Article III of the Constitution establishes the federal judiciary. Article III, Section I states that "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Although the Constitution establishes the Supreme Court, it permits Congress to decide how to organize it. Congress first exercised this power in the Judiciary Act of 1789. This Act created a Supreme Court with six justices. It also established the lower federal court system.
Over the years, various Acts of Congress have altered the number of seats on the Supreme Court, from a low of five to a high of 10. Shortly after the Civil War, the number of seats on the Court was fixed at nine. Today, there is one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Like all federal judges, justices are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate. They, typically, hold office for life. The salaries of the justices cannot be decreased during their term of office. These restrictions are meant to protect the independence of the judiciary from the political branches of government.
Article III, Section II of the Constitution establishes the jurisdiction (legal ability to hear a case) of the Supreme Court. The Court has original jurisdiction (a case is tried before the Court) over certain cases, e.g., suits between two or more states and/or cases involving ambassadors and other public ministers. The Court has appellate jurisdiction (the Court can hear the case on appeal) on almost any other case that involves a point of constitutional and/or federal law. Some examples include cases to which the United States is a party, cases involving Treaties, and cases involving ships on the high seas and navigable waterways (admiralty cases).
When exercising its appellate jurisdiction, the Court, with a few exceptions, does not have to hear a case. The Certiorari Act of 1925 gives the Court the discretion to decide whether or not to do so. In a petition for a writ of certiorari, a party asks the Court to review its case. The Supreme Court agrees to hear about 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year.
The best-known power of the Supreme Court is judicial review, or the ability of the Court to declare a Legislative or Executive act in violation of the Constitution, is not found within the text of the Constitution itself. The Court established this doctrine in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).
In this case, the Court had to decide whether an Act of Congress or the Constitution was the supreme law of the land. The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus (legal orders compelling government officials to act in accordance with the law). A suit was brought under this Act, but the Supreme Court noted that the Constitution did not permit the Court to have original jurisdiction in this matter. Since Article VI of the Constitution establishes the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land, the Court held that an Act of Congress that is contrary to the Constitution could not stand. In subsequent cases, the Court also established its authority to strike down state laws found to be in violation of the Constitution.
Before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (1869), the provisions of the Bill of Rights were only applicable to the federal government. After the Amendment's passage, the Supreme Court began ruling that most of its provisions were applicable to the states as well. Therefore, the Court has the final say over when a right is protected by the Constitution or when a Constitutional right is violated.
The Supreme Court plays a very important role in our constitutional system of government. First, as the highest court in the land, it is the court of last resort for those looking for justice. Second, due to its power of judicial review, it plays an essential role in ensuring that each branch of government recognizes the limits of its own power. Third, it protects civil rights and liberties by striking down laws that violate the Constitution. Finally, it sets appropriate limits on democratic government by ensuring that popular majorities cannot pass laws that harm and/or take undue advantage of unpopular minorities. In essence, it serves to ensure that the changing views of a majority do not undermine the fundamental values common to all Americans, i.e., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process of law.
The decisions of the Supreme Court have an important impact on society at large, not just on lawyers and judges. The decisions of the Court have a profound impact on high school students. In fact, several landmark cases decided by the Court have involved students, e.g., Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) held that students could not be punished for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. In the Tinker case, the Court held that "students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate."