About the Judicial Branch

Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws and how they are applied. They also decide if laws violate the Constitution—this is known as judicial review, and it is how federal courts provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches.

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch interprets the meaning of laws, applies laws to individual cases, and decides if laws violate the Constitution. It's comprised of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. 

  • Supreme Court – The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The Justices of the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate.

    • The court is comprised of nine members — a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. A minimum or quorum of six justices is required to decide a case.

    • If there is an even number of Justices and a case results in a tie, the lower court's decision stands.

    • There is no fixed term for Justices. They serve until their death, retirement, or removal in exceptional circumstances.

  • Other federal courts – The Constitution grants Congress the authority to establish other federal courts.

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Confirmation Process for Judges and Justices

Appointments for Supreme Court justices and other federal judgeships follow the same basic process:

  • The President nominates a person to fill a vacant judgeship.

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the nominee and votes on whether to forward the nomination to the full Senate.

  • If the nomination moves forward, the Senate can debate the nomination. Debate must end before the Senate can vote on whether to confirm the nominee. A Senator will request unanimous consent to end the debate, but any Senator can refuse.

  • Without unanimous consent, the Senate must pass a cloture motion to end the debate. The cloture motion requires a simple majority—51 votes—to pass.

  • Once the debate ends and the Senate votes on confirmation, just 51 votes are needed to confirm the nominee for Supreme Court justice or any other federal judgeship.

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Infographic: How the Supreme Court Works

Learn how cases reach the Supreme Court and how the Justices make their decisions. Use this lesson plan in class.

This poster explains how cases reach the Supreme Court, how the Justices make their decisions, and how new Justices are appointed.

This poster explains how cases reach the Supreme Court, how the Justices make their decisions, and how new Justices are appointed. View a larger version of the infographic.

How the Supreme Court Works

The Supreme Court is:

  • The highest court in the country
  • Located in Washington, DC
  • The head of the judicial branch of the federal government
  • Responsible for deciding whether laws violate the Constitution
  • In session from early October until late June or early July

How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court

Most cases reach the Court on appeal. An appeal is a request for a higher court to reverse the decision of a lower court. Most appeals come from federal courts. They can come from state courts if a case deals with federal law.

Rarely, the Court hears a new case, such as one between states.

  1. Dissatisfied parties petition the Court for review
    Parties may appeal their case to the Supreme Court, petitioning the Court to review the decision of the lower court.

  2. Justices study documents
    The Justices examine the petition and supporting materials.

  3. Justices vote
    Four Justices must vote in favor for a case to be granted review.

What Happens Once a Case is Selected for Review?

  1. Parties make arguments
    The Justices review the briefs (written arguments) and hear oral arguments. In oral arguments, each side usually has 30 minutes to present its case. The Justices typically ask many questions during this time.

  2. Justices write opinions
    The Justices vote on the case and write their opinions.

    The majority opinion shared by more than half of the Justices becomes the Court’s decision.

    Justices who disagree with the majority opinion write dissenting or minority opinions.

  3. The Court issues its decision
    Justices may change their vote after reading first drafts of the opinions. Once the opinions are completed and all of the Justices have cast a final vote, the Court “hands down” its decision.

    All cases are heard and decided before summer recess. It can take up to nine months to announce a decision.

Every year:

The Court receives 7,000-8,000 requests for review and grants 70-80 for oral argument. Other requests are granted and decided without argument.

About the Justices:

There are nine Justices:

  • A Chief Justice, who sits in the middle and is the head of the judicial branch.
  • Eight Associate Justices

When a new Justice is needed:

  • The President nominates a candidate, usually a federal judge.
  • The Senate votes to confirm the nominee.
  • The Court can continue deciding cases with less than nine Justices, but if there is a tie, the lower court’s decision stands.

Justices are appointed for life, though they may resign or retire.

  • They serve an average of 16 years.
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Last Updated: September 27, 2017

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