Russell Hebets March 4, 2016

With the recent death of Justice Scalia and several important cases being brought before the Supreme Court, it’s worthwhile to look at how the Court works and how a case gets to be heard by Supreme Court Justices. 

The Supreme Court of the United States 

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and the only court established by the constitution. The court consists of 9 members, one Chief Justice and 8 associate Justices. The court, as we are currently witnessing, may continue to hear cases without all the justices. Having first met in 1790, the Supreme Court is steeped in history and tradition. The members of this court are appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate and Justices remain on the court for as long as they choose, barring impeachment. 


The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is outlined in the United States Code. The court hears cases involving disputes between two States or citizens of one state against another state. It also has jurisdiction over disputes involving foreign parties or actions involving the United States against one or more individual States. Additionally, the court has jurisdiction over cases appealed from a State Supreme Court. As a general rule, the highest court abstains from challenging the state over matters that are state law but will review rulings that deal with constitutional issues. 

However, the most common path to the Supreme Court is through the Circuit Courts. 

How Does a Case get to the Court? 

Cases originate in district or county courts. If the charges are federal ones, then the case may be appealed to the circuit court and from there the Supreme Court. If the charges are state charges, then the case is appealed to the district court, then the appellate court, then the state Supreme Court, before going to the federal Supreme Court. 

If one desires a case to be brought before the Supreme Court, they file a petition for a writ of certiorari, which informs the court of the request for their review. The justices of the court receive many petitions and do not accept most of them. The case must raise a significant constitutional issue for their consideration. 

If the court denies hearing the case, the ruling of the lower court stands. 


Once a case is accepted for review, both sides file briefs. Additional briefs called amicus (or friendly) briefs may be filed by parties not directly involved in the case but who want to show support. Then oral arguments are heard. This is a vital part of the process in which the justices have the opportunity to ask questions or propose hypotheticals in order to better dissect the issues at hand. 

The judges then meet privately to discuss the case and draft their opinions. 

Supreme Court Opinions 

The justices must explain the reasons that brought them to their respective conclusions in drafts which are called opinions. 

There are four types of opinions. The most important opinion is the majority opinion, usually ruled on by 5 or more justices. Federal law is based on precedent, and the majority opinion is the most significant because it defines that precedent. The next opinion is the concurring opinion. A justice may agree with the majority opinion but for different reasons, so the concurring opinion outlines how the conclusion was reached. The third opinion is the dissenting one. This expresses disagreement with the majority and explains why. Dissenting opinions are very important and often lay the groundwork for reviewing decisions later on. The last and least common type of opinion is the per curiam opinion. This is a decision in which no individual justice drafts the opinion but the court unanimously and as a whole agrees. 

Since decisions of the court become law, it is easy to understand the significance of appointing a judge who can contribute in thoughtful, knowledgeable and balanced ways.