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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in LawJanuary 10, 2023

The United States government is designed as a three-legged stool, with the chief executive (President), legislative, and judicial branches providing checks and balances on each other. Members of the executive and legislative branches are elected, but the justices of the Supreme Court are appointed. The Supreme Court often referred to as SCOTUS, sits at the head of the United States court system.

There are currently nine justices, or judges, on the Supreme Court: one chief justice and eight associates, but this number has changed over time. Congress made several changes to the court in the 1800s, shifting the number of justices up and down to as many as ten and as few as five.

Supreme Court Justices

Of the 9 Supreme Court justices, there are now more females and persons of color than ever in U.S. history. Each is appointed by the President and affirmed by the U.S. Senate per Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Once sworn in, a justice may remain on the court for life, and their salary may not be cut. These rules are aimed at protecting them from political influence.

Who are the nine Supreme Court justices, and who appointed them? Currently, the chief justice is John Roberts, appointed by President George W. Bush, and associate justices are:

  • Clarence Thomas (President George H.W. Bush)
  • Samuel Alito (President George W. Bush)
  • Elena Kagan (President Barack Obama)
  • Ketanji Brown Jackson (President Joseph Biden)
  • Brett Kavanaugh (President Donald Trump)
  • Sonia Sotomayor (President Barack Obama)
  • Neil Gorsuch (President Donald Trump)
  • Amy Coney Barrett (President Donald Trump)

How many justices are on the Supreme Court and are liberal, and how many are conservative? President Trump’s appointees, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett, are known to be conservatives. Kagan, Sotomayor, and Brown Jackson were appointed by Democratic presidents and are known to be liberal. Thomas and Alito are conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. Chief Justice Roberts is a right-leaning moderate, making the majority of the court conservative and providing a predictable outcome to many cases.

how many justices are on the supreme court

Process and Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court does not hear original cases. That means the court does not have the kind of trials we’re familiar with, with witnesses and victims testifying. Instead, the court focuses on interpreting major issues through oral arguments that last only 30 minutes on each side.

The court receives petitions to hear up to 8,000 cases per year. Of these, about 80 are selected for their significance, and oral arguments are scheduled. Decisions can take months, and the more significant issues are memorialized in hundreds of pages of opinions and legal precedence that explain the majority and minority points of view. Court records are available on each of the cases the court has heard since the 1700s.

The court has jurisdiction over a broad range of cases, such as:

  • Cases in which the U.S. government is named.
  • Disputes between states or between residents of one state and the government of another state.
  • Determining the constitutionality of federal laws.
  • Appeals of decisions made by lower courts. When the court agrees to hear such cases, it’s called a writ of certiorari.
  • Emergency cases or interpretations of law brought by any of the 13 federal circuit courts of appeal. Each supreme court justice is responsible for one federal circuit district.

Landmark Decisions

Average Americans are most affected by the court’s landmark rulings. These cases interpret the Constitution, illuminate the rights owed to citizens, and define the role and limits of state and federal courts. Some of the court’s landmark rulings include:

  1. Marbury v. Madison, 1803 – This case established the role of the courts in the federal government.
  2. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857 – In this case, the court was asked to rule if Congress had the right to block territories (land in the Midwest that was not yet individual states) from allowing slavery, as well as to decide if slaves could sue in federal court. The decision, “no” on both counts, added fuel to the debate over “state’s rights” that was the underpinning of the Civil War.
  3. Gibbons v. Ogden, 1924 – This case reaffirmed the role of the federal government in regulating interstate commerce.
  4. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 – In this case, the court ruled that segregated (the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) schools violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  5. Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969 – Students in solidarity against the Vietnam War protested silently by wearing black armbands. The court upheld this as protected speech under the First Amendment.
  6. Roe v. Wade, 1973 – This landmark decision said that a woman’s right to an abortion is protected under the Constitutional guarantee of privacy. However, in 2022, the court used a Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, to strike down the Roe precedent as flawed, turning the regulation of abortion back to individual states to decide.
  7. Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 1978 – This ruling affirmed that colleges may use race as a factor in admissions as long as de facto quotas are not involved.

Controversial Appointments and Rulings

The appointment of Supreme Court justices has always been a political act. Conservative Presidents and senate majorities have sought to seat justices who reflect their views and who will rule in favor of their policies well into the future. This tactic can include getting the legal endorsement of political maneuvering like gerrymandering or creating voting districts that favor one party.

Confirmation of justices is an emotionally fraught affair. A candidate’s personal views, religious beliefs, and interpretation of the Constitution are scrutinized for indications of how they will behave on the court for years into the future.

Under President Barack Obama, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, refused to hold confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court candidate, Merrick Garland, saying it was too close to the presidential election cycle. This tactic and longtime liberal associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s refusal to retire during Obama’s eight-year presidency blocked Democrats from seating sympathetic judges. The Trump administration took advantage of the situation, seating two conservative justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Once confirmed, they tipped the balance of the court in favor of overturning the nearly 50-year-old abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade, in 2022. Some prognosticators believe the fundamentalist-conservative tilt of the court majority may topple other recently-established rights, such as same-sex marriage.

Other Contributors in the Court

Each justice has a clerk they lean on for research and drafting decisions. Many of the current Supreme Court justices were clerks for other justices during law school or their early years practicing law. This process familiarizes candidates with the court and helps form their long-lasting views on essential precepts of the law. Current member Neil Gorsuch is the first associate justice to serve on the court alongside the justice he clerked for (Anthony M. Kennedy, who retired in 2022).

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