The U.S. Supreme Court: How it works

March 26, 2012

By Bill Mears, CNN

Washington (CNN) — Few Americans have any real idea how the Supreme Court operates, since cameras are barred, and the case arguments and opinions are often dry and confusing for nonlawyers.

That’s too bad because the high court’s impact on Americans is incalculable. When disputes arise, the nine justices serve as the final word for a nation built on the rule of law. They interpret the Constitution and all that it brings with it: how we conduct ourselves in society, boundaries for individuals and the government, questions literally of life and death.

As the late justice William Brennan once wrote, “The law is not an end in itself, nor does it provide ends. It is preeminently a means to serve what we think is right.” And whether right or wrong, when it came to deciding who won the 2000 presidential election, it was the court’s conclusions that ultimately ended the issue, but not the controversy.

A similarly epic constitutional showdown is now before the court over challenges to the health care reform law promoted by congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama — and opposed by a coalition of 26 states.

Article Three of the Constitution says, “The Judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court … the judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior.”

Here’s a look at the history of the court, how it works and how you, the citizen, can interact with it:

Court goes back the late 1700s

The Supreme Court first met in 1790, as the ultimate part of the judicial branch of government. There are nine justices, led by the Chief Justice of the United States (that’s the official title). All justices — and all federal judges — are first nominated by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. They serve for as long as they choose. The court has occupied its current building in Washington only since 1935. Previously, it borrowed space in Senate chambers in the Capitol Building.

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