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U.S. Supreme Court

A brief look at the history and function of the Supreme Court including material at the BPL and beyond.


The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country, having ultimate and discretionary jurisdiction in the appeals process in regards to all state and federal cases involving federal law. As the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution the Court’s decisions can often have wide-ranging effects on the legal system throughout the U.S. The Court has the freedom to decide which cases it will hear and consider, and can send cases back to lower courts. Court decisions can only be overturned by subsequent decisions of the Court.

Interior of the U.S. Supreme Court
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division



Generally, each side is allowed 30 minutes to argue a case before the Court. After hearing arguments the justices then study and argue each case amongst themselves before writing their majority and dissenting opinions. Opinions are released Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and on the third Monday of each “sitting” session, when the Court appears at the bench but does not hear arguments.

In order to argue a case before the Court, a person must be an attorney who is a member of the Bar of the Supreme Court. Exceptions can be granted for other attorneys on a case-by-case basis.


When the Court has reached a decision regarding a particular case, they will first release a “bench” opinion, which contains majority or plurality opinion, concurrences or dissents, and a prefatory syllabus. Later in the day the “slip” opinion is released to the printer. This contains the same information as the bench opinion plus any required corrections.

Landmark Cases

Landmark cases are so called because they have a far-reaching and lasting effect on the law. These cases are often studied for many years afterward, and have significant historical importance.