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Supreme Court of the United States

 

The Supreme Court of the United States (also referred to by the acronym SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a small range of cases, such as suits between two or more states, and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate (and largely discretionary) appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The Court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions. Each year it agrees to hear about 100150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court in 1937. His proposal envisioned appointment of one additional justice for each incumbent justice who reached the age of 70 years 6 months and refused retirement, up to a maximum bench of 15 justices. The proposal was ostensibly to ease the burden of the docket on elderly judges, but the actual purpose was widely understood as an effort to "pack" the Court with justices who would support Roosevelt's New Deal. The plan, usually called the "court-packing plan", failed in Congress. Nevertheless, the Court's balance began to shift within months when Justice Willis Van Devanter retired and was replaced by Senator Hugo Black. By the end of 1941, Roosevelt had appointed seven justices and elevated Harlan Fiske Stone to Chief Justice.
Not every Supreme Court nominee has received a floor vote in the Senate. A president may withdraw a nomination before an actual confirmation vote occurs, typically because it is clear that the Senate will reject the nominee; this occurred most recently with President George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers in 2006. The Senate may also fail to act on a nomination, which expires at the end of the session. For example, President Dwight Eisenhower's first nomination of John Marshall Harlan II in November 1954 was not acted on by the Senate; Eisenhower re-nominated Harlan in January 1955, and Harlan was confirmed two months later. Most recently, as previously noted, the Senate failed to act on the March 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland; the nomination expired in January 2017, and the vacancy was later filled by President Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch.
Because justices have indefinite tenure, timing of vacancies can be unpredictable. Sometimes vacancies arise in quick succession, as in the early 1970s when Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. and William Rehnquist were nominated to replace Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II, who retired within a week of each other. Sometimes a great length of time passes between nominations, such as the eleven years between Stephen Breyer's nomination in 1994 to succeed Harry Blackmun and the nomination of John Roberts in 2005 to fill the seat of Sandra Day O'Connor (though Roberts' nomination was withdrawn and resubmitted for the role of Chief Justice after Rehnquist died).
Under the Judiciary Act of 1789, each justice was required to "ride circuit", or to travel within the assigned circuit and consider cases alongside local judges. This practice encountered opposition from many justices, who cited the difficulty of travel. Moreover, there was a potential for a conflict of interest on the Court if a justice had previously decided the same case while riding circuit. Circuit riding ended in 1901, when the Circuit Court of Appeals Act was passed, and circuit riding was officially abolished by Congress in 1911.
There are situations where the Court has original jurisdiction, such as when two states have a dispute against each other, or when there is a dispute between the United States and a state. In such instances, a case is filed with the Supreme Court directly. Examples of such cases include United States v. Texas, a case to determine whether a parcel of land belonged to the United States or to Texas, and Virginia v. Tennessee, a case turning on whether an incorrectly drawn boundary between two states can be changed by a state court, and whether the setting of the correct boundary requires Congressional approval. Although it has not happened since 1794 in the case of Georgia v. Brailsford, parties in an action at law in which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction may request that a jury determine issues of fact. Georgia v. Brailsford remains the only case in which the court has empaneled a jury, in this case a special jury. Two other original jurisdiction cases involve colonial era borders and rights under navigable waters in New Jersey v. Delaware, and water rights between riparian states upstream of navigable waters in Kansas v. Colorado.