The US Supreme Court takes its authority from Article III of the US Constitution, which established it as one of the three main organs of the federal government. Congress set up the Supreme Court, as well as the lower federal courts, with the Judiciary Act of 1789. While the original Court consisted of six justices, its membership varied between five and 10 justices until it was fixed at the current membership of nine after the Civil War. To preserve judicial independence, justices serve life terms once they have been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. However, a justice sometimes may voluntarily step down.
The Supreme Court serves the critical function of protecting minority populations against laws passed by majorities that could infringe on their rights. This allows it to preserve fundamental American values at times when a popular majority may try to deviate from them. The Court also enforces the separation of powers and constitutional checks and balances by invalidating actions by the executive and legislative branches that exceed their powers. Through its appellate jurisdiction, it serves as the court of last resort for parties appealing decisions from lower courts. Decisions by the Supreme Court are final and may not be appealed further.
Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court
Under Section 2 of Article III, the Supreme Court holds original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. Its original jurisdiction generally applies to cases involving disputes between two or more US states and disputes involving representatives of foreign nations. Its appellate jurisdiction applies to other cases that implicate federal law or the Constitution. In most situations, the Court is not required to hear a specific case on appeal. It has the discretion to decide whether it should review a case under the Certiorari Act of 1925. Thus, getting a case to the Supreme Court involves asking for a writ of certiorari. On average, the Supreme Court grants about 2 percent of these petitions each year.
Original vs. Appellate Jurisdiction
Original jurisdiction: the Supreme Court is the first venue to hear a dispute
Appellate jurisdiction: the Supreme Court reviews a decision by a lower court on certain grounds
The Power of Judicial Review
The Supreme Court can strike down any law or other action by the legislative or executive branch that violates the Constitution. This power of judicial review applies to federal, state, and local legislative and executive actions. The Constitution does not specifically provide for the power of judicial review. It arises instead from an 1803 decision known as Marbury v. Madison.
Under a clause in Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Supreme Court received original jurisdiction over "writs of mandamus." These may be issued to order a government official to comply with the law. When the plaintiff in Marbury asked the Court to issue a writ of mandamus, though, the Court refused for reasons unrelated to the facts of the case.
The History Behind Marbury v. Madison
After Thomas Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, outgoing President John Adams passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 before Jefferson could take office. Adams then used the new law to appoint 16 new circuit judges and 42 new justices of the peace. While the Senate approved these appointments, the Secretary of State needed to confirm them by delivering their commissions. When William Marbury did not receive his commission after being appointed as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia, he sued to compel Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the commission.
Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the plaintiff was correct in seeking a writ of mandamus as his remedy. However, Marshall found that the Court could not issue the writ because this clause of Section 13 violated Article III of the Constitution. This was because the clause extended the original jurisdiction of the Court beyond the scope provided by Section 2 of Article III. Moreover, Marshall interpreted the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution to prevent Congress from using its legislative power to alter the Constitution. This clause of Section 13 thus became the first of many laws struck down by the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds.