What Is the U.S. Supreme Court?

Written by S. Danilina and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the country that has ultimate and discretionary appellate jurisdiction over all federal and state courts. The Supreme Court hears cases that involve issues of federal law. Moreover, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over some cases.  The Supreme Court consists of chief justice and eight associate justices. All justices are chosen by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and size have changed over time, but kept maintaining its two original functions:

  1. To act as the final analyst of state and federal law
  2. To prescribe  procedural rules for the federal courts

The Supreme Court is located in Washington D.C. and begins each term on the first Monday of October. The Supreme Court may hold additional special terms for emergency matters during the recess time from July to October.

Article III of the Constitution states that the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases that involve public Ministers, states or Ambassadors. The Supreme Court retains exclusive jurisdiction in cases between state governments. Such cases often involve boundary disputes, which happen infrequently. Article III also states that the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction applies to all federal cases under the Congress regulations and exceptions.

The Congress passed the Act to Improve the Administration of Justice in 1988.  This Act requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals only in cases involving federal Civil Rights law, legislative reappointment, federal antitrust actions and a few others.

The Supreme Court has also been granted special jurisdiction to respond to certified questions received by federal courts of appeals or U.S. Claims Court.  When giving answers to the certified questions, the Supreme Court has the right to give instructions regarding any case to the lower courts, which the lower courts have to follow. The Supreme Court can also require the lower courts to provide all details and records of the case and decide the entire lawsuit itself.

All decisions made by the Supreme Court are final and cannot be appealed. However, the Supreme Court can modify the decision it made based on the interpretation of the Constitution by adding a Constitutional Amendment. Congress has the same right and can change its own decisions based on the interpretation of its own Acts by passing a new Act. However, Congress has no authority to change any decisions made by the Supreme Court based on the Court's interpretation of the Constitution. Moreover, the Supreme Court may also overrule itself.

Finally, Congress granted the authority to the Supreme Court to establish rules of procedure to be followed by the lower courts of the United States  that guide civil and criminal cases in the district courts, Bankruptcy proceedings, admiralty cases, copyrights cases, and appellate proceedings.

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