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Article III of the Constitution established the judicial branch of government with the creation of the Supreme Court. This court is the highest court in the country and vested with the judicial powers of the government. There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Rather, Congress deemed them necessary and established them using its power granted from the Constitution.

Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they violate the Constitution. The latter power is known as judicial review and it is this process that the judiciary uses to provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches. Judicial review is not an explicit power given to the courts but it is an implied power. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison (1803), the courts' power of judicial review was clearly articulated.

Judicial review puts the Supreme Court in a pivotal role in the American political system, making it the referee in disputes among various branches of the Federal, as well as state governments, and as the ultimate authority for many of the most important issues in the country.

The Supreme Court exercises complete authority over the federal courts, but it has only limited power over the state courts. The Court has the final word on cases heard by federal courts, and it writes procedures that these courts must follow. All federal courts must abide by the Supreme Court's interpretation of federal laws and the Constitution of the United States . The Supreme Court's interpretations of federal law and the Constitution also apply to the state courts, but the Court cannot interpret state law or issues arising under state constitutions, and it does not supervise state court operations.

Usually cases are first brought in front of lower (state or federal) courts. Each disputing party is made up of a petitioner and a respondent.

Once the lower court makes a decision, if the losing party does not think that justice was served, she/he may appeal the case, or bring it to a higher court. In the state court system, these higher courts are called appellate courts. In the federal court system, the lower courts are called United States District Courts and the higher courts are called United States Courts of Appeals.

Most cases do not start in the Supreme Court. Though not often exercised, original jurisdiction gives the Court the power to sit as a trial court to hear cases affecting ambassadors and other foreign officials, and in cases in which a state is a party. Only disputes between two or more states must be heard initially in the Supreme Court. The 1997-98 dispute between New York and New Jersey over the ownership of Ellis Island is an example of the Supreme Court exercising original jurisdiction.

If the higher court's ruling disagrees with the lower court's ruling, the original decision is overturned. If the higher court's ruling agrees with the lower court's decision, then the losing party may ask that the case be taken to the Supreme Court. But as previously mentioned, only cases involving federal or Constitutional law are brought to the highest court in the land.


The Supreme Court is made up of nine Justices. One of these is the Chief Justice. They are appointed by the President and must be approved by the Senate. Once a person has been approved by the Senate and sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, he/she remains in the job for life. The only way a Justice may leave the job is to resign, retire, die, or be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. No Justice has ever been removed by impeachment. There are no official qualifications in order to become a Justice, although all have been trained in the law and most pursued legal and political careers before serving on the Court. Several justices served as members of Congress, governors, or members of the Cabinet. One president, William Howard Taft, was later appointed chief justice.

Here is a list of the current Supreme Court Justices:

  • Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist
  • Justice John Paul Stevens
  • Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Justice Antonin Scalla
  • Justice Anthony Kennedy
  • Justice David H. Souter
  • Justice Clarence Thomas
  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Justice Stephen G. Breyer

The number of Supreme Court Justices has changed over the years. Initially, the Court was made up of six Justices who had been appointed by George Washington. The first time they met was February 1, 1790 . The number of Justices has been as high as 10. President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to raise the number to 15 at one point, but the number has been nine since 1869.