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What does a Supreme Court Justice do?

By Felicia Dye
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

The United States Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch. The purpose of this institution is to ensure that laws and decisions made within the United States are constitutional. As is true of any institution, people must be employed to carry out the duties and responsibilities. A Supreme Court Justice is a judge employed to decipher laws and ensure that the United States remains a land guided and governed by its most important body of law—the Constitution.

There are two types of legal systems in the United States: federal and state. Each state has its own body of laws, and its own court system. This means that each state also has a supreme court. Similar to the federal system, state supreme courts ensure laws and decisions made within their states are legal based on state constitutions. Presiding over matters in such a court are state supreme court justices.

By focusing on the duties of a United States Supreme Court justice, one may develop an understanding of the similar roles of a state supreme court justice. The United States Supreme Court has nine justices. Eight of these are associate justices. The remaining one is chief justice of the United States.

The first duty of a supreme court justice is to decide what cases should be considered by the court. This is done by determining whether or not the proposed cases contain questions of constitutional violations. Almost all cases that come before supreme court justices are appeals, meaning the cases were decided in lower courts, but one party was dissatisfied with the decision.

Only when matters of the Constitution arise does the Supreme Court have the power to reconsider another court’s decision. There are, however, a few instances when the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction and will be the first court to hear a case. Before deciding to do so, the Supreme Court justices must decide that the case is indeed within their jurisdiction or involves a constitutional question.

Once supreme court justices choose the cases they will decide, they brief themselves, or familiarize themselves with the cases. Afterward, the lawyers involved in the cases are usually given the opportunity to present oral arguments to the supreme court justices. Although supreme court justices are judges, it is important to remember that they do not hear testimonies from witnesses and hold normal courtroom sessions.

Following oral arguments, the supreme court justices go into a private conference and a preliminary vote is done. After the vote, the supreme court justices spend their time researching and arguing the case in written documents called opinions. These opinions are circulated amongst the colleagues. Finally, a vote is taken, the case is decided and a written decision is issued.

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Discussion Comments
By Sandy12 — On Jan 25, 2011

It is interesting to see how state Supreme Courts differ from the federal Supreme Court. The federal Supreme Court consists of nine justices, but for example, North Carolina's Supreme Court only consists of a chief justice and six associate justices.

By latte31 — On Dec 19, 2010

The Supreme Court Chief Justice normally swears in the current President. John Roberts is currently the Supreme Court Justice who swore in Obama.

They had to perform the ceremony twice because there was some problem with the initial swearing in. He later appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who was the first Latina Supreme Court Justice.

He also appointed another Supreme Court Justice that actually never presided over a court case before. I am sure the other Supreme Court Justices feel that appointing someone with no experience presiding over a court case really cheapens the office of Supreme Court Justice.

I think that the next Supreme Court Justice to retire is Justice Stevens. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006 but now presides on the ninth circuit court of appeals.

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