United States Supreme Court

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United States Supreme Court
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
State level nation
position Supreme judicial state body
founding 1789 (constitution)
February 2, 1790 (entry into force)
Headquarters Supreme Court Building , Washington, DC
Chair John Roberts ( Chief Justice of the United States )
Website www.supremecourt.gov
Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC , in 1935 under the architect Cass Gilbert built

The Supreme Court of the United States ( English Supreme Court of the United States [ sʊˈpɹiːm kɔɹt ], abbreviated as USSC or SCOTUS ) is the supreme judicial body of the United States . In addition to this supreme federal court, there are supreme courts in each individual state that may have different names.

The Supreme Court is the only American court specifically provided for in the United States Constitution. In addition, the Congress directed 13  federal appeals courts (Federal Courts of Appeals) 94 - and - a step below  federal district courts (Federal District Courts) one. The Supreme Court meets in Washington, DC , the other federal courts are located nationwide.

Federal courts handle cases that involve constitutional, federal law, federal treaties, and maritime law, or that involve foreign citizens or governments, or the American federal government itself. With a few exceptions, only appeals against decisions of the lower courts are dealt with by the Supreme Court, whereby the American legal system does not have a strict demarcation between appeal and revision . Most of these cases concern the constitutionality of acts of the executive branch and of laws passed by Congress or the state.

The Supreme Court consists of nine judges who are appointed by the Senate on the proposal of the President and serve for life. Most recently, on October 26, 2020 , Amy Coney Barrett, proposed by Donald Trump , was appointed as the successor to long-time judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg , who died on September 18, 2020 .


The Supreme Court is the only American court specifically provided for in the United States Constitution. According to the Judiciary Act of 1789 , the court should consist of six members, namely a presiding judge and five associate judges. Although the number of judges has been nine for most of its history, that number is set by Congress , not the Constitution, and is therefore subject to change at any time. The court met for the first time on February 2, 1790.


The Supreme Court has final appeals jurisdiction, largely at its own discretion, in all federal and state court cases relating to any point of federal law, and has jurisdiction over a limited number of cases, particularly “in all cases, the ambassadors, envoys and consuls concern, and in those in which a single state is a party ”. The Court of Justice has the power of judicial review and the ability to invalidate a law for violating any provision of the Constitution. He can also overturn executive orders of the president for violating the constitution or a federal law. However, he may only act in a legal area for which he is responsible.

Decisions of the Supreme Court can be explicitly overturned through constitutional amendments and in some cases also through legislation. In addition, Congress can pass laws that limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and other federal courts over certain issues and cases. This corresponds to Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution , in which the jurisdiction of appeal can be restricted "with such exceptions and under such provisions as Congress should make them". The Supreme Court approved such a measure of Congress in the Reconstruction Decision ex parte McCardle (1869), but rejected it in the United States v. Klein (1871) removed the power of Congress to determine how certain cases should be resolved.


The portal of the court with the inscription EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW
Press conference of a plaintiff's attorney in front of the courthouse

The procedure before the Supreme Court is always the same. Appeal requests are submitted by attorneys who must have a special license, but which only consists of having the right to appear before the state Supreme Court in their own state for at least three years. These lawyers are often represented at the hearing by experienced specialists who are very familiar with the temperament and legal philosophy of the individual judges, as they are better able to parry questions.

In the process innocent people or communities who have the starting interest may voluntarily so-called amici briefs enter, with amici of amicus curiae ( lat. Friend of the Court , English. Friend of the Court derives), and these applications their own opinion and the Support one of the parties to the dispute. Lawyers who file amici are otherwise not allowed to participate in the process and will not be heard during the hearing in front of the court.

All applications are then examined by the judges, who then decide in a free acceptance procedure whether they should hear the case in court. The only important thing is the directional significance of the matter or whether it raises an unresolved legal question, but a possibly incorrect application of the law by the lower court in individual cases is irrelevant. If the judges decide not to hear the case, the proceedings are over. Most of the applications already fail here. Oral hearings will be held for the approved applications .

The oral hearing follows strict rules. The judges enter the room in a ceremonial manner. When the trial begins, the bailiff (Marshall) taps the table twice with his gavel and announces:

“The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez, Oyez, Oyez, all persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court are approved to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court. "

“The Honorable, the Presiding Judge, and the Associate Judges of the United States Supreme Court. Hear, hear, hear [French]: All persons who have a matter to hear before the Honorable, the Supreme Court, are invited to stand before the Court and turn their attention to the Tribunal, because its session is now open. God save the United States and this honorable judgment. "

The Chief Justice then opens the session and calls the first case. Now the lawyers take action. Each lawyer is given 30 minutes to present their arguments at the lectern and to defend them against the judges' questions (so-called oral arguments ).

The focus is on questions from the judges. The lawyers are not given the opportunity to make a comprehensive pleading, but are constantly interrupted with questions .

Witnesses will not be heard. The Chief Justice closes the session with the words The Case is submitted ("The case is accepted for decision ").

Then the judges withdraw and discuss the case. There are a few trial votes and the final vote is the right one. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he has the task of drafting the opinion of the court, but he can delegate this task to one of the other judges. If he is in the minority, he has the duty to present the opinion of the minority, and the opinion of the majority is written or delegated by the senior judge of the majority himself.

After the decision and any dissenting opinions (dissenting votes) written down are, they are either read out at a public meeting or set down in writing. Although the College of the Supreme Court knows several deliberations and votes and the position of both parliamentary groups is regularly presented, the judges are not exactly frugal with special votes. This legal culture, which is characterized by individuality, differs, for example, from that of the German Federal Constitutional Court , which acts more consensually ; Special opinions in the case of serious differences or a dogmatically demanding dispute are only published there much less frequently.


Cast in October 2020: (top from left) Brett Kavanaugh , Elena Kagan , Neil Gorsuch , Amy Coney Barrett ; (bottom from left) Samuel Alito , Clarence Thomas , John Roberts , Stephen Breyer , Sonia Sotomayor

The President of the United States nominates candidate judges - usually proven federal judges - who are then appointed to office after questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee and approval by the Senate . The court consists of eight Deputy Judges (Associate Justices) and a chairman (Chief Justice) together. The constitution states that judges should remain in office during good behavior . In fact, this results in an appointment for life, there is no age limit. However, resignations due to ill health occur regularly. As well as they can all the other judges and other holders of high federal offices by impeachment ( impeachment ) of the House of Representatives be discontinued by a resolution of the Senate.

Appointment directly by the President without the consent of the Senate is only possible when the Senate is not in session (so-called Recess Appointment ) and has recently been rare, as this does not guarantee an appointment for life. It is noteworthy that three members of the Supreme Court were appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower by way of a Recess Appointment, namely William Joseph Brennan , Potter Stewart and even Chief Justice Earl Warren .

Especially by nominating relatively young judge candidates, a president can influence the political direction of the USA well beyond his own term of office. As a result, these appointments have often been highly controversial politically in the last few decades.

Demographic composition

The first four women who were or are members of the court are: (from left) Sandra O'Connor (ret.), Sonia Sotomayor , Ruth Ginsburg , Elena Kagan . October 1, 2010

In keeping with the ethnic and religious composition of the early USA, the members of the court were predominantly Protestants from various churches until well into the 20th century . The first Catholic was Roger B. Taney in 1836, the first Jew Louis Brandeis in 1916. At present, however, not a single judge is Protestant, although around 40 percent of the American population is ascribed to the Protestant faith. Of the current chief judges, seven formally belong to the Roman Catholic Church and two to Judaism. Neil Gorsuch, who was raised a Catholic, also attends Episcopal church services.

There is currently an African American with Clarence Thomas , the first was Thurgood Marshall in 1967. Samuel Alito is Italian-American , the first was Antonin Scalia in 1986. The first member of the Supreme Court with a Hispanic American background has been Sonia Sotomayor since 2009.

Currently three out of nine members of the Supreme Court are women, which is also the historical maximum. The first woman on the Supreme Court was Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981.

Current members

date of birth
Appointed by the President Age
Assumption of office /
previous term of office
File-Official roberts CJ cropped.jpg John Roberts ( Chief Justice )
January 27, 1955
George W. Bush ( R ) 50 66 29 Sep 2005
15 years and 225 days
Clarence Thomas, official SCOTUS portrait, crop.jpg Clarence Thomas
June 23, 1948
George HW Bush ( R ) 43 72 Oct 23, 1991
29 years and 201 days
Stephen Breyer official SCOTUS portrait crop.jpg Stephen Breyer
August 15, 1938
Bill Clinton ( D ) 55 82 Aug 3, 1994
26 years and 282 days
Samuel Alito official photo (cropped) .jpg Samuel Alito
April 1, 1950
George W. Bush ( R ) 55 71 Jan 31, 2006
15 years and 101 days
Sonia Sotomayor in SCOTUS robe crop.jpg Sonia Sotomayor
June 25, 1954
Barack Obama ( D ) 55 66 Aug 8, 2009
11 years and 246 days
Elena Kagan-1-1.jpg Elena Kagan
April 28, 1960
Barack Obama ( D ) 50 61 Aug 7, 2010
10 years and 278 days
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch Official Portrait (cropped 2) .jpg Neil Gorsuch
August 29th, 1967
Donald Trump ( R ) 49 53 Apr 10, 2017
4 years and 32 days
Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh Official Portrait.jpg Brett Kavanaugh
February 12, 1965
Donald Trump ( R ) 53 56 Oct 6, 2018
2 years and 218 days
Official portrait of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 2018 Amy Coney Barrett
January 28, 1972
Donald Trump ( R ) 48 49 Oct 27, 2020
0 years and 197 days

Significant decisions

The following table lists some significant cases. In addition to the case name, the reference is given in the official collection of decisions, the United States Reports .

year case Summary
1793 Chisholm v. Georgia , 2 US 419 (1793)

Litigation between a constituent state of the United States and a citizen of another constituent state is subject to federal jurisdiction (obsolete by the 11th Amendment ).

1803 Marbury v. Madison , 5 US 137 (1803)

The Supreme Court declares the right of the courts (not just the Supreme Court ) to declare laws of Congress unconstitutional. Such laws do not have to be repealed, they are rather null and void (a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law) . Generally recognized as the single most important decision in American constitutional law.

1810 Fletcher v. Peck , 10 US 87 (1810)

The Supreme Court states that the laws of the individual states must not deviate from the constitution and that the court annuls them if necessary.

1819 McCulloch v. Maryland , 17 US 316 (1819)

Key decision on the relationship of competencies between the entire state of the USA and its member states.

1823 Johnson v. M'Intosh , 21 US 543 (1823)

Native Americans cannot sell land to private individuals. Only the sale to the federal government creates a valid legal title.

1832 Worcester v. Georgia , 31 US 515 (1832)

The federal government alone has jurisdiction over Native American relations. States are not allowed to intervene in their affairs.

1833 Barron v. Baltimore , 32 US 243 (1833)

The fundamental rights of the Bill of Rights , here the 5th constitutional amendment , are not binding for the individual states. Starting in the first decades of the 20th century, this was reflected in decisions such as “Meyer v. Nebraska ”(1923) and“ Gitlow v. New York ”(1925) revised with the help of the 14th constitutional amendment , although in principle it is the same as the fifth constitutional amendment. The older case law was not repealed, but bypassed.

1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford , 60 US 393 (1857)

Blacks can never become citizens of the United States because they are inferior and have no constitutional rights. This is arguably the most notorious judgment in court history and is often thought to be one of the causes of the American Civil War . It was revised by amendments to the constitution.

1869 Texas v. White , 74 US 700 (1869)

States are not allowed to break away from the United States.

1880 Strauder v. West Virginia , 100 US 303 (1880)

Generally excluding black people from jury courts is unconstitutional because it violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

1890 Late Corp. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. United States , 136 US 67 (1890)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("Mormons") is to be dissolved if it adheres to polygamy .

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson , 163 US 537 (1896)

Racial segregation by states is permitted as long as facilities for blacks and whites are comparable. Repealed in 1954. In US history, “Dred Scott v. Sandford ”and“ Plessy ”are widely regarded as the worst judgments of the Supreme Court.

1898 United States v. Wong Kim Ark , 169 US 649 (1898) Children born in the US are automatically citizens according to the 14th Amendment , even if the parents are not allowed to take citizenship, as here because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). THE basic judgment on citizenship for the children of foreigners, including illegal immigrants.
1914 Weeks v. United States , 232 US 383 (1914) Exclusion or blocking principle: If the prosecution unlawfully gains evidence against a suspect, this may not be used in a trial against him (exclusionary rule).
1919 Schenck v. United States , 249 US 47 (1919) The 1st constitutional amendment does not allow speech that represents an “obvious and acute danger” ( clear and present danger ). Famous for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 's concise but deceptive parable in the unanimous decision he wrote that this speech was like "falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic).

Surprisingly, only a few months later, Holmes himself wrote in his minority opinion in “ Abrams v. United States250 US 616 (1919) a groundbreaking opinion which completely contradicted his decision in“ Schenck ”and which fundamentally defined the freedom of speech in the 1st amendment to the constitution as it is generally understood today. However, "Schenck" was only introduced in 1969 in Brandenburg v. Ohio knocked over by court.

1923 Meyer v. Nebraska , 262 US 390 (1923) The prohibition of teaching in a modern non-English language (here: German) violates the rule of law in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. This refers to what one would call “freedom of development” in German. Today the court would presumably invoke the 1st Amendment , which protects the teacher's right to freedom of expression, as the case law has continued to interpret the 1st Amendment in the course of the 20th century.
1939 Nardone v. United States , 308 US 338 (1939)

Fruits of the poisoned tree : If the prosecution illegally gains evidence against a suspect, this may not be used in a trial against him (exclusionary rule). If it leads to further evidence, then this may not be used as a matter of principle (fruit of the poisonous tree). However, they can be admitted if the prosecution proves that they may have some other legal origin (clean path).

1942 Wickard v. Filburn , 317 US 111 (1942)

The federal government can regulate the cultivation and production of goods even if this is done exclusively for personal use. Significant expansion of the regulatory powers of the federal government under the Commerce Clause of the constitution.

1944 Korematsu v. United States , 323 US 214 (1944)

Forced internment of Japanese Americans through President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 is constitutionally permissible. In US historiography, along with "Dred Scott" and "Plessy", it is widely regarded as one of the worst judgments of the Supreme Court. 2018 in “Trump v. Hawaii ”as“ morally repulsive ”.

1948 Shelley v. Kraemer , 334 US 1 (1948)

Prohibitions in land or house purchase contracts that black people are not allowed to buy or rent these are not compatible with the equality requirement of the 14th additional article and therefore cannot be adjusted.

1954 Brown v. Board of Education , 347 US 483 (1954)

Racial segregation in public schools is incompatible with the principle of equality of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional. "Plessy v. Ferguson ”is no longer applicable.

1963 Gideon v. Wainwright , 372 US 335 (1963)

The right to a defense counsel is absolute and does not depend on the defendant's assets. All governments must provide lawyers for cases where the defendant cannot pay.

1965 Griswold v. Connecticut , 381 US 479 (1965)

Federal States may means of contraception does not prohibit, as this violates the inherent in the constitutional right to privacy.

1966 Miranda v. Arizona , 384 US 436 (1966)

Suspects who are questioned by the police must be informed beforehand of their right to remain silent and of their right to a lawyer.

1967 Loving v. Virginia , 388 US 1 (1967)

The ban on marriages between blacks and whites is unconstitutional.

1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio , 395 US 444 (1969)

The 1st amendment to the constitution allows incendiary speech as long as it does not incite lawless acts (i.e. violence). "Schenck v. United States "is canceled.

1971 New York Times Co. v. United States , 403 US 713 (1971)

The suppression of information before publication (prior restraint) is unconstitutional according to the 1st amendment to the constitution. This ruling, which allowed the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers , applies in conjunction with "New York Times Co. v. Sullivan ”(1964) as one of the most important judgments in the context of freedom of the press.

1972 Furman v. Georgia , 408 US 238 (1972)

The use of the death penalty is arbitrary and discriminatory in practice and therefore violates the 8th Amendment . This decision resulted in a nationwide de facto moratorium and the conversion of 629 death sentences to life imprisonment. The moratorium ended in 1976 with “Gregg v. Georgia".

1973 Roe v. Wade , 410 US 113 (1973)

Abortion is a fundamental right as a result of the Constitution implied right to privacy. 1992 by "Planned Parenthood v. Casey ”as a relevant precedent.

1974 United States v. Nixon , 418 US 683 (1974)

Limits to the powers of the President of the United States in relation to the other powers

1976 Gregg v. Georgia , 428 US 153 (1976)

The death penalty is not per se a "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore legal.

1984 Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council , 467 US 837 (1984)

Probably the most important decision in the area of administrative law , in which the interpretative powers of the administration and the judicial reviewability were determined.

1986 Bowers v. Hardwick , 478 US 186 (1986)

Laws against homosexuality do not violate the constitutional right to privacy, otherwise "millennia of moral doctrine would be thrown aside" (Chief Justice Warren E. Burger ). Laws against homosexuality were subsequently abolished by several states or, as in 1998 by the Supreme Court of Georgia, overturned by courts, and in 2003 in “Lawrence v. Texas "knocked over" throughout the US.

1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey , 505 US 833 (1992)

The undue burden standard applies to assessing the admissibility of abortion laws . In addition, the trimester rule from “Roe v. Wade ”is replaced by the extrauterine viability of the fetus.

2000 Bush v. Gore , 531 US 98 (2000)

The then ongoing recounts of the 2000 presidential election in the state of Florida are unconstitutional. The decision thus confirmed the preliminary election result, according to which George W. Bush was elected President of the United States thanks to Florida's electoral votes. The judgment met with widespread criticism, among other things because of the majority structure: the conservative judges voted for, the liberal against the judgment.

2002 Atkins v. Virginia , 536 US 304 (2002)

The Supreme Court declared the execution of mentally handicapped people unconstitutional by a majority of 6: 3 .

2003 Lawrence v. Texas , 539 US 558 (2003)

The criminalization of homosexual sex (and, implicitly, of other consenting sexual behavior among adults) is unconstitutional because such laws violate the constitutional right to privacy. Bowers v. Hardwick was knocked over with it.

2004 Rasul v. Bush , 542 US 466 (2004) The suspected terrorists detained at the Guantánamo Bay base in Cuba have the right to take action against their detention in American courts.
2005 Roper v. Simmons , 543 US 551 (2005) The execution of minors is against the Constitution.
2005 MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. , 545 US 913 (2005)

Manufacturers of products that support copyright infringement can be held accountable for user copyright infringement.

2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , 548 US 557 (2005)

Through the anti-terror laws, Congress has not given the President the power to set up military commissions in place of regular courts, and certainly not a blanket authorization. A prisoner in Guantánamo Bay cannot be tried or convicted before a military commission. This violates the constitution and martial law, namely the applicable law on the unified military jurisdiction (UCMJ) or the applicable Geneva Conventions.

2008 Boumediene v. Bush , 553 US 723 (2008)

Terrorist suspects detained in Guantánamo have the right to appeal to US civil courts ( habeas corpus ) .

2008 District of Columbia v. Heller , 554 US 570 (2008)

The 2nd amendment to the constitution provides an individual basic right to own firearms.

2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , 558 US 310 (2010)

Due to their right to freedom of expression, companies have the right to give unlimited financial support to political candidates.

2012 National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius , 567 US 519 (2012) Statutory health insurance for all American citizens is fundamentally constitutional.
2013 Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics , 569 US 576 (2013) Human genetic material cannot be patented as a “product of nature”, but DNA can be artificially imitated .
2013 United States v. Windsor , 570 US 744 (2013) The US federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that have taken place in a US state.
2015 Obergefell v. Hodges , 576 US 644 (2015) The US states must allow same-sex marriages on an equal footing and fully recognize them.
2020 Bostock v. Clayton County , 590 US ___ (2020) Dismissing workers just for being gay or transgender is a violation of Section VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . The exact scope of the judgment is not yet clear in summer 2020, but it is widely assumed that courts will also apply this protection to other areas of life such as B. expand the healthcare system.
2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma , 591 US ___ (2020) For the purposes of the Major Crimes Act , Congress did not repeal the Indian Territories in eastern Oklahoma, so federal criminal justice applies in those areas. This fundamentally improves the legal relationship between Oklahoma and the tribes in favor of the tribes; Negotiations should clarify the details.

Comparison with the German Federal Constitutional Court

A comparison is often made, but is only possible to a limited extent. The range of tasks of the Supreme Court is broader than that of the German Federal Constitutional Court . The latter is a special court outside the instance and deals with international and constitutional law and, as such, reviews the decisions of other courts from a functional, but not an instance (→ suspensive and devolving effect ), while the Supreme Court acts as the highest authority for all areas of law; the Federal Constitutional Court, on the other hand, is not a super-revision instance . However, it is easier to appeal to the Federal Constitutional Court, as the Supreme Court is almost exclusively the court of appeal for cases that have already been negotiated in other instances. In American law there are only limited legal remedies, and the second instance only examines legal and constitutional violations in many areas of law, so that the Supreme Court can best be described as a super-revision instance.


Since 1935 the court has been protected by its own police unit, the Supreme Court Police . Outside the courthouse, the United States Marshals Service is available to the court for all other police functions.

See also


Web links

Commons : United States Supreme Court  Album of Pictures, Videos, and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. supremecourt.gov
  2. United States Supreme Court> About the Court> Justices> Biographies , accessed April 16, 2018.
  3. uscourts.gov: Frequently Asked Questions
  4. Ex parte McCardle, 74 US 506 (1868)
  5. United States v. Small , 80 US 128 (1871)
  6. Ulrich Kühne: Amicus Curiae. Judicial information procurement through the participation of third parties . Mohr Siebeck Verlag , 2015. ISBN 978-3-16-153147-7
  7. Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States (PDF) adopted April 19, 2013, effective July 1, 2013, accessed on June 29, 2017
  8. Rule 29th Brief of an Amicus Curiae Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, accessed on June 29, 2017
  9. USA - How the Supreme Court determines politics. Retrieved January 8, 2020 .
  10. Thorsten Schröder: Supreme Court: The court is highly politicized . In: The time . April 8, 2017, ISSN  0044-2070 ( zeit.de [accessed January 8, 2020]).
  11. ^ Frank Newport: In US, Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace. In: Pew Research Center . October 17, 2019, accessed February 4, 2021 .
  12. ^ Daniel Burke: What is Neil Gorsuch's religion? It's complicated. CNN, March 22, 2017, accessed February 22, 2020 .
  13. Akhil Amar: Plessy v. Ferguson and the Anti-Canon . In: Pepperdine Law Review . tape 39 , no. 1 . Pepperdine University School of Law, Malibu 2013, p. 75-90 (English).

Coordinates: 38 ° 53 ′ 26.5 ″  N , 77 ° 0 ′ 15.6 ″  W.