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Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States.

The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

Above the main entrance of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., the building where the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) meets, are the words "EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW," which is meant to express the ultimate responsibility of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the American judicial system and has the power to decide appeals on all cases brought in federal court or those in state court but dealing with federal laws. After a circuit court or state supreme court has ruled on a case, either party may choose to appeal to the Supreme Court. Unlike the circuit court appeals, the Supreme Court is not required to hear the appeal.

The Supreme Court was authorized by Article III, Section I of the United States Constitution. It states:

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. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution offers the Supreme Court its jurisdiction, including being the first court to hear all cases regarding ambassadors, public ministers, or consuls. It also gives the Supreme Court jurisdiction over cases in which states are involved. This is also called the court's original jurisdiction. In other cases, the Supreme Court exercises appellate jurisdiction to confirm or overrule a lower court's decision. The vast majority of cases heard by the Supreme Court come from the lower courts, such as the appellate courts and the state supreme courts.

Despite the grounds for the establishment of the Supreme Court in the United States Constitution, it would not be until the Judiciary Act of 1789 that the legislative branch exercised the power to decide the organization of the Supreme Court. The act, signed into law by President George Washington, specified that the Court would be made up of six justices that would serve until death or retirement.

Role and cases

As per the Court's jurisdiction, it can hear cases in its original jurisdiction but is best known for exercising its appellate jurisdiction and judicial review. In the case of appellate jurisdiction, the Court, with a few exceptions, does not have to hear a case. The Certiorari Act of 1925 gives the Supreme Court the discretion over which cases it chooses to hear. This requires petitioners to the Court to send a writ of certiorari, which asks the Court to review a case. Of the over 7,000 cases the Supreme Court is asked to review each year, it agrees to hear about 100-150.

The Supreme Court plays an important role through its powers as part of the Constitutional system of government of the United States. First and foremost, it is the highest court in the land and often the last resort for those seeking justice. Second, due to the power of judicial review, the Supreme Court has a role in ensuring each branch of government recognizes the limits of its own power. Third, the Court protects civil rights and liberties by striking laws that violate the United States Constitution. And it sets appropriate limits on democratic government by ensuring that popular majorities cannot pass laws that harm or take undue advantage of unpopular minorities.

Writ of Certiorari

In the case when the Court receives a writ of certiorari, the Court will "grant cert" or accept the petition when four of the nine justices decide that they should hear the case. These tend to be cases the Court considers sufficiently necessary to require their review, such as when two or more federal courts of appeal have ruled differently on the same question of federal law. In the case of the Court granting certiorari, justices accept legal briefs from the parties to the case and from amicus curiae, or "friends of the court." Often the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in which various parties to the suit will present arguments to the Court, and the justices can ask them questions.

Law clerks

Each justice is permitted to have law clerks, often between three and four per court term. These individuals are often recent graduates from law school and have served a year or more as a law clerk for a federal judge. They are involved in many tasks for the Justices, such as performing legal research to assist Justices in deciding which cases to accept, helping prepare questions for Justices during oral arguments, and drafting opinions. Many Justices also ask their law clerks to read the writs of certiorari, write a brief memorandum of the case, and make a recommendation of whether the case should be accepted.


When the justices decide to accept a case, the case is placed on the docket, and the petitioner has a certain amount of time to write a brief. The brief is not to exceed fifty pages and must put forth the petitioner's legal case for the issue put forward to the Court. Once the brief has been filed, the other party, known as the respondent, is given a similar amount of time to respond in their own brief, with similar parameters. After these initial briefs, both parties are offered an opportunity to file shorter-length briefs that respond to either party's respective position. Further, if not directly involved, the US Government, represented by the Solicitor General, can file a brief on behalf of the government.

Oral arguments

In about seventy to eighty cases accepted throughout the year, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments. The Court hears oral arguments in cases from October through April. From October through December, arguments are heard during the first two weeks of each month. From January through April, arguments are heard on the last two weeks of each month. Arguments are heard on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

The oral arguments are open to the public, with typically two cases heard each day. Each case is allotted an hour for arguments, in which lawyers for each party have a half hour to make their best legal case. However, more often this time is spent answering justices' questions, with the justices tending to view the oral arguments as a chance for the petitioners to answer any questions the justices may have developed while reading the briefs. If the US Government is not a party, the Solicitor General may be allotted time to express the government's interest in the case.

Deciding a case

After hearing the arguments of a case, the decision-making process occurs, which involves two major judgments. There is a vote, usually kept secret, where the justices decide the merits of the case, and once the decision is made, the justices issue the official written decision of the Court. The justice selected to write the decision is selected by the chief justice, by tradition, if the chief justice is in the majority. This includes the chief justice deciding to write the decision themself. If the chief justice is in the minority, the longest-serving member of the majority makes the decision-writing appointment.

Since the era of Chief Justice John Marshall, it has been common practice for the Court to issue formal opinions to justify its decisions. The Constitution does not require to do so, but it has become common practice regardless. Further, the draft of an opinion is circulated among the justices and those justices may concur or dissent from the decision, either in full or in part. The final decision effectively represents the supreme law of the land and is expected to be used as precedent for the lower courts.

Judicial Review

One of the best-known and important powers of the Supreme Court is the power of judicial review. This is the ability of the Court to declare a Legislative or Executive act in violation of the Constitution. The power of judicial review is not within the Constitution itself but was established in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which 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, or legal orders that compelled the government and its 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, which established the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land. The Court held that an Act of Congress that is contrary to the Constitution could, therefore, not stand. Further, the Court later 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 considered to be only applicable to the federal government. After the Amendment's passage, the Supreme Court began ruling that most provisions were applicable to the states as well. Therefore, the Court has final say when a right is protected by the Constitution or when a Constitutional right is violated.

Constitutional interpretation

The interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court has led to an emergence of different groups, known often as the "traditionalists" and "activists," who each push for different interpretations. Activists tend to argue the Court should look to the spirit of the Constitution when making a decision, and further, tend to believe the Constitution is a living document that must be treated as guidelines interpreted in the light of beliefs, needs, and circumstances of the day. Often, activists seek interpretations that encompass ideas not specifically expressed in the Constitution.

As their name suggests, traditionalists tend to maintain the Court should confine itself to the precise language of the Constitution, rather than the document's spirit. Their argument tends to emphasize the Court determining what the Founders' intentions were and apply their understanding of those intentions to their decisions. This is not often possible, and in that case, traditionalists tend to hold that the Court should defer to the judgment of the executive and legislative branches. This view also holds that the Court should overturn any state or federal law that is seen as unmistakenly contrary to the Constitution. In the opinion of some, the majority of justices seated on the Supreme Court in 2022 are, to varying degrees, traditionalists.

Supreme Court cases

In the history of the Supreme Court, there have been a wealth of important cases that have had impacts of varying degrees, for better or worse. This has included decisions that denied citizenship to African American slaves (Dred Scott v. Sandford), upheld state segregation laws (Plessy v. Ferguson), and upheld World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans (Korematsu v. United States).

The Court has also reversed these decisions in some cases and made other decisions, such as the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright, which afforded legal representation to defendants who could otherwise not afford representation. Or 1962's Engel v. Vitale, in which the Supreme Court ruled prayer initiated by and within public schools violates the First Amendment, which was further in the 2000 Sante Fe Independent Public School District v. Doe where it further ruled students could not lead prayer on a school's loudspeaker system. Other notable cases have included the following:

  • Mapp v. Ohio (1961) held that evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in criminal cases.
  • Texas v. Johnson (1989) found that flag burning and other potentially offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973) ruled that women have a right to an abortion during the first two trimesters (overturned in June 2022).
  • United States v. Nixon (1974) found that the president cannot use their power to withhold evidence in criminal trials.
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003) struck down state anti-sodomy laws.
  • United States v. Windsor (2013) revokes the US government's ability to deny federal benefits to same-sex couples.
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) legalized same-sex marriage across all fifty states.
The sitting justices as of October 27, 2020.

Various Acts of Congress have altered the number of seats of the Supreme Court, from a low of five to a high of ten. After the Civil War, the number of seats was fixed at nine, which has continued to be the number of seats into 2022, despite some calls for increases to the number of sitting justices. This leaves one chief justice, by whom the Court is often referred, and eight associate justices. Similar to federal judges, the justices are appointed by the president and are confirmed by the Senate. This is to keep the justices from having to run or campaign for election or re-election and is intended to insulate the justices on the Supreme Court from political pressure when deciding cases. Further, once confirmed, a sitting Justice may remain in office until they resign, pass away, or are impeached or convicted by Congress.


When a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, the president of the United States is given the authority to nominate a person to fill the vacancy. The nomination is given to the United States Senate, where the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing where the nominee provides testimony and responds to questions from members of the panel. The committee, traditionally, then refers the nominate to the full Senate for confirmation.

When choosing a nominee, the process for choosing a nominee is not codified in law. Presidents have received lists of recommendations from White House counsel, the attorney general, and lawyers in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Often these nominees are political, being either friends or acquaintances with similar ideological views to the president. The nomination process is also often influenced by external individuals and organizations.

Some presidents also set their own requirements on the nominees, such as holding specific positions on key issues, often important social issues of contemporary importance. However, the nominee's views have not always conformed to future opinions, and justices have previously ruled in ways that have surprised the presidents who have nominated them.

Consideration of the Senate Judiciary

Once the individual is nominated the Senate Judiciary Committee is charged with conducting a rigorous investigation into the nominee's background in order to glean an understanding of their judicial philosophy and temperament, which will inform the support a given justice will receive.

Senate Judiciary hearing for Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The most public part of this process is when the nominee testifies before the Judiciary Committee and takes questions. The hearing, which is kept open at the discretion of the chair, can last days, especially as opponents seek to verbally spar with the nominee. This part of the nomination process originated with the nomination of John M. Harlan in 1955, and the first televised Supreme Court nomination took place in 1981, for Sandra Day O'Connor. Following the hearing, a vote is held, and the nominee is sent to the full Senate to decide, regardless of whether the nominee wins a majority.

Recess appointments

The president can make a recess appointment, which avoids the need for Senate confirmation but shortens the justice's term to the end of the next session of Congress, rather than to a lifetime appointment. There have been twelve recess appointments made to the Supreme Court, most of which occurred in the nineteenth century and the most recent made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Notable Supreme Court justices
Chief Justice John Marshall.

Many of the Supreme Court justices have been distinguished for one reason or another, such as Chief Justice John Marshall, who has been regarded as one of the most influential chief justices, in part for having defined the relationship between the judiciary and the rest of the government and establishing the Supreme Court's power to review and rule on the constitutionality of federal laws enacted by Congress. Marshall was the fourth chief justice and served for more than thirty-four years.

Chief Justice Earl Warren.

In the 1930s, Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes presided over the Court as it transitioned from being the protector of property rights to the protector of civil liberties. This included landmark opinions on the freedom of speech and press. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chief Justice Earl Warren issued numerous other landmark decisions:

  • Brown v. Board of Education, which banned school segregation
  • Miranda v. Arizona, which put in place Miranda rights, or the "right to remain silent" warning given by police
  • Loving v. Virginia, which abolished prohibitions around interracial marriage.

Other notable justices have included William Howard Taft, the first person to serve as both president of the United States and chief justice; Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice; Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court; and Sonia Sotomayer, the first Hispanic justice.

History of the Supreme Court

When Congress first met on March 4, 1789, one of the first requirements was to establish the Supreme Court as per Article III of the Constitution. This led to the first Congress enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established thirteen district courts in major cities, three circuit courts, and a Supreme Court comprised of a chief justice and five associate justices. President George Washington signed the Judiciary Act on September 24, 1789, and that same day nominated John Jay of New York to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.

He further nominated James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge of South Carolina, William Cushing of Massachusetts, Robert Harrison of Maryland, and John Blair of Virginia to be associate justices. When Harrison declined to serve, President Washington nominated James Iredell of North Carolina. During his term in office, President Washington appointed three chief justices and eight associate justices.

The original Supreme Court met for only a few weeks each February and August. One notable case of this period, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), led to the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment, which removed federal jurisdiction in suits by citizens of one state against another state. Another was the Glass v. Sloop Betsey (1794) decision, which established admiralty jurisdiction in all federal courts.

Though the original justices heard few appeals, it did not mean they were idle; rather, they were often exhausted from "riding the circuit"—a requirement of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that required justices to preside twice a year over the circuit courts located throughout the country. With the travel accommodations of the day, this could be grueling, but the provision was in the Judiciary Act to ensure Justices were aware of local opinion and state law. The practice was almost immediately found to be intolerable, and Congress reduced the requirement in 1793 to one journey per year. In 1891, Congress abolished the requirement altogether.

The early Supreme Court lacked its own chambers, let alone its own buildings. These early Supreme Courts convened in the Royal Exchange building in New York City and continued to share space with various government entities after the national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia and eventually settled in Washington, D.C.

The Jay Court

The Jay Court lasted from 1789 to 1795, and John Jay was the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and the first chief justice appointed by President George Washington. Other than the major cases of John Jay's Court noted above (Chisholm v. Georgia, 1793 and Glass v. Sloop Betsey, 1794), this court also oversaw a decision in Georgia v. Brailsford (1794) where, through a disagreement as to whether a man had to pay his debt to the State of Georgia or his original creditors, Chief Justice John Jay's decision in the case would help define the power of a jury. Justice Jay determined the job of the jury was to judge facts and use the law to determine an opinion in a case, which helped to establish jury nullification. After the decision, the jury ruled the case in favor of the defendants.

The Rutledge Court

One of the shortest-serving chief justices, John Rutledge served in 1795, starting with a nomination during a senatorial address. The nomination was rejected when the Senate came back into session because Rutledge had condemned the Jay Treaty, which Rutledge saw as being favorable to the British. This is the first time the Senate did not approve a notable nomination by a president.

The Ellsworth Court

The second-shortest serving chief justice was Oliver Ellsworth, who was appointed chief justice following the failed appointment of John Rutledge and served from 1796 to 1800 under the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams. In 1799, Ellsworth was sent to France by President Adams to negotiate a treaty with Napoleon. During his travels, he notified President Adams of his resignation, effective December 1800.

Calder v. Bull

In the case of Calder v. Bull (1798), the State of Connecticut Probate Court denied inherited land to Mr. and Mrs. Bull, who attempted to appeal the case to the state court. At the time, Connecticut law had an eighteen-month statute of limitations on the time allowed to appeal the decision, which the Bulls convinced the state to change and won their right to inheritance. The initiator of the inheritance, Clader, took the case to the Supreme Court, where it unanimously agreed that ex post facto law, or statutes that punish actions retroactively, only applied to criminal rights rather than civil rights.

The Marshall Court

Following the resignation of Oliver Ellsworth, President John Adams nominated John Marshall as chief justice on January 20, 1801. He was confirmed by the Senate seven days later and received his commission on the last day of January of that year. The Marshall Court lasted from 1801 to 1835 during the presidencies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. This included presiding over 1000 decisions and personally writing over 500 opinions.

The major cases of Marshall's court are numerous, including a decision to uphold contract clauses in 1810, deciding in favor of the Supreme Court's supremacy over state courts in 1816, deciding for an extension of congressional powers that limited state powers in 1819, deciding for the Court to have jurisdiction to review state criminal proceedings in 1821, deciding Native Americans could only sell their land to the American government in 1823, deciding in favor of Congress having the right to regulate interstate commerce in 1824, and deciding in favor of the Cherokee Nations as a distinct community in 1832, exempting those communities from state laws.

Marbury v. Madison

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was elected as President of the United States, but prior to his assumption of office, John Adams and Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 and appointed William Marbury as a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia, pending approval of the US Senate. As such, the appointment was not valid until the secretary of state delivered the judicial commission, and Marbury asked the Supreme Court to compel Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commission. There were three questions this case put before the Court:

  1. Do plaintiffs have a right to receive their commissions?
  2. Can they sue for their commissions in court?
  3. Does the Supreme Court have the authority to order the delivery of their commissions?

The Court ruled that Madison's refusal to deliver the commission was illegal and that Marbury's claim was unconstitutional since it attempted to extend the Court's original jurisdiction beyond its constitutional limits, and the ruling established the Court's power to declare a law unconstitutional.

The Taney Court

Marshall's successor, Roger Brooke Taney was nominated the fifth Supreme Court chief justice by President Andrew Jackson, and he would remain chief justice from March 1836 to October 1864, during the presidencies of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

The tensions of slavery increased during Taney's tenure, but Taney did not take a hard stance on the issue, favoring moderate states' rights. Many of his historic cases stressed the notion of white supremacy and favored the power of states to regulate within their own territories.

The Dred Scott v. Sandford case is exemplary of this, in which Dred Scott, enslaved in Missouri by Sandford, lived in the free state of Illinois and in the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden. Upon his return to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom on the basis that he had lived in free territory. The court ruled against his claim, and Scott filed in federal court for his freedom. Sandford argued that no Black person or descendent of enslaved persons could be a US citizen, and in March 1857, the Supreme Court ruled in Sandford's favor. Taney delivered the majority opinion, which stated any Black person with ancestors who had been enslaved, regardless of if they were free or not, could not be a US citizen.

The Chase Court

Lasting from 1864 to 1873, the Chase Court lasted through the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant. Salmon Portland Chase was nominated in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln and served until his death in 1873. The Chase Court clarified the Reconstruction of the United States after the Civil War and continued to establish the rights of the federal government and the president over the states. Many of this court's major cases involved whether or not Reconstruction was constitutional, and led to the piecing together of the United States.

Mississippi v. Johnson

President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Reconstruction Acts passed by Congress, only for Congress to override the veto. The state of Mississippi further wanted to delay Reconstruction and appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the acts were unconstitutional. They asked for an injunction to prevent the state from being enforced. The Court ruled in 1867 that it had no jurisdiction to stop the president from performing his official duties related to the acts, that the president's duties were not ministerial, and therefore an attempt to interfere by a judicial body would be improper.

The Waite Court

Nominated to be chief justice of the Supreme Court by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874, Morrison Waite served until his death in 1888. His tenure lasted through the presidencies of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, and Grover Cleveland. In the post-Civil War United States, the Waite Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to protect corporations and further decreased the rights of women and minorities in the United States, which left a wake of prejudiced decisions that would take time to overcome.

Minor v. Happersett

An exemplar of Waite's Court, on March 1875, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a previous decision stating the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to women, meaning Virginia Minor was considered a citizen of the United States but was not permitted to vote because she was a woman.

The Fuller Court

Melville Weston Fuller was nominated as Chief justice and successor to Morrison Waite in 1888, following the latter's death, and nominated by President Grover Cleveland and confirmed in 1888. He would serve until his death in 1910. Part of Fuller's legacy is the establishment of the court tradition that each justice shake heads with the other justices on the court prior to beginning their conference or private meetings. The Fuller Court tended to see and decide cases concerned with the due process and equal protection sections of the Fourteenth Amendment. This included the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Lochner v. New York (1905) decisions that would go on to be overturned.

Plessy v. Ferguson

In Plessy v. Ferguson, Home Plessy, a man considered Black under Lousiana law, sat in a "whites-only car" after Lousiana passed the Separate Car Act, which segregated carrier cars by race. Home Plessy sought to challenge the law, but the Supreme Court held that the state law was constitutional and did not constitute unlawful discrimination.

Lochner v. New York

In 1897, New York passed the Bakeshop Act, which said no employee in a bakery or bakeshop can work more than sixty hours in a week. Under this Act, the state fined and sentenced to jail the owner of Lochner's Home Bakery, Joseph Lochner, who allowed an employee to work over sixty hours. The Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that the freedom to contract was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive due process clause, and therefore it would be unconstitutional for the state to dictate a maximum number of hours one could labor per week.

The White Court

The White Court lasted from 1910 to 1921, during the presidencies of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Edward Douglass White, nominated to chief justice of the Supreme Court by President Taft, was confirmed and held the position until White's death on May 1921. The White Court examined the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in a number of cases and made decisions that made it easier for Black Americans to vote, though the right had already been established after the Civil War.

Standard Oil v. United States

In 1909, a federal court found that Standard Oil, the largest oil company in the United States at the time and owned by John D. Rockefeller, violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The US Supreme Court under Chief Justice White, and in the opinion written by White, found that Standard Oil did violate the Sherman Act and amended the Act to state that only unreasonable contracts restraining trade would constitute a violation.

The Taft Court

William Howard Taft is the only person, as of 2022, who has served as both chief justice and as a president of the United States, or serving as the head of two branches of government. Following serving as the United States president from 1909 to 1913, Taft was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding in June 1921. He would serve until his resignation in 1930. Taft's Court would see continuation in the denial of protection for minorities, such as upholding the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and continuing the history of black Americans as being seen as second-class citizens under the laws and denied rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the people of Puerto Rico.

Adkins v. Children's Hospital of D.C.

This 1923 decision built on the 1905 Lochner v. New York decision and revoked a law passed by Congress in 1918 to establish a minimum wage to women and children in Washington, D.C. on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. In the case, the Children's Hospital of D.C. sought to halt enforcement of the law, which the Court decided in favor of.

The Hughes Court

The nomination of Charles E. Hughes followed the death of Taft as chief justice, and Hughes was confirmed in 1930. He would step down from the position in 1941. Hughes Court came at a pivotal time in American politics, the New Deal Era, when the chief justice often served as a swing vote and sometimes sided with the "Four Horsemen" of the Supreme Court—conservative justices strictly opposed to the New Deal policies of Roosevelt—but was progressive on issues of race. He further authored more than double the opinions of anyone else serving on the Court.

West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish

In 1932, Washington State set a legal minimum wage of $14.50 for each workweek of forty-eight hours. West Coast Hotel Company paid less than that to their employee, Elsie Parrish. She filed suit to recover the difference in her actual earnings, and in 1937 the Court issued a 5-4 decision, which held that the establishment of minimum wages for women was constitutional.

Steward Machine Company v. Collector of Internal Revenue

The Social Security Act of 1935, imposed a federal tax on employers' payroll, and the employer paid this tax towards the state compensation fund and, in turn, was credited on their federal payments. This was challenged by the Steward Machine Company, which alleged that it violated the Fifth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the Act, concluding that the tax was constitutional and Congress was within its power to enforce it, further stating the tax was beneficial to the general welfare.

The Stone Court

Before being nominated to chief justice by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, Harlan Fiske Stone served as an associate justice on the Court after a nomination from President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. With this nomination, Stone was the first Supreme Court nominee to testify at a confirmation hearing. He served until his death in 1946, and his court presided over issues of World War II, such as the establishment of precedents for how to protect the United States and deal with enemies on United States soil.

Ex Parte Quirin

In 1942, Nazi agents attempted to sabotage United States targets. President Roosevelt ordered the agents to be tried by a military commission, which sentenced all eight to death. The president commuted two agents' sentences to life in prison, while seven of the prisoners petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. The Court held a special session to determine if the prisoners' Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated by the military commission and unanimously ruled in favor of the United States, saying spies and saboteurs were enemies of the state and therefore, by the Articles of War, a trial by military commission was allowed for enemy combatants.

Korematsu v. United States

Executive Order 9066 and congressional statutes passed during World War II forbade citizens of Japanese ancestry from areas deemed important to national defense or otherwise vulnerable to espionage. Korematsu stayed in San Leandro, California, and was deemed to be in violation of this order. He asked the Court to determine the constitutionality of the orders. In 1944, the Court found in favor of the United States, saying the security of the country outweighed the rights of the individual, and the exclusion was valid. However, Justice Robert H. Jackson dissented. In his statement, he noted that the exclusion order violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and legitimized racism.

The Vinson Court

Frederick Vinson received his nomination from President Harry Truman in 1946 and served until his death in September 1953. He served under Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. This Court saw a change in the rulings over racial segregation, ruling over well-known cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, which, due to Vinson's sudden death, was not formally resolved until the succeeding Warren Court.

Sweatt v. Painter

In 1950, the Vinson Court decided on the Sweatt v. Painter case, in which the University of Texas Law School denied admission to Herman Marion Sweatt on the basis of his race. Sweatt appealed the court to reconsider his admission, but the school attempted to provide the separate but equal facilities and use similar arguments to support their decision. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, holding that the separate facility would have been inferior in several areas, and that separation was in and of itself harmful to students.

The Warren Court

Following the sudden death of his predecessor, Earl Warren received a recess appointment for chief justice of the United States Supreme Court from President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. In 1954, he was nominated again to the position and was confirmed by the Senate. He served until 1969, at which point he assumed senior status. The Warren Court oversaw a variety of notable cases, but the Court is best known for outlawing segregation and reducing public prayer. It further established the rights of defendants and citizens.

Brown v. Board of Education

Although it served as a continuation of the trial heard by the Vinson Court, the court decided whether the separate but equal doctrine was constitutional. This came about as Oliver Brown attempted to enroll his daughter in a white school in Kansas and was denied. The Warren Court decided unanimously that it was unconstitutional to provide separate facilities for educating black people.

Mapp v. Ohio

In 1961, the Supreme Court determined, in a 6-3 decision, that when police illegally searched Dollree Mapp's house for a fugitive and found what was classified as obscene materials, the illegal search and seizure violated Mapp's Fourth Amendment rights. The decision further stated that anything obtained during that search could not count for evidence in a court, setting the precedent for evidentiary standards.

Engel v. Vitale

The New York State Board of Regents authorized a voluntary prayer recitation at the start of the school day, and the question would become whether or not it violated the First Amendment. This question was brought to the Supreme Court, and in 1962, the Court determined it was unconstitutional and constituted officially endorsing a religion.

The Burger Court

In 1969, Warren Burger was nominated as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court by President Nixon and would serve until 1986, at which point he stepped down. He served during the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. While Burger's Court is largely considered uninspiring and unpredictable, there were several significant decisions made by his court, such as decisions that led to the resignation of President Nixon, and cases such as Roe v. Wade and Furman v. Georgia, both of which have been challenged and used as precedent in other cases.

Furman v. Georgia

Furman was convicted of murder and given the death penalty, but the murder was considered accidental and occurred in the process of a home burglary. This case was heard to determine whether the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Court decided, in 1972, that the current administration was cruel and unusual, but that the practice of capital punishment itself did not violate the Constitution. This decision prescribed states to consider how to avoid discriminatory death sentences. While two justices, Brennan and Marshall, believed the death penalty was always unconstitutional.

Roe v. Wade

Texas resident Roe sought to terminate her pregnancy for reasons other than to save her life, which was forbidden by Texas law. States had the authority to regulate abortions, and forty-six restricted the procedure in some way. The case made it to the Supreme Court, and in 1973, the Court held that the right to terminate a pregnancy was guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment's right to privacy. This ruling gave individuals the ability to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy before "viability," or the ability for an unborn child to live outside the womb.

The Rehnquist Court

William Rehnquist was appointed chief justice by President Ronald Reagan, after originally serving as an associate justice after a nomination from Richard Nixon in 1971. He would serve as chief justice from 1986 to 2005, at the time of his death. The Rehnquist Court was conservative and ushered in the Court's political "new right" majority. This Court narrowed the reach of previous decisions of the Warren and Burger Court and presided over President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial and Bush v. Gore.

Bush v. Gore

In the 2000 presidential election, the Supreme Court reviewed the Florida Supreme Court's ruling regarding the election results. Previously, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the Leon County Circuit Court to hand count 9000 contested ballots from Miami-Dade County to validate the votes in the general election. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled the lower court did not have the authorization to recount ballots by hand, since this was not a standardized process, and the lower court did not have the right to create a new election law. The decision favored Bush, since the recount stopped, and he would be elected the 43rd president of the United States.

The Roberts Court

Starting in 2005, Chief Justice John Roberts was nominated by President George W. Bush. The nomination was originally for John Roberts to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Conner upon her retirement, until Justice William Rehnquist died in September of 2005, and President Bush renominated Roberts for the chief justice position. Roberts has been considered a judicial conservative, often siding with Justice Scalia and continuing to align with Justice Thomas and Alito, two of the more conservative justices. Further, some have argued Roberts approaches cases with concern towards precedent and judges to preserve the continuity of judicial opinion. He has claimed his position is similar to that of an umpire in baseball.


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