions. Generally speaking, there are three kinds of opinions.

  • The opinion of the Court. When five or more Justices agree on a case, an opinion of the Court will describe the case outcome and the Court's reasoning.
  • Concurring opinions. When a Justice agrees with all or part of the Court's outcome but disagrees with the Court's reasoning, that Justice might write a concurring opinion. Most often, the gist of a concurring opinion is "I agree with the Court's outcome, but I would reach that outcome for this reason instead."
  • Dissenting opinions. Justices who disagree with the Court's outcome often write dissenting opinions. As the name suggests, a dissenting opinion disagrees with the Court's decision. The gist of a dissenting opinion is usually, "The Court got it wrong, and here's why."

The Justices usually exchange and comment on their draft opinions until they're complete. Again, sometimes Justices will change their mind during this drafting process.

The Court Announces Its Decision

Once all the opinions are complete and the final votes are tallied, the Court will announce its decision. In most cases, this happens while the Court is in session. The Justice who wrote the Court's opinion will read a summary of the decision. Sometimes, a Justice who wrote in dissent will also read a summary of their dissenting opinion.

Supreme Court FAQ

Where are Supreme Court decisions available?

You can find historical Supreme Court decisions, from 1789 to 2013, at the Library of Congress website. Cases are organized by the volume of the United States Reports—the official case reporter of Supreme Court decisions—where the decisions appear. If you don't have that volume number, you can get it by searching the internet for the case name. A number of web pages will appear with the United States Reports number.

Here's an example. The case citation for Brown v. Board of Education looks like this: 347 U.S. 483. This means that the decision appears in volume 347 of the United States Reports, beginning on page 483. With that information, you can locate the decision via the Library of Congress page.

You can find more recent decisions, from 2014 to the present, on the Supreme Court website.

What time of day do Supreme Court decisions come out?

Most often, decisions are announced at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

When does the Supreme Court term end?

Technically, each Supreme Court term begins on the first Monday in October and ends on the last Sunday before the first Monday in October of the next calendar year.

When does the Supreme Court break for the summer?

There's not a set day by which the Court wraps up its business and breaks for the summer. It depends on how many decisions the Court needs to issue and how long it takes for the Justices to finalize their opinions. Most often, the Court issues its final decisions for a term in mid-to-late June.

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