Function of the Supreme Court

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13625

Very few court cases make it all the way to the Supreme Court. First, there is an entire system of lower-level courts that function as a cohesive judicial system in the United States.


Civics, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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supreme court interior
  • Did you know that the Supreme Court Justices vote on whether they want to hear a court case?

This is not typical of other courts. However, because of the court system in the United States, the Supreme Court is able to vote on what cases they would like to hear or not.

  • So what makes this possible?

The Constitution

american flag and constitution


Article III, Section I 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."

Originally, the U.S. Constitution only established the Supreme Court; however, Congress quickly established a much larger federal court system.

  • What is so special about a federal court?

If a lawsuit is filed within a single state, only those state's laws apply. However, an interstate dispute must be decided at the federal level because more than one state's laws would need to be considered.

Because of this, any interstate lawsuit must be decided by a federal judge.

Judiciary Act of 1789

In 1789, Congress increased the size of the federal court system beyond the Supreme Court. The country was split into districts that, by the 20th century, had expanded to 13 across the country:

geographic boundaries of the US federal courts

Image by Tintazul, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

These courts hear both civil and criminal cases that fall within their jurisdiction.

The 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford is an example.

Dred Scott, a slave in Missouri, sued his owner, John Sandford, who was residing in New York. Scott claimed he should have been freed because he was in the free territory of Illinois.

While this would have been a state decision if Sanford was living in Missouri, the federal view of slavery had to be considered because so many different regional laws came into play.

When Dred Scott lost his court case at this district level, he appealed it.

  • What does it mean to appeal?

As you watch What is an appeal and how do I know if I should appeal?, from Jaburg Wilk, pay attention to how this allows the loser of a court case at the district level to move to a higher court:

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Most people who appeal at the district level do so on the grounds that the court did not properly interpret federal law.

U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

There are several types of cases that fall under this court's original jurisdiction.

Original jurisdiction describes the types of cases that are expressly the job of that court to decide.

Questions on patent law fall within this court's original jurisdiction; however, most of the cases this court hears have nothing to do with patent law.

patent stamp

Every one of the 13 U.S. districts has an appeal court which hears all the court cases that are appealed in its district court.

To learn more, watch America's second most important court from the Washington Post:

Watch this video on America's second most important court to learn more.

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This unknown court, and the 12 like it around the country, makes a decision on almost every single case that is then elevated to the Supreme Court.

However, only a small portion of these appealed cases eventually make it into the chambers of the highest court in the land.

Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)

supreme court exterior

Imagine you sued someone from another state over a dispute of Constitutional importance.

You go to the district court in your region and lose. Then, you appeal the case on the grounds that an accurate judgment of the federal law was not made.

This appeal is then heard by the circuit court of appeal in your district. If that appeal court rules against your case again, you may appeal it to the Supreme Court and hope they will hear your case.

Annually, 8,000 cases are appealed to SCOTUS. Through a unique process, however, this is whittled down to only about 80 cases annually. That still only provides for a few days per court case.

On top of this, there are occasional cases that fall within the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction.

SCOTUS' original jurisdication applies to court cases that involve two or more state governments or state employees. A conflict between two states must be heard by the Supreme Court because no other court has the authority to make any determination at this level.

Back to those 8,000 cases. If enough of the justices are interested in one to possibly accept it, the court issues a writ of certiorari.

This writ is a legal document that represents the Supreme Court's request for the appeals court to provide them with all documents pertaining to the case. This does not mean SCOTUS has accepted to hear the case, only that enough justices are interested enough to look at its facts.

writ of certiorari

After obtaining these documents, the justices must decide if there is a valid Constitutional question SCOTUS needs to answer. At least four of the nine justices must vote in favor of hearing the case.

The goal of this court is not to decide a case so much as to enforce a uniform federal law. If federal law is being applied differently around the country, the Supreme Court is responsible for deciding a relevant case one way or another solely to ensure federal laws are applied the same everywhere.

Watch a portion of How a case gets to the US Supreme Court, from Vox, to see an example of this type of conflict within the district courts:

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While the Supreme Court can massively change the law of the United States of America, it is only due to the result of this effort to enforce uniformity in the country.

In other words, SCOTUS decisions are not based on the people involved or the effects of the ruling. These decision are meant to enforce federal laws uniformaly across the country; otherwise, the Constitution becomes just a piece of paper.

Move on to the Got It? section to look at some examples in order to better understand how this system functions.

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