The Supreme Court of the United States consists of the chief justice of the United States and, since 1869, eight associate justices. The number of justices varied during the first 80 years of the country’s history, beginning with five justices in 1798 and growing to as many as ten in 1863. Congress retains authority under the Constitution to establish the number of associate justices. The president of the United States nominates Supreme Court justice candidates, and appointments are made “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Under Article III of the Constitution, United States Supreme Court justices have lifetime tenure in their positions “during time of good Behaviour.” Lifetime tenure is also true of the judges in the lower constitutional courts of the federal system. The chief justice presides over the Supreme Court and also holds leadership roles on the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States, and the Federal Judicial Center.
In the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions, the Court exercises its appellate jurisdiction. The Court may assert original jurisdiction (that is, decide a case from beginning to end) if the case involves states or a state and the federal government. These types of cases are seldom filed with the Court. In exercising its appellate jurisdiction, the Court can hear cases appealed from both lower federal courts and state supreme courts if a case involves an issue of federal law. With respect to cases originating in state court, parties must exhaust their possibilities in the state court system before the Supreme Court will consider hearing a case.
The Supreme Court is not required to hear most requests for appeals. The decision of the Supreme Court to hear an appeal is discretionary in almost all cases today. Unless an appeal is mandatory, which is very rare, a party who wishes for the Supreme Court to hear an appeal must file a writ of certiorari, which requests that the Court review the decision of a lower court. The Court denies writs of certiorari in the vast majority of cases. The Court today grants appeals in only about one percent of the cases filed before it each year. If the Court refuses an appeal, it permits the lower court’s decision to stand but does not have any other significant meaning (for example, it is not an affirmance of the lower court’s opinion).
Many of the Supreme Court’s decisions involve interpretation of the Constitution. The Court established itself as the primary authority to interpret the Constitution in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803. As the primary interpreter, the Court may invalidate an act of Congress if the act violates a right granted under the Constitution or Congress has misused powers granted to it under the Constitution. The Court does not decide ldquo; political questions,” meaning those questions that another branch of government is better suited to answer. The Court also refuses to provide advice to the other branches of government. This restriction stems from the famous refusal of Chief Justice John Jay to provide advice to President George Washington about the implications under the new Constitution of a foreign policy decision.