How to Understand the Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court has been in the news a lot over the past few weeks, and not without reason. Tonight, President Trump will be announcing his nominee to the Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, this new Supreme Court Justice will have a profound impact on the future of our country.

I’m going into my final year of law school and my understanding of the law – and of the Supreme Court in particular – is far from complete. But I do have a little more than a layperson’s understanding. So if you’ve ever wanted to know more about the highest court in the land, here is a quick(ish) guide to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Do I have to understand the Supreme Court?

Honestly? No.

Supreme Court justices receive lifetime appointments. The only influence you have in this process is your votes for the President and the legislatures that select justices, and in pressuring our elected officials through phone calls / petitions etc. when the selection occurs. Even though the Supreme Court does have power over important issues, its decisions are largely outside of the public’s control once a justice is appointed.

This means even if you do have an impressive understanding of the Court’s operation and nuances, it’s a lot like having an impressive arsenal of knowledge about figure skating without the powerful thighs to compete: you can wish, hope, and root for Mirai Nagasu to land the triple axel, but ultimately you don’t have sway over whether or not she does.

She did. We love her.

It can definitely be frustrating to accept the impenetrability of the Supreme Court. However, there are dozens of ways to have an impact when it comes to causes you’re passionate about, like  understanding and influencing legislation as its being made, getting involved in elections, or volunteering for non-profits. Not understanding the details of a particular Supreme Court decision doesn’t make you any less of an activist or advocate.

Then again, having a working knowledge of figure skating can bring you some comfort from the sidelines. Especially when the score can shape the future of women’s healthcare and your kind-of-racist uncle keeps saying things that you’re pretty sure aren’t true about whether the founding fathers intended for an Asian woman to land an axel.

What does the Supreme Court do?

Within the federal government, the Executive Branch (the President and all the Departments of Blah Blah Blah, etc.) enforce and carry out the law; the Legislative Branch (the Senate and the House) create the law; and the Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court and other federal courts) interprets the law. (All of this is basically paralleled in state-level government.)

There are two kinds of courts. Trial-level courts are where cases are initially brought: this is where evidence, including testimony, is presented. Pretty much every legal show and movie ever has their action takes place in a trial court. In the federal system, the trial courts are called “district courts.”

If a party in the case thinks that the trial-court judge decided a legal issue incorrectly, the case is appealed to an appeals court. Appeals courts then decide whether the court below it made the right or wrong decision on a legal question.

In the federal system, there are two levels of appeals courts.

The Circuit Courts are the first level of appeals courts. Decisions made in the district courts can be appealed to the Circuit Court above it. Decisions made by Circuit Courts can then be appealed to the Supreme Court. Decisions made within state courts can also be appealed to the Supreme Court if they deal with legal issues related to the Constitution or federal law. There are certain other exceptional instances where the Supreme Court can hear cases that have not gone through lower courts in the usual way.

The Supreme Court does not have to decide every case that gets appealed to it. When a party in a case believes that an appeals court decided their issue incorrectly, they can ask the Supreme Court to hear their case. The Supreme Court usually hears cases when they have some national significance or when there is a circuit split, meaning that some of the circuit courts have already decided the issue in different ways and a more conclusive answer is needed.

So basically –  the Supreme Court decides whether lower courts have gotten significant legal issues related to the Constitution or Federal law wrong. This frequently requires deciding what a law or a Constitutional provision means – or, at least, what it allows.

Who decides?

The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices – or, at least, it should be, unless certain members of the Senate decide to hold up a Supreme Court nomination  for sketchy political reasons. The current Supreme Court Justices are:

  • Chief Justice John Roberts (conservative)
  • Justice Clarence Thomas (conservative, known for barely speaking during oral arguments – the part of a Supreme Court case where attorneys for each side present their positions orally and Justices ask a ton of questions to get clarity on the issue and/or push their own perspectives)
  • Justice Samuel Alito (conservative)
  • Justice Neil Gorsuch (Trump nominee-level conservative)
  • Justice Anthony Kennedy (mostly conservative but can be persuaded: the notorious retiring swing vote)
  • Justice Stephen Breyer (liberal)
  • Justice Elena Kagan (liberal)
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor (liberal)
  • The Notorious R.B.G. / Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (liberal and a meme, known for falling asleep during the State of the Union)

What do they base their decisions on?

Supreme Court justices don’t base their decisions in political ideology alone – or, at least, they don’t want to be seen as doing so. Their decisions are technically based on previous interpretations of the law in other Supreme Court cases (precedent), the actual language of the law before them, and legal reasoning.

As the highest court, their decisions are not restricted by the decisions of other courts or even the Supreme Court’s previous cases, although it is usually hesitant to undo (“overturn”) its old decisions. A judstice’s philosophy on how the law should be interpreted also heavily influences their decisions.

Of course, it’s both possible and probable that Justices could decide the answer beforehand and make up legal reasons for the decision afterward.

Each party in the case also argues their position to the Supreme Court in two ways. Both sides submit “briefs,” which are giant papers outlining the history of the case, the facts involved, the issues presented, and why the Court should decide each issue in their favor. Other parties that are interested in the case but not involved (i.e.  not on either side of the “v.” in the case name) can submit “amicus briefs” to support one side or another to the Court.

The two parties in the case also get a chance to make their argument orally in front of the Court. These are the oral arguments mentioned above, where they argue their position and the Justices ask questions.

Wait, this kind of sounds like a long, drawn out argument over what words mean.

 I mean, pretty much, yeah.

So how are cases decided?

 Ultimately, the court issues an opinion. This outlines the decision reached by the majority of the court and the reasoning they used to get there. Majority opinions are binding on lower courts, meaning that every other court must follow what they decide. These decisions can be overturned by the Supreme Court later although this rarely happens.

Justices that disagree can write dissents, which argue for why the majority opinion made the wrong decision.

Justices can also write concurrences, giving reasons that bolster or enhance the majority’s argument. They can also concur in the judgement, meaning they agree with the ultimate result but do not agree with the reasoning used to reach the result.

Or, if they really want to confuse law students, they can concur in part and dissent in part, which means they agree with some parts of the opinion but disagree with other parts. This turns it into a super fun exercise in deciphering which parts of the opinion have enough votes to make them binding.

Is there always a majority opinion?

 No there isn’t, and that further complicates things.

 Can the Supreme Court avoid actually answering the question?

Yes they can, and they often do.

One of the most common ways of doing this is by determining that the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) did not have the “standing” to bring the suit. The Supreme Court could also say that the previous court did not have “jurisdiction” over the case. The requirements for standing and jurisdiction are, frankly, complex and often open issues of law all on their own. When the Court finds a lack of standing or of jurisdiction, they do not have to decide the meatier issues of the case.

They can also partially dodge the question by deciding the case based on narrow reasoning that is very specific to the case instead of issuing a sweeping opinion that will affect other similar cases. The Supreme Court only must decide the case at hand and does not necessarily have to rule broadly on the given issue. This happened recently in the Masterpiece Cake Shop case where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the shop based on the “anti-religious bias” of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and, in doing so, provided little guidance on how similar cases should be decided going forward.

I have more questions!!!

That make sense, because I feel like I’ve talked a lot here but explained not very much at all.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Supreme Court and its landmark decisions, the More Perfect podcast is a law-student favorite that gives interesting insight into the Supreme Court and the real human impacts of its decisions.

Oyez.org is another great free resource that gives the quick version of Supreme Court decisions.

If there’s interest, there could be a Part 2 to this post! I could also write (or get some of my smarter friends to write) articles on other legal things that you’ve always wondered about but haven’t had the time to dive into.

If there’s anything specific you want to know more about or if you have a question about anything above, please leave a comment, @ us on twitter (@htlyt), or submit a question through our contact page. I’ll try to answer what I can either right away or in a future post (or, more likely, link you to an article that explains it really, really well).

xoxo, Kim

p.s.: as a reward for getting through Kim rambling about legal things, here’s a cute video of a tiny hamster eating tiny spaghetti.

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photo courtesy of claire anderson.

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