Accessibility links

Breaking News

How the Supreme Court Works


The U.S. Supreme Court building, Oct. 5, 2015.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the nation’s top arbiter of justice. It has the final authority, provided by the Constitution, to hear appeals to most cases judged in the federal system and some decided in state courts.

Determining the top representatives of the judicial branch falls to the two other branches of federal government: legislative and executive.

Congress sets the number of justices and the president makes appointments. Each nominee must be confirmed by the Senate, which conducts hearings involving that person and other witnesses.

When fully staffed, this court of last resort has nine members: the chief justice and eight associates. The high court can function with eight justices, though with a 4-4 vote – a deadlock – the lower court’s ruling will stand.

WATCH: How the Supreme Court works

It deals with three kinds of cases:

  • Most have been appealed from lower federal courts;
  • Some have been appealed from state courts;
  • Occasionally, the court is asked to decide cases never tried in lower courts. These might be brought by one state against another or by states challenging the federal government.

The court receives more than 7,000 petitions a year, according to the Supreme Court Historical Society, so deciding which ones to hear “is arguably the most important stage in the entire Supreme Court process," it quotes a court historian.

It typically hears fewer than 100 cases a year.