An appellate tribunal with high powers and broad authority within its jurisdiction.
The U.S. government and each state government has a supreme court, though some states have given their highest court a different name. A supreme court is the highest court in its jurisdiction. It decides the most important issues of constitutional and statutory law and is intended to provide legal clarity and consistency for the lower appellate and trial courts. Because it is the court of last resort, a supreme court's decisions also produce finality. In addition, a supreme court oversees the administration of the jurisdiction's judicial system.
A supreme court is established by a provision in the state or federal constitution. The legislative bodies of the jurisdiction enact statutes that create a court system and provide funding for it. A supreme court usually consists of five, seven, or nine judges, who are called justices. In the federal courts, the justices are appointed for life, whereas the states have a variety of selection methods. Typically the state governor will appoint a state supreme court justice, and then he will stand for election within two years to serve a full term, which may be from six to twelve years. A judicial election may involve a contest between the justice and another candidate, or it may be a retention election, where the voters must decide whether the judge should be retained for another term.
A supreme court consists of the justices, their administrative support staff, law clerks, and staff attorneys. As an appellate court, it is limited to reviewing trial proceedings and, if applicable, intermediate appellate court decisions. No new testimony is taken, and the arguments before the court by the parties are confined to points of SUBSTANTIVE LAW and procedure. A supreme court holds public proceedings, called oral arguments, in which the attorneys for the parties are given a short amount of time to advocate their positions and answer questions from members of the court. The justices, who have been briefed on the case prior to the oral arguments, conduct a conference on the case following the oral arguments.
At this meeting the justices express their opinions and vote on the case. The chief justice typically assigns a member of the court to write the majority opinion. Once a justice circulates an opinion to the court, the other justices are free to comment, criticize, and offer suggestions on how the opinion can be improved. The author of the opinion generally tries to accommodate the other justices' ideas. However, if a fundamental difference arises during the circulation process, justices may shift sides and change the outcome of the decision. At that point, a justice in the new majority will be assigned to write the opinion. A justice is always permitted to file a dissenting opinion if she disagrees with the outcome.
Once the court releases an opinion, it is published in an official report. The decision of the court is generally final, absent special circumstances. If the court's decision is based on an interpretation of a constitutional provision, it is final unless the constitution is amended or the court reverses itself at some later time. This is rarely done. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), legalized ABORTION based on a constitutional right of privacy. Those opposed to abortion have sought to have Congress pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision or to convince the Court to reverse its decision, but without success.
If a supreme court's decision is based on statutory interpretation, its reading of legislative intent or purpose may be overridden by the legislature. A law can be enacted that "corrects" the court and directs it to honor specific intentions of the legislature.
Every supreme court has a procedure to limit the number of cases it hears. The U.S. Supreme Court uses a writ of certiorari, which is a legal PLEADING that requests the Court to hear the case. State supreme courts have similar pleadings, sometimes called petitions for review, which also allow the court discretion in choosing cases to consider. Typically cases are chosen to resolve conflicts in the lower courts or to decide new legal issues.
Apart from discretionary review, supreme courts permit direct appeal, or appeal by right, on a limited set of cases. At the state level, appeals of first-degree murder and death penalty cases are heard by supreme courts, bypassing the intermediate court of appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court hears direct appeals of cases involving federal reapportionment, disputes between states, and a few other issues.
Supreme courts also administer their judicial systems, overseeing the trial and intermediate appellate courts. In addition, supreme courts enact the rules of procedure that govern the workings of their court systems. Examples include rules of civil, criminal, and appellate procedure, as well as RULES OF EVIDENCE. Most state supreme courts also oversee the admission of attorneys to the bar and discipline attorneys for ethical violations.