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Supreme Court

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noun
the highest court of the U.S.
(in many states) the highest court of the state.
(lowercase) (in some states) a court of general jurisdiction subordinate to an appeals court.
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Also called High Court (for defs. 1, 2).
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

MORE ABOUT SUPREME COURT

What is the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. It acts as the final authority of the judicial branch of government. The judicial branch is made of the many courts that make up the American justice system.

As a court, the Supreme Court rules on cases following trials. For the most part, the Supreme Court only hears appeals from lower federal courts. An appeal is a request from a participant in a trial who is unhappy with the decision and believes it was based on a legal error.

As the highest court, the Supreme Court’s rulings are final and cannot be appealed. Additionally, every other court in the country must adhere to the Supreme Court’s rulings. The government is also bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions and cannot enforce any laws deemed illegal by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has the very important power of judicial review, which is the ability to name a law or executive order as unconstitutional. Judicial review is the main way the judicial branch checks the power of the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the president).

The Supreme Court is composed of one Chief Justice (judge) and several associate justices. Congress decides how many justices the court has. The court started with six justices, which was increased to nine in 1948.

The Chief Justice’s vote is equal to the other justices, but they have the power to decide who gets to write the Court’s opinion on a case. Justices are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. A justice serves for life unless they retire or are removed following impeachment.

The Supreme Court chooses which case it hears. The court refusing to take a case is often seen as a very important act, as well. Lower courts and the government accept this as a sign that the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s ruling.

Why is the Supreme Court important?

The Supreme Court, as well as the rest of the federal court system, was established by the US Constitution, the document that serves as the fundamental law of the country. Article III, Section 1 states, “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Supreme Court first assembled on February 1, 1790.

Over hundreds of years, Supreme Court decisions have had a huge impact on American law and are often extremely controversial. Some of the most notable Supreme Court cases in American history include the following:

  • Marbury v. Madison (1803). The Supreme Court stated that its power of judicial review was implicitly given to it by the Constitution.
  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). The Supreme Court ruled that fugitive slaves who escaped to free states were not citizens and that African Americans would never be American citizens. This ruling was extremely unpopular with the free states and pushed the country closer to civil war.
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstituional, making the practice illegal across the country.
  • Roe v. Wade (1970). The Supreme Court ruled that a woman has the right to choose to have an abortion. This ruling remains very controversial today.
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). The Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize same-sex marriages. This decision legalized gay marriage in the United States.

Did you know … ?

Only one Supreme Court justice has ever faced impeachment charges: Associate Justice Samuel Chase. Chase spoke out against Thomas Jefferson’s attempts to weaken the power of the federal courts. Fueled by political motivations, Jefferson’s supporters in Congress impeached Chase in 1804 but failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote needed to remove him from the court.

What are real-life examples of Supreme Court?

This photograph shows the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC, where the justices of the Supreme Court perform their duties.

Library of Congress

Supreme Court decisions are often extremely controversial. Many Americans view the Supreme Court as their only chance to get political change that they want.

What other words are related to Supreme Court?

Quiz yourself!

The Supreme Court is part of the:

A. legislative branch
B. judicial branch
C. executive branch

How to use Supreme Court in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for Supreme Court

Supreme Court

noun (in the US)
the highest Federal court, possessing final appellate jurisdiction and exercising supervisory jurisdiction over the lower courts
(in many states) the highest state court
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Supreme Court

Supreme Court

A federal court; the highest body in the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is composed of a chief justice and eight associate justices, all of whom are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They serve on the Court as long as they choose, subject only to impeachment. Each state also has a supreme court; these courts are all courts of appeals, primarily hearing cases that have already been tried. The federal Supreme Court (“the” Supreme Court) has the final word on interpretation of all laws and of the Constitution itself.

notes for Supreme Court

Supreme Court decisions have a significant impact on public policy and are often extremely controversial. In interpreting the Constitution, the justices of the Supreme Court occasionally have deduced legal doctrines that are not clearly stated (or stated at all) in the Constitution. For example, in the famous case of McCulloch versus Maryland (1819), Chief Justice John Marshall advanced the opinion, accepted by the Court, that the Constitution implicitly gives the federal government the power to establish a national bank, even though such a power is not explicitly granted by the Constitution. Similarly, in Roe versus Wade (1973), the Court ruled that state laws restricting abortion violate the right of privacy.

notes for Supreme Court

The McCulloch and Roe decisions illustrate the principle of broad construction (interpretation) of the Constitution. The opposite is narrow construction. Those who favor broad construction, or judicial activism, believe that the spirit of the times, the values of the justices, and the needs of the nation may legitimately influence the way justices decide cases. In contrast, narrow constructionists insist that the Court should be bound by the exact words of the Constitution or by the intentions of the framers of the Constitution or by some combination of both. This view is sometimes called judicial restraint.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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