The Supreme Court: The Judicial Branch
“I believe that the establishment of the Supreme Court of the United States as a constitutional court … is the most significant single contribution the United States has made to the art of government.”
—Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist
The Supreme Court is the highest form of judicial authority in the United States. Only nine justices are given responsibility over the monumental judgments of the court, which handles matters of constitutional and federal law. Each vote is extremely influential in the structure and application of the American judicial system.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the general overseer of the entire American judicial system, and has more authority than any other court in the country. In fact, it was the only court identified by the Constitution in 1787. Much of the Supreme Court’s significance rests in its jurisdiction over both federal and lower-state issues. However, the Court is so significant that it only handles major cases or legal controversies where the law at large is in dispute. This section of the guide clarifies the form and function of the Supreme Court.
- SCOTUS is an acronym you will frequently come across during a Supreme Court search. It means Supreme Court of the United States.
- If at any point in your research you are confused about the legal terminology you encounter, visit Oyez’s glossary of Supreme Court terms.
Supreme Court of the United States
is the official Web site of the Supreme Court. This site has virtually everything you need to know about the Court, detailing how it functions now, and how its practices developed. This should be the first place you look for Supreme Court information and court documents. Find out how to pay a visit to the Court through this site, or browse through records and cases. Download this PDF which gives a basic overview of how the court functions
Supreme Court Rules
, presented by the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, indexes the rules that dictate the Court’s function for the current season. Each rule is hyperlinked, giving you a sense of legal language; examples include “Argument Pro Hac Vice
,” and “Process; Mandates
.” You’ll learn about the role of the clerk, the Supreme Court library, what a term entails, and much more.
The World Almanac for Kids
uses simple language to explain the jurisdiction of and the nomination process for the Supreme Court. It’s a good place to start if you aren’t yet familiar with the Supreme Court. You’ll find a list of all the justices who have served on the Supreme Court, with the chief justices in bold. The site is helpful for kids and adults alike who want a concise yet thorough understanding of the Court.
Today's cases are considered by looking back upon earlier rulings, and the Court's background is drawn upon to determine virtually every case. The following resources outline the history of the Supreme Court so you can trace the roots of current decisions.
- There is an ongoing debate about loose vs. strict interpretation of the Constitution. “Loose constructionism” supports a flexible Constitution that adapts to a changing society, whereas “strict constructionism” discourages straying from the precise wording of the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were the original proponents of these respective forms of interpretation; to learn more about their debate visit this U.S. Department of State Web site.
The Supreme Court Historical Society
has a voluminous history of every Court from the Jay Court to the Rehnquist Court. There is a timeline of justices with information about each one. There are sections on the current Court and previous “Homes of the Court,” plus quizzes and videos.
has an educational and entertaining resource on the Supreme Court. It was created in conjunction with the Supreme Court documentary series that aired late January 2007. In addition to history, the site is full of interactive features and lesser-known tidbits: did you know Justice Byron White was an NFL football star before he joined the Court?
The History of the Supreme Court
focuses on elements that went into the development of the American judiciary system, and ultimately the Supreme Court itself. Important political philosophies, names, and dates are hyperlinked throughout the text to facilitate an in-depth historical exploration.
The meat of the Court is its cases. Before the development of the Internet, lawyers had to shuffle through an endless pile of reference books to find the exact case they were looking for. Although law students and lawyers still have plenty of research to do, sites with archives to Supreme Court cases have streamlined the process, making it easy for lawyers and laypeople alike to find information quickly—even without the official name or number of a case.
- If you are looking for highly specialized information about Supreme Court cases, there are some professional legal sources you can turn to. They require a paid subscription, however, and are useful mostly to lawyers or judges. These include Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Usscplus.com.
The American Bar Association
lists and discusses every case before the Supreme Court. There are expert analyses, merit briefs, case highlights, jurisdiction practices, and more. There are also articles on the judicial nomination process, featured cases, and a section to test your Supreme Court knowledge.
hosts the Federal Legal Information Through Electronics database, a system that supplies the full text of 7,407 Supreme Court cases between 1937 and 1975. Search using the case name involving one or both of the parties, or perform a text search using the “and,” “not,” or “or” functions.
Supreme Court justices are entrusted with so much authority and knowledge that they dedicate their lives to the service of the court. Because justices are nominated for life, a wealth of information can be found on each one—both those who have served, and those currently serving. These sites give you a greater understanding of the lives and personalities that make up the Supreme Court.
For general information about the justices …
Cornell University Law School
hosts the Legal Information Institute, which publishes information on every Supreme Court justice. What makes this site unique is that all the justices are listed in alphabetical order. Clicking on a justice’s name yields one or more of his or her important opinions. There is also a brief biography for each justice; use the “Bio” links following the names to find them.
has a section devoted to the justices of the Supreme Court. The segments on each justice are concise and contain a good amount of information about each individual, from the current Court and from past courts. You’ll also find information about their appointments, opinions, roles, and financial disclosure reports.
For statistics regarding the justices …
The United States Senate
lists every official Supreme Court nominee since John Jay. The site mentions which president nominated them, when they were nominated, who they were intended to replace, and what the Senate vote was. You can even find out which members of the Senate voted yea or nay.
Northwestern University School of Law
provides access to the U.S. Supreme Court Justices Database, an immense amount of information on those nominated to the Supreme Court, even those who have not been confirmed. The database is available in SPSS, Strata, and Excel formats. The 263 variables for each nominee can be considered in five categories: “identifiers, background characteristics and personal attributes, nomination and confirmation, service on the Court, and departures from the bench.” This is a great source of technical and statistical information but may not be useful for people seeking more general knowledge.
The daily newspaper is frequently the only way citizens find out about Supreme Court decisions. For the most part, newspapers only report on groundbreaking judgments or popular cases, leaving many of the court’s events and cases unrecognized. These sites help you keep up with the details of the latest Supreme Court decisions as they unfold.
- Many of the Web sites that provide recent Supreme Court headlines also function as forums for discussion and opinion.
- Some of these Web sites ask for registration but the process is usually free.
hosts the “United States Supreme Court Monitor” which presents up-to-date information about recent developments in the legal community. After free registration, this Web site offers legal news stories as well as commentary and opinions from lawyers and other experts. Access Supreme Court decisions granted from the past year or those that are still pending.
Willamette Law Online
is a great service for current Supreme Court information. Maintained by the Willamette University College of Law, the site has same-day summaries of oral arguments, certiorari granted, and Supreme Court decisions. It also creates outlines of the issues of a case a week before the oral arguments by examining the briefs. The drawback? Cases only date back to 2002. A free subscription allows you to receive the information via e-mail.
The Washington Post
provides updated news, features, and opinions concerning the Supreme Court. They have a number of changing stories analyzing the Court with newswire feeds, important Supreme Court decisions from previous years, transcripts, and profiles of justices.
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