Judicial Branch

The United States has one Supreme Court, as dictated by the U.S. Constitution in Article III, section 1. Congress may from time to time establish inferior courts. The judges, both of the Supreme Court and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior and shall, at stated times, receive for their services a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office. Justices are elected to serve life terms.

Appointment/Election Method

The president nominates Supreme Court justices and appoints them to office with the consent of Congress. Congress establishes the number of justices that serve on the Court. Currently there are nine justices.

To ensure an independent judiciary and to protect judges from partisan pressures, the Constitution provides that judges serve during “good behavior,” which has generally meant life terms. To further assure their independence, the Constitution provides that the justices’ salaries may not be diminished while they are in office.

When the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional issue, that judgment is virtually final; its decisions can be altered only by the rarely used procedure of a constitutional amendment or by a new ruling of the Court. However, when the Court interprets a statute, new legislative action can be taken. As the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and thereby functions as the guardian and interpreter of the Constitution. The complex role of the Supreme Court in this system derives from its authority to invalidate legislation or executive actions that, in the Court’s considered judgment, conflict with the Constitution. This power of “judicial review” has given the Court a crucial responsibility in ensuring individual rights as well as in maintaining a “living Constitution” whose broad provisions are continually applied to complicated new situations.

In all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a State shall be a party, the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction. In all the other cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make. Appellate jurisdiction has been conferred upon the Supreme Court by various statutes, under the authority given Congress by the Constitution.


A term of the Supreme Court begins, by statute, on the first Monday in October. Court sessions usually continue until late June or early July. The term is divided between “sittings,” when the justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and intervening “recesses,” when they consider the business before the Court and write opinions. Sittings and recesses alternate at approximately two-week intervals. Approximately 7,000 petitions are filed with the Court in the course of a term. In addition, some 1,200 applications of various kinds are filed each year that can be acted upon by a single justice.

With rare exceptions, each side is allowed 30 minutes of argument and up to 24 cases may be argued at one sitting. Since the majority of cases involve the review of a decision made by a lower court, there is no jury and no witnesses are heard. For each case, the Court has before it a record of prior proceedings and printed briefs containing the arguments of each side.