Supreme Court

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Supreme Court

An appellate tribunal with high powers and broad authority within its jurisdiction.

The U.S. government and each state government has a supreme court, though some states have given their highest court a different name. A supreme court is the highest court in its jurisdiction. It decides the most important issues of constitutional and statutory law and is intended to provide legal clarity and consistency for the lower appellate and trial courts. Because it is the court of last resort, a supreme court's decisions also produce finality. In addition, a supreme court oversees the administration of the jurisdiction's judicial system.

A supreme court is established by a provision in the state or federal constitution. The legislative bodies of the jurisdiction enact statutes that create a court system and provide funding for it. A supreme court usually consists of five, seven, or nine judges, who are called justices. In the federal courts, the justices are appointed for life, whereas the states have a variety of selection methods. Typically the state governor will appoint a state supreme court justice, and then he will stand for election within two years to serve a full term, which may be from six to twelve years. A judicial election may involve a contest between the justice and another candidate, or it may be a retention election, where the voters must decide whether the judge should be retained for another term.

A supreme court consists of the justices, their administrative support staff, law clerks, and staff attorneys. As an appellate court, it is limited to reviewing trial proceedings and, if applicable, intermediate appellate court decisions. No new testimony is taken, and the arguments before the court by the parties are confined to points of Substantive Law and procedure. A supreme court holds public proceedings, called oral arguments, in which the attorneys for the parties are given a short amount of time to advocate their positions and answer questions from members of the court. The justices, who have been briefed on the case prior to the oral arguments, conduct a conference on the case following the oral arguments.

At this meeting the justices express their opinions and vote on the case. The chief justice typically assigns a member of the court to write the majority opinion. Once a justice circulates an opinion to the court, the other justices are free to comment, criticize, and offer suggestions on how the opinion can be improved. The author of the opinion generally tries to accommodate the other justices' ideas. However, if a fundamental difference arises during the circulation process, justices may shift sides and change the outcome of the decision. At that point, a justice in the new majority will be assigned to write the opinion. A justice is always permitted to file a dissenting opinion if she disagrees with the outcome.

Once the court releases an opinion, it is published in an official report. The decision of the court is generally final, absent special circumstances. If the court's decision is based on an interpretation of a constitutional provision, it is final unless the constitution is amended or the court reverses itself at some later time. This is rarely done. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), legalized Abortion based on a constitutional right of privacy. Those opposed to abortion have sought to have Congress pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision or to convince the Court to reverse its decision, but without success.

If a supreme court's decision is based on statutory interpretation, its reading of legislative intent or purpose may be overridden by the legislature. A law can be enacted that "corrects" the court and directs it to honor specific intentions of the legislature.

Every supreme court has a procedure to limit the number of cases it hears. The U.S. Supreme Court uses a writ of certiorari, which is a legal Pleading that requests the Court to hear the case. State supreme courts have similar pleadings, sometimes called petitions for review, which also allow the court discretion in choosing cases to consider. Typically cases are chosen to resolve conflicts in the lower courts or to decide new legal issues.

Apart from discretionary review, supreme courts permit direct appeal, or appeal by right, on a limited set of cases. At the state level, appeals of first-degree murder and death penalty cases are heard by supreme courts, bypassing the intermediate court of appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court hears direct appeals of cases involving federal reapportionment, disputes between states, and a few other issues.

Supreme courts also administer their judicial systems, overseeing the trial and intermediate appellate courts. In addition, supreme courts enact the rules of procedure that govern the workings of their court systems. Examples include rules of civil, criminal, and appellate procedure, as well as rules of evidence. Most state supreme courts also oversee the admission of attorneys to the bar and discipline attorneys for ethical violations.


Court Opinion; State Courts.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Supreme Court

n. 1) the highest court in the United States which has the ultimate power to decide constitutional questions and other appeals based on the jurisdiction granted by the Constitution, including cases based on Federal statutes, between citizens of different states, and when the Federal government is a party. The court is made up of nine members appointed for life by the President of the United States, with confirmation required by the Senate. One of the nine is the Chief Justice (appointed by the President if there is a vacancy), and the others are Associate Justices. 2) the ultimate appeals court in every state except Maryland and New York (which call the highest court the Court of Appeals). 3) in New York a Supreme Court is a basic trial court much like a superior, county or district court in other states.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

Supreme Court

1 the highest federal court in the USA. It comprises nine justices appointed by the President with the two-thirds majority consent of Senate. The court deals with federal law mainly on appeal but also at first instance. It was an early Chief Justice who arrogated to the court the power to strike down federal law as well as state laws.
2 Supreme Court of Judicature is the Court of Appeal and the High Court and the Crown Court.
3 in Scotland the Court of Session, which is subject to an appeal to the House of Lords and comprises a first instance Outer House and appellate Inner House, is sometimes described as the supreme court.
4 in Ireland, the Court of Final Appeal, created by Article 34 of the Constitution, consisting of a Chief Justice and other judges of whom five must sit on constitutional cases and three on others. It deals with appeals from the High Court on civil matters and from the Central Criminal Court as well as giving its opinion on the constitutionality of legislation passed by the OIREACHTAS when the President so requests.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

SUPREME COURT. The court of the highest jurisdiction in the United States, having appellate jurisdiction over all the other courts of the United. States, is so called. Its powers are examined under the article Courts of the United States.
     2. The following list of the judges who have had seats on the bench of this court is given for the purpose of reference. Chief Justices. John Jay, appointed September 26, 1789, resigned in 1795. John Rutledge, appointed July 1, 1795, resigned in 1796. Oliver Ellsworth, appointed March 4, 1796, resigned in 1801. John Marshall, appointed January 31, 1801, died July 6, 1835. Roger B. Taney, appointed March 15, 1836. Associate Justices. William Cushing, appointed September 27, 1789, died in 1811. James Wilson, appointed September 29, 1789, died in 1798. John Blair, appointed September 30, 1789, died in 1796. James Iredell, appointed February 10, 1790, died in 1799. Thomas Johnson, appointed November 7, 1791, resigned in 1793. William Patterson, appointed March 4, 1793, in the place of Judge Johnson, died in 1806. Samuel Chase, appointed January 7, 1796, in the place of Judge Blair, died in 1811. Bushrod Washington, appointed December 20,1798, in the place of Judge Wilson, died November 26, 1829. Alfred Moore, appointed December 10, 1799 in the place of Judge Iredell, resigned in 1864. William Johnson, appointed March 6, 1804, in the place of Judge Moore, died in 1835. Brockholst Livingston, appointed November 10, 1806, in the place of Judge Patterson, died in 1823. Thomas Todd, appointed March 3, 1807, under the act of congress of February, 1807, providing for an additional justice, died in 1826. Gabriel Duval, appointed November 18, 1811, in the place of Judge Chase, resigned in January, 1835. Joseph Story, appointed November 18, 1811, in the place of Judge Cushing. Smith Thompson, appointed December 9, 1823, in the place of, Judge Livingston, deceased. Robert Trimble, appointed May 9, 1826, in the place of Judge Todd, died in 1829. John McLean, appointed March 1829, in the place of Judge Trimble, deceased. Henry Baldwin, appointed January 1830, in the place of Judge Washington, deceased. James M. Wayne, appointed January 9, 1835, in the place of Judge Johnson, deceased. Philip P. Barbour, appointed March 15, 1836, died February 25,1841. John Catron, appointed March 8, 1837, under the act of congress providing for two additional judges. John McKinley, appointed September 25, 1837, under the last mentioned act. Peter V. Daniel, appointed March 3, 1841, in the place of Judge Barbour, deceased. Samuel Nelson, appointed February 14, 1845, in the place of Judge Thompson, deceased. Levi Woodbury, appointed September 20, 1845, in the recess of senate, in the place of Judge Story, deceased: his nomination confirmed January 3, 1846. Robert C. Grier, appointed August 4, 1846, in the place of Judge Baldwin, deceased. Benj. Robbins Curtis, appointed 1851, in the recess of the senate, in the place of Judge Woodbury, deceased: his nomination confirmed The present judges of the supreme court are, Chief Justice. Roger B. Taney. Associate Justices. John McLean, James M. Wayne, John Catron, John McKinley, Peter V. Daniel, Samuel Nelson, Robert C. Grier, and B. Robbins Curtis.
     3. In the several states there are also supreme courts; their powers and jurisdiction will be found under the names of the several states.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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