Statue at US Supreme Court Building façade. Statue at US Supreme Court Building façade.

What Is the Role of The Supreme Court in The US Legal System?

I often get asked, “Is the court system even important, and why do we need the Supreme Court?” I smile because I know where the country could have been without it.

“A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society … A social engineer is a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who understands the Constitution of the United States and knows how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.”

Charles Hamilton Houston

Where the officials of the executive and legislative arenas are elected by the citizens of the nation, the members of the Judicial Branch are chosen solely by the President, followed by the assent of the Senate.

How things work

Let’s look at the appointment of the number of Supreme Court Justices. Did you know that at one point, they were limited to only 6? Now, there are 9. Also, you see that there are various lower courts under the Supreme Court. In fact, the United States district courts cater to federal cases.

The United States Courts of Appeals, 13 in count, review appealed district court cases and modus operandi of the Judicial arena.

I also want to shed light on the removal of federal judges. The aforementioned authorities can only be relieved of their duty through the process of impeachment executed by the House of Representatives, followed by conviction in the Senate.

Officials such as judges and justices are not appointed to serve a fixed term; they are to extend their duties until their death, retirement, or conviction, as put forth by the Senate. Not to mention the Supreme Court is also responsible for safeguarding and interpreting the Constitution.

Can Congress Sub-Delegate Legislative Powers? [No. 86]

To understand which court has the authority to try cases, jurisdiction plays a very important role. In generality, the jurisdiction of all the judicial courts is highlighted by Congress; however, in some special cases, where a dispute has risen between two or more United States, it is the Constitution that bestows the knowledge of the jurisdiction to the Supreme Court that cannot be challenged or interjected by Congress.

It is essential to comprehend that the power to interpret the law emphasizes the constitutionality of the legal statutes and subject the same to individual cases solely lies with the Federal Courts.

The process of obtaining evidence and testimony through the use of a subpoena can be dictated and supervised not just by Congress, but such an authoritative power lies with the courts as well. Once the Supreme Court interprets the law in a particular way, the lower courts are bound to follow the same interpretation of the facts of a particular case.

How the Apex Court works

The highest court in the land, as it is termed, the Supreme Court, marks the end stop for all the cases that are found to create a path in the US justice system. As written at the main entrance of the apex court building, “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” reflects the sole motto and responsibility of the said judicial system.

Serving as the topmost authority in the arena of law, not only does it cater to any and all cases or controversies that come under the ambit of the Constitution or any provisions of the law of the United States, but it also ensures to uphold the promise of equal justice under the United States law given by the Judiciary to the people of America. Not to forget, the Supreme Court is also responsible for safeguarding and interpreting the Constitution.

The apex court which is the Supreme Court is a very powerful organ of the judiciary, hence it cannot extend its time on cases which are not essential. For this reason, the court only pays attention to a few cases which are of extreme significance and importance. My professor said something important when I was studying, and I remember the statistics.

“From receiving about 10,000 petitions every year, only 70 to 80 cases come before the eyes of the court.”

However, few instances have witnessed that, whenever the court declines to take up a case, either it is sent back to the inferior court for a review of the aforesaid, or upholds the judgement passed by the inferior court and brings closure to the pending legal proceedings.

Supreme Court
Photo by Frankljunior from unlimphotos

Appointment of Justices

Apart from the Chief Justice  of the United States, the Supreme Court is comprised of a panel that contains a specific number of Associate Justices who are allotted as per the requirement and order of Congress. At the moment, the current number that is running pertaining to the Associate Justices is eight.

The process of appointment includes the power held by the President of the United States to nominate the Justices, followed by the Senate’s assent, their consent, and advice on the same, for electing the judicial authorities of the Supreme Court.

As an advantage, if an individual belongs to the position of a Justice, they neither have to run nor campaign for re-election. Hence, they are considered to be radically unbiased and free from any political influence whilst making a decision or judgment in any case that comes before them.

My friends in the legal circle often say this,

“The benefit of being a justice also serves in terms of the fact that they can continue to hold their position until they wish to resign, pass away, or have been either impeached or convicted by Congress.”

The Final Judicial Arbiter

And there is more to my anecdotes. The fact that none of the Court’s decisions can be challenged by any authority, considering the idea that the Supreme Court is the final judicial arbiter in any case falling under the jurisdiction of the United States, terms the scope of the Court trying cases as entirely appellate in nature.

However, there are a few exceptions to the same, which lie on the lines that the Court can extend to take into account appeals coming from the apex state courts or from federal appellate courts. Complementing the aforementioned, the Court also exercises original jurisdiction, in certain specified cases that involve any kind of dealing with ambassadors, and other diplomats, and in cases where the dispute lies between states.

It is essential to emphasize the fact that the Supreme Court has to interpret the meaning of a particular provision under the law, decide whether the provision of the law supports the particular set of facts in question, and rule on the applicability of the law, not to conduct any kind of trials even though times if the court holds jurisdiction, may decide to hear an appeal that pertains to any arena of law.

It serves as an obligation for the inferior courts, to adhere to the judgements put forth by the Supreme Court while deciding any outcome of any case.

supreme court
By Belchonock from DepositPhotos

Scope of the Court

Brought into existence by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Supreme Court was termed the head of the judiciary system, though it was only officially established post the codification of the Judiciary Act, of 1789, by Congress.

From defining the powers and duties to emphasizing the structure and obligations of the legislative and executive departments, the Constitution of the United States covered the two branches briefly but failed to establish guidelines as aforesaid for the Judicial arena, which pushed Congress to cater to the responsibilities of the legal sector which in turn gave rise to the idea that the powers of the judiciary, in a nutshell, must be vested in one single Supreme Court and in such lower courts as the Congress, as per their requirements, may dictate and establish from time to time.

Considered the last decision maker of the judiciary system, the Supreme Court is also known as an appeals court, which not only has the power to try cases that fall under the ambit of the Constitution, laws, or treaties pertaining to the United States of America but also to deal with any dispute or controversy arising either where the United States is serving as a party, or between different states of the nation as well as amongst the citizens who belong to different states.

Complimenting the idea of the Supreme Court’s hold in trying cases, the court is also authorized to act in disputes that either have an admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.

Apart from these, the Supreme court extends original jurisdiction that is it converts itself into a trial court when there are controversies that encompass ambassadors, public ministers, and consuls as well as in disputes where the states mark their position as a party in the dispute.

Very rarely, it has been seen, the court utilizing its power of extending original jurisdiction as the major proportion of their dealings are in cases that come to them as an appeal. Hence, they are known to pass on the most important and binding judgments from their appellate jurisdiction.

Levels of Federal Courts in the U.S.

When talking about the apex body of the judiciary, which is the Supreme Court, it is essential to mention the lower courts that lie beneath the aforementioned. There are two basic levels of federal courts below it: 

1. District Courts 

The U.S District courts, which have district judges presiding over them, complemented with an expert jury, are known to be trial courts that lie at the federal level of the Judiciary. Comprising a total of 13 circuits, there are about 94 district courts that have been brought into existence to date.

2. Appellate, Appeals, or Circuit Courts 

Positioned exactly below the Supreme Court, lies the U.S. Court of Appeals which is categorized into 13 geographically allotted circuits which as well includes the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit.

Consisting of only a panel of 3 judges, this court hears cases that challenge the district court judgements, appeals made by federal agencies and other specified cases, without having any jury to act as an advisory.

Size and Membership

Established by Congress, the structure of the judiciary, including the size of the Supreme Court, varied from time to time. From 1789 to 1807, there were six justices appointed in the court of law, followed by an addition of one more in 1807 and then another two in 1869; the same is upheld even today.

As mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, the appointment of Supreme Court justices and judges, as well as of inferior courts, is executed by the president only after the advice and assent of the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee conducts a proper hearing that depicts the nominees of the justices for the Supreme Court. Once a simple majority of the full Senate is received, the position of the said justice is said to be confirmed.

Due to an unfortunate circumstance, if the post of the chief justice is open and unoccupied, the president has the power to allot the position to an individual either outside the court or promote an associate justice to the said post which, shall only be applicable post the assent of a simple majority of the Senate.

Like I will tell you that to date, only one justice has gone through the procedure of impeachment and that is, Samuel Chase, who was later acquitted in 1805.

Powers and Procedures

The highest judicial authority only entertains appeals if it pertains to federal cases, as well as cases positioned at the state level that involve a question of law.

Once a judgment has been passed by the lower courts, if one of the parties is dissatisfied with the aforementioned, they have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court by simply filing a writ of certiorari. However, it is to be noted that the Supreme Court is not obligated to entertain all the appeals that come before them.

The high court hears less than 1% of the cases pertaining to a writ of certiorari. Only if Congress initiates a constitutional amendment can a judgment of the Supreme Court be reversed, amended, or repealed. It is the rule of four that the Supreme Court uses to have a consensus on which cases they shall accept.

The Judicial Process

Guaranteed under Article III of the Constitution, the right of a fair trial before a competent judge and a jury of one’s peers is to be known to every citizen.  

The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution provide additional protections for the accused, which are as follows:

    • A guarantee that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law.

    • Protection against being tried for the same crime twice.

    • The right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury

    • The right to cross-examine witnesses and to call witnesses to support their case.

    • The right to legal representation

    • The right to avoid self-incrimination.

    • Protection from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments

Regulated by either State or federal law, the criminal proceedings are executed depending on the type and intensity of the crime. Beginning with an arrest of the accused by a legal officer, a criminal procedure also encompasses the idea that if the expert jury desires to deliver a judgment, then the accused will be sent before a judge, followed by being formally charged with a crime, at the time of which they can enter a plea.

Running parallel to criminal and civil cases, which deal with disputes arising between individuals and organizations and not between the state and a person or organization. In the aforementioned proceedings, a party who believes their rights are infringed has the authority to file a suit in the civil court to attempt to have that wrong remedied through an order. After the initiation of the proceedings, from gathering evidence to presenting arguments by both sides, the procedures fall in the same line as if of a criminal case. The parties can decide if they want to waive their right to a jury trial, in which case, the outcome shall be adjudicated by a judge.

Post a case that either falls under the criminal or civil jurisdiction, which has been adjudged, if the parties are not satisfied with the judgment, then it can be sent as an appeal to a higher court, either a federal court of appeals or state appellate court. An “appellant,” who is an individual filing an appeal, has to showcase that the trial court/administrative agency has initiated a legal mistake that has adversely affected the outcome of the case. From referring to the background of the case put forth by the trial court or agency to reviewing the factual information and findings of the aforesaid, the appellate court comes to a decision.

The Justices

 The current Chief Justice of the United States is John G. Roberts, Jr.

The current Associate Justices presiding over the Supreme Court are Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Sonia Sotomayor,  Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch,  Brett M. Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Ketanji Brown Jackson

Recent Judgements by the Supreme Court 

1. Shelby County v. Holder

In Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 case, the Court struck down a particular formula used in the Voting Rights Act (1965), which was used to determine the jurisdictions that were required under the act to seek federal approval of changes in their voting laws.

2. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

I personally think this to be a rather interesting case. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a 2014 case, the Court took down the aggregate limits on monetary contributions by individuals to multiple federal candidates, political party committees, and noncandidate political action committees.

3. Gill v. Whitford

In Gill v. Whitford, a 2018 case, the Court vacated for lack of standing and remanded a U.S. district court decision that had deleted a redistricting plan of the Wisconsin state legislature as an unconstitutional political, or partisan, gerrymander. I really like the name here!

There is another thing that many of my professors said,

The highest court of justice is a position of power that must not just be respected but also upheld through and through.

Wrapping Up

The Supreme Court of the United States has always lived up to the expectations. From understanding the essence of the court to the recent judgments passed by the aforesaid field of judicial authority, to have “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” for all the nation’s citizens will always be the motto of the Supreme Court. Judicial authorities work for the betterment of society and its people rather than becoming a burden on the aforesaid.

Last Updated on May 5, 2024 by Utkarsha


Varenya Vaish
  1. This article helped me a lot to understand the level of supreme court in US.
    The decisions of the Supreme Court have an important impact on society at large, not just on lawyers and judges. So it is important for judges to do justice with their daily affairs or cases not only for US judges but also for the judges all over the world.

  2. The detailed breakdown of the judicial process, encompassing criminal and civil cases, provides a comprehensive view of how the legal system operates. The article also offers a glimpse into the current Chief Justice and Associate Justices, providing up-to-date information. It is a great guide for readers seeking an understanding of the Supreme Court’s role in the US legal system.

  3. This article helped me a lot to understand the role, structure, and functions of the Supreme Court in the United States legal system. It covers aspects such as the appointment and removal of judges, the court’s jurisdiction, and its significance in upholding the Constitution. The article also sheds light on recent landmark judgments, providing a current snapshot of the court’s impact. Overall, it serves as an informative resource for anyone seeking a detailed understanding of the U.S. Supreme Court and its pivotal role in the nation’s legal framework.

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