What Is the Supreme Court?
In December 1953, a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall climbed up the many stairs outside the US Supreme Court Building, upon which is engraved the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law.” He was there to put those words to the test.
Marshall was going to present a case before the nine justices of the Supreme Court—the highest court in the country. This case would become one of most important ever in the history of the United States—one that could forever change life in America.
The case was about children and schools. At that time, public schools throughout the South and in some other states were segregated. It meant children of color had to go to separate schools from white children. Since an 1896 court decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, segregation had been the law of the land, as long as the separate schools for students of color were equal to those of white schools.
Linda Brown was a Black third grader in Topeka, Kansas. Her school was miles from her house. To get to the school bus stop, she had to walk several blocks, passing over dangerous train tracks. Then she had to wait for the bus. In cold weather her tears sometimes froze. There was a school just seven blocks from where Linda lived. But it was for white children. When her father, Oliver, tried to enroll Linda there, the school said no. Other Black families with school-age children got the same answer.
The families banded together to try to change this, and Thurgood Marshall was their lawyer. They hoped he would convince the Supreme Court to get rid of the law about segregated schools—to rule that it was illegal.
Marshall planned to use some of the same arguments that had helped him in a California case eight years earlier. In that case, Mexican American schoolchildren won the right to enroll in previously all white schools. But that case never went before the Supreme Court, so the stakes in the 1954 Brown case were much higher.
Thurgood Marshall was Black. In the 1950s, very few Black lawyers had presented cases to the Supreme Court. The justices at the time were all white. Some were from the segregated South. Marshall would need a majority of votes—votes from at least five justices—to win the case. (In Supreme Court cases, there are no juries.)
When Marshall spoke, the justices, in their black silk robes, listened from above him on a tall platform called the bench.
Would Marshall be able to convince the court? It would take many months to find out. Chapter 1: What Is the Judiciary?
The Supreme Court is the most important court in the judicial branch of the US government. It is known as “the court of last resort.” That means it has the final say on all legal matters. It decides if laws that have been passed are constitutional. If they aren’t, the laws must be eliminated or changed.
As written in the Constitution, the other two branches of the government are the executive (the president and advisors) and the legislative (Congress, in which laws are passed).
The Supreme Court cannot hear every appeal. The justices accept about eighty out of more than seven thousand requests (called petitions) each term. They meet as a group (called a conference) to choose cases that are about the most important legal issues of the day, like the Brown case about schools. Each case needs the approval of at least four justices to get onto the Supreme Court docket (the schedule of cases). How can the justices read thousands of requests? They have clerks, who are young lawyers, to help them. Clerks are assigned to each justice’s office (called chambers). But the justices meet together in private to discuss what cases to hear.
When a case is picked, lawyers for each side usually get only thirty minutes to speak before the justices. Although there are limited seats inside the court, the arguments are open to the public (but they aren’t televised).
The justices ask the lawyers questions and sometimes make comments about the case. Among the justices on the court in 2021, Stephen Breyer, for example, talked a lot while Clarence Thomas mainly stayed quiet on the bench.
The justices do not issue their decisions right away. After hearing the lawyers, the justices sometimes meet afterward to discuss the case further. Then they each decide on their own how to vote. The majority—five or more of the nine justices—wins the case. Justices in the minority can write dissenting (opposing) opinions, but that will not change the court’s decision.
The chief justice is called “First Among Equals.” The chief justice does not have any special powers, but when he votes with the majority, he decides which justice gets to write the opinion. The chief justice also swears in each president on Inauguration Day at the Capitol, and leads them in reciting their oath of office. Chapter 2: The First Monday in October
Everything about the US Supreme Court is formal. By tradition, the justices all wear long black silk robes. The chief justice sits in the center of the bench. The longest-serving justices sit on either side of the chief justice, with newer justices at the ends of the platform. Old-fashioned feather quill pens are given to the lawyers who argue cases before the justices as souvenirs from the days that all lawyers needed quills and inkwells to take notes.
Every year, the Supreme Court starts hearing cases on the first Monday in October. It’s been that way since 1917. The court’s schedule (or term) ends in June. That’s when decisions in the most important cases are announced.
Every morning the justices shake hands before going on the bench. They also do this at the start of private meetings when they discuss and vote on cases presented to them. Shaking hands shows their respect for one another even when they disagree about cases.
An officer of the court calls it into session by saying: “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
Oyez (say: OH-yez) means “hear ye,” and has been a call for silence and attention since medieval times in England and France.
Most Supreme Court justices are trained as lawyers, but being a lawyer isn’t a requirement. In fact, you could become a Supreme Court justice! That’s because there are no age, education, or work requirements for the position. You don’t even have to be a US citizen. There is only one rule: The president chooses nominees to the Supreme Court and then a majority of the one hundred members of the US Senate must approve (confirm) the nominee. Sometimes the Senate votes a nominee down. Since 1789, twelve out of 164 Supreme Court nominees have been rejected by the Senate.
Politics is not supposed to influence the justices’ decisions. They are supposed to be guided only by the Constitution. A Supreme Court justice is appointed for life. There is only one way to remove a justice—a guilty verdict in a trial in the Senate. If the senators vote to convict, the justice would be thrown off the court. So far, that has never happened.
Justices leave the court after they retire or die. The longest-serving associate justice was William O. Douglas, who retired after thirty-six years, seven months, and eight days, from 1939 to 1975.
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