- Historic Sites
The Supreme Court
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
About $600,000 is spent annually to print the various reports of the Court’s opinions in its own printing shop. Given the importance of these documents—advance word in an antitrust case, say, could mean millions of dollars to investors—it is remarkable that the Court has never had a breach of security in this century, either from its printers or for that matter from any of its employees.
The remainder of the Court’s budget is spent on books, equipment, and supplies (the greater part of which are used in the maintenance of its building). Something of an itinerant Court in the early years, the justices were housed from 1810 to 1860 on the first floor of the Capitol, after which they occupied the old Senate chamber when the senators took possession of the new wing of the Capitol in 1861. They entered their present building in 1935.
The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, as provided for in Article in of the Constitution, extends “to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties. …” Although most cases under federal law will originate in the lower courts—principally the district courts—the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors and those in which a state may be a party. In all other cases the Court has appellate jurisdiction and as the final court in the federal system is, in fact, the court of last resort, not only for the federal judiciary but for the fifty state-court systems as well.
At the present time this means that the Court is in a position to review the work of
The key power is, of course, judicial review, which is the right of the Supreme Court to hold state and federal law in conformity to the Constitution. And it is this authority that sets the Court apart from the high tribunals in other lands. In England, for example, there is no such power because there is no written constitution; an act of Parliament cannot be in violation and must be enforced. As a result England’s chief tribunal, the Court of Appeals, is empowered only to interpret the law as it has been applied in the lower courts.
The Supreme Court is under no such limitation, but it does not work with a free hand and like other branches of the federal government is subject to the system of checks and balances and to its own self-imposed restraints. Two are of major importance: the Court will accept only those cases that involve “a substantial Eederal question” and, secondly, will not render a decision in advance or independently of an actual case or controversy. This last was set as Court procedure—unbroken since—in 1793, when John Jay, speaking for his associates, informed George Washington that the Court could not speak “extra-judicially” in giving him advice about certain matters of international law.
- • Between 1789 and 1973, the last year for which a full compilation is available, the Court has held 92 acts of Congress unconstitutional in whole or in part. Until 1860 only two acts had been so interpreted: a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Sixty-seven laws have been voided in this century.
- • By 1973 the Court had held 796 state statutes in violation of the Constitution. The doctrine of judicial review had been foreshadowed in U.S. v. Peters (1809), when a unanimous Court voided a state law annulling a judgment of a federal court. The doctrine was fully operative in Fletcher v. Peck the following year.
- • By 1973 the Court had held 93 municipal ordinances unconstitutional.
- • To date the Court has reversed about 144 of its own opinions, either in whole or in part, although there is widespread disagreement among legal scholars about the effect—or intent—of many of these reversals.
At the present time some 4,200 cases come before the Supreme Court each year. Roughly half are so-called pauper cases directed to the Court from prisoners seeking relief without benefit of lawyers; 90 per cent of such cases are dismissed annually. The Court regularly assigns some 240 to 250 cases to oral argument and annually hears about 160; the remainder are carried forward on the Court’s docket. Signed opinions—that is, cases brought to final review of the full Court—have annually averaged 94 in the last decade.
What this means is lhat the Supreme Court ultimately confronts only a fraction of the civil and criminal cases that enter the federal judicial system. At the present time approximately 140,000 cases annually enter the district courts. Nearly 99,000 are civil cases, and of these perhaps 10 per cent (about 9,500) will reach trial. Some 40,000 criminal cases enter the system each year, about a fourth of which will reach trial. The courts of appeals currently accept about 15,600 cases for review, of which nearly half are given formal consideration.