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The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system. It is the only court specifically established in the Constitution. The Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. The annual term of the Supreme Court runs from the first Monday in October to early summer, usually ending in late June or early July.

Because the Supreme Court was the first court established in the federal system, it has the most significant history of any federal court, as well as some of the richest traditions (PDF file**). The Supreme Court's decisions in landmark cases such as Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott v. Sanford, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka have shaped America's history and ideals.

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Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

There are three separate routes that cases follow to reach the Supreme Court. The first, and least common, is a case under the Court's "original jurisdiction". "Original jurisdiction" means that the Supreme Court hears the case directly, without the case going through an intermediate stage. The original jurisdiction is set forth in the United States Code. The Supreme Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction to hear disputes between different states -- meaning that no other federal court can hear such a dispute. An example of such a case is the 1998 case of State of New Jersey v. State of New York. In this case, the two states litigated the question of which state had jurisdiction over Ellis Island. "Original jurisdiction" cases are rare, with the Court hearing one or two cases each term.

The most common way for a case to reach the Supreme Court is on appeal from a circuit court. A party seeking to appeal a decision of a circuit court can file a petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. "Certiorari" is a Latin word meaning "to inform", in the sense that the petition informs the Court of the request for review.

Unlike all other federal courts, the Supreme Court has discretion to decide which cases it will hear. The Supreme Court gets thousands of petitions for certiorari, but only issues a writ in a fraction of cases. The Court will only issue a writ if four of the nine Justices vote to do so. Justices usually take the importance of a given case and the need to issue a final decision before deciding to grant certiorari. If four Justices do not agree to grant certiorari, the petition is denied. If a case is "denied cert", the decision of the lower court is final.

The third way in which a case can reach the Supreme Court is through an appeal from a state supreme court. Each state has its own supreme court that is the final authority on state law. (However, each state does not always call its highest court the "Supreme Court"; in New York, for example, the highest court is the Court of Appeals.) The Supreme Court will generally not challenge a state court's ruling on an issue of state law. However, the Court will grant certiorari in cases where the state court's ruling deals with Constitutional issues.

Oral Arguments Before the Supreme Court

Every session of the Supreme Court starts with the words, "Oyez, Oyez, Oyez" glossary for 'oyez', which signals those attending the proceedings to pay attention. The official crier continues; "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!" Once that ritual has been completed, the Court returns to its public business. When the Supreme Court is in session, Justices generally hear oral arguments.

Oral arguments provide a means for lawyers representing clients before the Supreme Court to advocate their case directly to the Justices. After the Justices grant certiorari, the next step in the process is for the lawyers for both parties to submit briefs to the Court that argue their case. Additionally, parties that are not involved in the case but have an interest in the Court's decision may submit amicus glossary for 'amicus', or friend-of-the-court briefs to support their views. Once this is completed, the Justices schedule the case for oral argument.

At oral argument, the lawyer for each side has a half-hour to present his case before the nine Justices. Oral arguments are open to the media and the public, and while they are not televised, they are often recorded. The Court strictly enforces time limits, which means that the lawyers representing the parties must sharpen their arguments in order to present them effectively. Frequently, the Justices will interrupt the lawyers to ask questions.

Justice Stanley Mosk of the California Supreme Court, writing in The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, cited several reasons why oral argument is vital to a court's deliberation. First, oral argument allows members of the public to hear judicial proceedings, and gives the media the opportunity to report on the case. Second, oral argument allows Justices to ask hypothetical questions in order to gauge what the effect of a decision might be in practice. Third, oral argument can also help identify issues that were not properly briefed by the parties. Finally, the give-and-take between the lawyers and the Justices serves to magnify the strengths and weaknesses of each side's arguments, and helps Justices resolve their doubts and concerns about the case. 1

Supreme Court Opinions

After oral argument is completed, the Justices meet in closed session to discuss the case. Justices work with their law clerks to draft the opinions that will be the Court's final decision about the case. Opinions are lengthy, carefully-written, and extensively footnoted documents that serve as a record of the Court's decision on each case.

There are four main types of opinions. The most important type is the majority opinion. The majority opinion is, as the name suggests, the opinion of the majority of judges hearing the case. In most cases, a majority opinion requires five Justices, unless one or more Justices have recused themselves from a given decision. The majority opinion is important because it defines the precedent that all future courts hearing a similar case should follow.

Majority opinions are sometimes accompanied by concurring opinions. Concurring opinions are written by individual Justices in the majority. These opinions agree with the majority opinion, but may stress a different point of law. Sometimes, concurring opinions will agree with the result reached by the majority, but for a different reason altogether.

Opinions written by justices not in the majority are known as dissenting opinions. Dissenting opinions are important because they provide insight into how the Court reached its decision. In many instances, the Court has adopted the opinion of a dissenting Justice years later in reviewing an issue. Sometimes, an opinion may be both a dissenting and concurring opinion, with a Justice agreeing with the majority on one issue but not on another.

The fourth, and least common, opinion is the per curiam glossary for 'per curiam' opinion, a Latin term meaning "by the court". A per curiam opinion is a majority opinion delivered by the Court as a whole, with no individual Justice taking authorship.

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1 Stanley Mosk, In Defense of Oral Argument, 1 J. App. Prac. & Process 25 (1999).