Guide: US Supreme Court
Updated: Mar 1
The Supreme Court of the United States once again made its way into the news recently after president Donald Trump looked to challenge the US election process, labelling it as unfair and unconstitutional. However, despite several legal challenges put forward to the Supreme Court, Trump and the Republicans have been unsuccessful in their attempt to reverse Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
With the power to effectively overturn the result of a presidential election, the US Supreme Court, or SCOTUS for short, is undeniably an influential and powerful US institution. However, due to the complex nature of US Politics, the role of the Supreme Court can sometimes be difficult to understand.
Therefore, we have provided a guide that will answer the key questions regarding the US Supreme Court.
What is the US Supreme Court?
Established in 1789 by the US Constitution, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States.
The court is currently made up of nine members. This includes a Chief Justice and eight associate justices. To be placed on the Supreme Court, judges must be nominated by the President and then confirmed by the Senate. Often a justice will serve for life, however certain circumstances may prevent this such as retirement, impeachment, or death.
What does SCOTUS do?
In essence, the Supreme Court is the protector of the US Constitution. It is responsible for upholding the constitution whilst also applying to modern-day legal issues that were generally not considered when the Constitution was first written more than two centuries ago.
Because of this, SCOTUS often interacts with all pillars of US government. For instance, the US Supreme court can overrule federal and state laws for violating the constitution.
Additionally, it possesses the power to strike down presidential actions and executive orders.
Decisions made by SCOTUS often have far reaching implications and can sometimes lead to major social change. Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka demonstrated this ability when a unanimous decision declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. At the time, this was legal and widespread in many southern states.
In 2015, the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, with 5 court justices ruling in its favour.
Deciding on a Case
Clearly, the Supreme Court cannot look at every case put forward to it. There are only nine serving justices on the court after all.
Cases are put forward to the Supreme Court through a Writ of Certiorari, which is a fancy way of requesting a review based on issues present in a legal case. During a typical term, SCOTUS will receive around 7000 requests but will only accept about 80 of them. That is a little more than a 1% acceptance rate, so it is important to make yours stand out.
How does the court decide which cases are accepted? Well, there are not really concrete criteria. Cases considered to be of national importance tend to be accepted by the Supreme Court, such as when SCOTUS was effectively asked to decide the victor of the 2000 presidential election by determining whether a recount should take place in Florida. Ultimately however, the selection process is based on the individual decisions of the sitting supreme court justices.
Cases are discussed twice a week in conferences (hopefully MS Teams is working). Only four of the justices must agree to hear a case before it is accepted for review. This is called the rule of Four. For those cases that are not selected, the decision already made by the lower court becomes decisive.
Once a case has been selected for review, the parties involved must make their case using oral and written arguments. In oral arguments, each side has 30 minutes to plead their case. The justices then write down their opinion and vote. The majority opinion becomes the official SCOTUS decision, but a Justice can change their vote after reviewing the opinions of the other justices. It can take up to nine months for SCOTUS to announce their decision.
The Limits of SCOTUS
Whilst powerful, the US Supreme Court does have its limitations. Arguably the biggest shortcoming of SCOTUS is that it possesses no direct method to enforce its decisions and therefore cannot force either the president or congress to listen. For example, despite the landmark decision resulting from the Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka case, segregation in public schools continued in some Southern states for many years.
Therefore, the Supreme Courts must rely on the other branches of the US government to enforce its rulings. This demonstrates that SCOTUS merely acts a cog in the judicial machine and therefore cannot function separate from the others.
The role of politics can also influence decisions made by the Supreme Court. Since the president nominates and the Senate confirms a candidate, some have accused justices of being politicians in fancy robes. This can result in justices voting in accordance with party lines.
State of Play in the US Supreme Court
Following the successful appointment of Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett, The Supreme Court now stands at a 6-3 conservative majority. This means that SCOTUS is arguably now the most conservative it has been in 70 years.
It cannot be said for definite if each justice will vote in line with their party’s policies and values. However, it is possible, even likely, that the US will witness a conservative revolution. What will this look like? Well, it is likely conservative social issues such as healthcare, gun rights and abortion rights will feature more prominently at a Supreme Court Level.
Additionally, SCOTUS could roll back previous legislature that was unfavourable amongst conservatives, such as Obamacare and same-sex marriage.
Though impossible to predict the actions of SCOTUS, Supreme Court will undoubtedly remain a prominent player in US politics over for the foreseeable future and may even exert its influence more firmly in the coming years.
For more articles and resources, head to our dedicated US Politics section.