United States Government: Democracy in Action
Supreme Court Decision Making
[logo] Essential Question
How do cases come before the Supreme Court, and what factors influence the decisions the Court makes?
Section 1 The Supreme Court at Work
Some cases begin at the Supreme Court because they fall under its original jurisdiction. The vast majority of cases, however, reach the Court only as appeals from lower court decisions. The main route to the Supreme Court is when a lower court petitions the Court for a writ of certiorari—an order to send up the records on a case for review. Almost half of the cases decided by the Supreme Court involve the federal government. The solicitor general represents the federal government in suits before the Court.
When cases come to the Court, the justices and clerks decide which ones are worthy of serious consideration, and the chief justice puts them on a "discuss list" for all the justices to consider. If four of the nine justices agree to accept the case, the Court will do so. If the Court rules on the case without consulting new information, the ruling may be announced with a per curiam opinion.
After the Court accepts a case, the lawyers on each side submit a brief. Parties who have an interest in a case's outcome may also submit a written brief called amicus curiae. The Supreme Court sits for two consecutive weeks each month. At these sittings, the justices listen to oral arguments from lawyers for each side of each case. The Court then recesses and considers arguments in these cases. A majority of justices must be in agreement to decide a case. For major cases, the Court issues one of four types of written opinions, which are as important as the decision itself. An opinion may be unanimous. A majority opinion expresses the view of the majority of justices. A justice who agrees with the majority's decision but for a different reason may write a concurring opinion. A dissenting opinion is the opinion of justices on the losing side in a case.
Section 2 Shaping Public Policy
The Supreme Court determines policy in three ways: using judicial review, interpreting the meaning of laws, and overruling or reversing its previous decisions. The Court has ruled as unconstitutional about 150 provisions of federal law and more than 1,270 state and local laws. The Court has used judicial review to influence public policy in many areas, including racial desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka), reapportionment of state legislatures (Baker v. Carr), and police procedures (Miranda v. Arizona).
Over the years, most Supreme Court decisions have dealt with civil liberties, economic issues, federal legislation and regulations, due process of law, and suits against government officials. The Court hears only those cases in which a decision will make a difference, a plaintiff suffered real harm, or a substantial federal question is involved. The Court does not decide points of law or give advisory opinions.
Section 3 Influencing Court Decisions
Law is the foundation for deciding cases, but laws and the Constitution are not always clear in their meaning. In interpreting the law, justices look for logical connections to the Constitution, to statutes relevant to the case, and to legal precedents. Some justices consistently take liberal positions or conservative positions on issues. Justices who work harmoniously together, however, are more likely to find common solutions to problems.
As society's values and beliefs change, the Court's decisions reflect these changes. "Separate but equal" facilities for African Americans were upheld in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1954, the Court overturned Plessy, ruling unanimously that "separate but equal" educational facilities were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
A president's most important influence over the Court is the power to appoint justices, with the Senate's consent. The president also plays a role when enforcing Court decisions. One way Congress influences the Court is to pass laws that nullify an earlier Court ruling. The Sixteenth Amendment allowed Congress to levy an income tax, for example, which nullified an earlier Court ruling that a tax on incomes was unconstitutional. Congress also sets the number of justices on the Court, and the Senate can refuse to confirm a nominee to the Court.