Types of Cases Heard

The Supreme Court hears three types of cases:

  • 2/3 are cases appealed from lower federal courts
  • 1/3 are cases appealed from state supreme courts
  • Rarely, they hear cases that have not been previously heard by a lower court, such as between one state’s government and another.

The justices decide which cases they will hear, about 80 each year. They decide another 50 without hearing arguments. The cases they choose usually address constitutional issues or federal law.

The Supreme Court gets about 7000 requests to hear cases per year, so there are many cases that don’t get heard. If they decide not to hear a case, the decision of the lower court stands.

How Justices Are Selected

The Supreme Court has nine justices: a chief justice and eight associate justices.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Justices are appointed for life, although they may be impeached by Congress for “misbehavior” (this has happened only once, in 1805). Historically, about half of the justices served until their death, but in recent decades, nearly all justices who left the bench did so through retirement.

When the chief justice position is vacant, the president can either nominate an existing justice to be “promoted” to chief justice, or he can nominate a new justice to fill the chief position.

What Happens When the Supreme Court Hears a Case?

Typically, all nine of the justices hear each case. Sometimes less than the full nine justices may hear a case due to illness, a vacant position, or if one justice recuses him/herself (chooses not to participate in a case) due to conflict of interest. A minimum of six judges must be present to make a decision on a case.

Each case is decided by majority vote. In case of a tie, the decision of the lower court is upheld.

Since the court only reviews cases which are appealed from a lower court, there is no evidence presented, and no witnesses are heard. There are simply briefs (written arguments) and oral argument by the parties. Each side has 30 minutes to present oral arguments, and the justices interrupt with questions while they are speaking.

After the attorneys are finished speaking, the justices meet in secret to discuss the case and come to a decision. No official record is kept of this discussion.

When the Supreme Court announces what they have decided in a case, they issue a formal document called a decision, and sometimes more than one.

  • The conclusion of the court is a majority opinion.
  • The justices that disagreed with the majority vote may issue one or more dissenting opinions, explaining their reasons for disagreeing.
  • Sometimes, one or more justices may be on the majority side but disagree with the reasoning behind the decision, and issue a concurring opinion.

Additional Resources