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United States Supreme Court: Federal GovernmentResearch Paper

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Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the land. It is embedded in Article III of the Constitution and serves two main functions - developing procedural laws for lower-level federal courts and interpreting laws for both federal and state courts. The Supreme Court maintains ultimate appellate jurisdiction over the nation's federal courts as well as over cases in state courts that have to do with federal law. Currently chaired by Chief Justice John Robert, who is assisted by eight associate judges -- Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayer, Samuel Alito Jr., Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsberg, Clarence Thomas, Anthon y Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia -- the Supreme Court has, for the two centuries of its existence, been responsible for some landmark and life-changing rulings. The most recent of these rulings perhaps is the case of Hollingsworth vs. Perry, where the court literally legalized same-sex marriages in the State of California. Other significant rulings include the District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), Mapp V. Ohio (1961), Roe vs. Wade (1969), and Citizens United vs. FEC (2010). In symbolizing the significance of the Supreme Court in the country's legal system, former chief justice, Charles Evans Hughes referred to it as the nation's symbol of faith. This text demonstrates why this is so. It outlines, among other things, the history, overview, structure, jurisdiction, and significance of the Supreme Court in the legal system.

History and Background

Article Three, Section One of the Constitution asserts that "the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish" (FindLaw, 2015, n.pag). The U.S. Supreme Court was created under this section and the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 (FindLaw, 2015). The Judiciary Act established not only the Supreme Court, but also the Attorney General's Office, the federal district courts, and the federal circuit courts. Moreover, it accorded the president of the United States the right to appoint, with the Senate's approval, justices to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was finally unveiled on the 2nd of February, 1790, at which point it comprised of six justices (Keith, 2008). One of these was appointed chief justice and was responsible for chairing the activities of the court and overseeing the operations of the entire federal court system. The court was then the weakest of the three arms of government, openly shying away from deciding and upholding issues of controversy. Much of the attention in the years that followed was geared at increasing the court's power and degree of autonomy. In 1801, John Marshall was appointed chief justice, and he immediately asserted the judicial branch's rights and authority as provided for in the Constitution. In the case of Madbury vs. Madison, CJ Marshall argued that the judicial review doctrine gave the court the power to determine the constitutionality of Acts passed by Congress (Keith, 2008; Lively & Weaver, 2006). This marked the first step towards making the judiciary more powerful and autonomous. By the time Marshall was leaving office, in 1835, the Judiciary was the strongest of the three arms.

By this time, however, the court did not have a specific building from which to hold its operations, and concern was being raised over the likelihood that the Supreme Court could not operate autonomously if it was not fully independent from the Federal Government. The court had been holding its sittings in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York between 1789 and 1790 before it moved together with the National Capitol to Philadelphia, where it established its sittings first in the Independence Hall and then later in the City Hall.

The City Hall remained home to the Supreme Court until 1800, when it moved to the new Capitol building in Washington, D.C, again with the Federal Government. However, even there, it did not have a distinct space and had to change its meeting place within the building almost six times. This was, however, only until 1812, when it was again forced to move after the British administration burned down the Capitol building. It occupied what is now known as the 'Old Senate Chamber' up until 1929, when the then Chief Justice William Howard Taft filed a petition with Congress to have the court given a permanent building. In 1935, the court moved into its own office -- what we now refer to as the 'Supreme Court' Building. Today, the Supreme Court stands as having decided millions of cases, at an average rate of 60,467 every year.

Composition

Just like the chief and associate justices, and the office space of the Supreme Court has changed over time, so has the size of the bench -- from six in 1789 to 7 in 1807, 9 in 1837, 10 in 1863, and back to 9 in 1869. Today, pursuant to Article 28, Section 1 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is composed of nine justices -- the chief justice and eight associate justices (Beard, 2012). The nine are nominated by the president although the Senate still has to give its approval. Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and can only be removed from office through impeachment by Congress (FindLaw, 2015). This explains why a significant number of justices have served well into their eighties.

In case the Office of the CJ falls vacant or when it is proven that the occupant is unable to discharge their duties effectively, the president may, but is not obliged to, choose one of the associate judges as a replacement. Before a replacement is appointed, however, the associate judge who has served longest on the Supreme Court bench assumes the office's responsibilities. Crucial decisions can be made by at least six members; however, for cases that are intensely sensitive, hearings are postponed until all the nine justices are available.

In addition to the nine justices, the court appoints a number of other officials to help it carry out its functions effectively. These include a marshal to service, a librarian, a Reporter of Decisions, and several law clerks (FindLaw, 2015). Each of the eight associate justices appoints four clerks, mostly top students in an Ivy League Law School; and the chief justice then appoints the public information officer, the director of data systems, the curator, the court counsel, and the administrative assistant (FindLaw, 2015).

Term

The court holds its sittings in Washington, D.C. Its term begins on the first Monday of October every year and continues through to the last Monday of October the following year. However, the court reserves the right to hold special or adjourned terms whenever need arises. These special calendars include sittings that are held to deliberate on key emergency issues between June and October, when the court is in recess. An estimated 10,000 petitions are filed every term in addition to approximately 1200 applications that are handled by the nine justices at the individual level (Beard, 2012).

Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is established in Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution. The court reserves original jurisdiction (the right to hear a case for the first time) over all cases involving consuls, public ministers, ambassadors, and all cases to which a state or the country in its entirety is a party. This includes all cases involving ships on the navigable waterways and high seas (admiralty cases), cases involving treaties, and boundary disputes governed by grants of different states.

Further, the court reserves appellate jurisdiction (the right to hear cases that have previously been decided in lower-level courts) over cases filed by losing parties in lower courts. Prior to 1891, losing parties in the lower state and federal courts of last resort were allowed to file their appeals at the Supreme Court. This led to a lot of frivolous and routine claims, prompting Congress to create 9 courts of appeal to address errors in routine cases. This reduced the number of appellate cases reaching the Supreme Court significantly. Today, most appellate cases that are decided by the Supreme Court do not come directly from the district courts, but from the courts of appeal (which have since risen to 13), the Courts of Military Appeal, and state supreme courts (courts of last resort).

Rule-Making Power

Section 28 of the Constitution grants the Supreme Court power to establish procedural rules that are to be followed by lower-level courts in executing their respective jurisdictions.

Cases

The court reserves the right to decline to exercise its appellate jurisdiction if the caseload assigned to it in a particular term is unmanageable. When a party files a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, they place a request for the justices to review the same. However, the Certiorari Act of 1925 grants the court the power to decide whether or not to hear these cases. The court, for instance, only hears about 100-150 of the approximately 7,500 cases that it is requested to review each term (United States Courts, 2015).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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