There are three layers of authority in the federal court system:
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Sometimes it hears cases as a trial court, but most of the time the Court functions as an appellate court. The Court has traditionally consisted of nine justices: one chief justice and eight associate justices. Although Congress has the power to change the number of justices, the number has held steady at nine justices since 1869. Supreme Court justices serve for life.
The Supreme Court receives thousands of appeals every year but hears only a small percentage of them. The Court meets in closed session to decide which cases to hear. The Court generally follows the rule of four in choosing cases: If four justices want to hear a case, the Court will accept it. When the Court decides to hear a case, it issues a writ of certiorari, a legal document ordering a lower court to send a case to the Supreme Court for review. The writ of certiorari signals that the Supreme Court will hear the case. The Court tends to hear only cases of great importance, such as cases involving a constitutional matter or a possible overturning of precedent.
The Court is more likely to grant a writ of certiorari if one of the appellants is the U.S. government. The solicitor general, a high-ranking official in the Justice Department, submits the requests for certiorari and argues cases in front of the Court as the lawyer for the federal government.
Both parties in a case must submit briefs to the Court, documents that present the party’s position and argument. Sometimes, other groups submit amicus curiae briefs (friend of the court briefs), which present further arguments in favor of one party or the other. The justices read the briefs and then may hear oral arguments, in which both parties have thirty minutes to make their case before the full Court. During oral arguments, the justices frequently interrupt the attorneys to ask questions.
After oral arguments, the justices meet in judicial conference to discuss the case. Sometimes the Court issues a per curiam rejection, an unsigned decision that reaffirms lower court’s ruling. This rejection means that the Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case. Only the justices and their clerks attend the conference, and the proceedings are kept secret. After debating the case, the justices vote. The Court then issues a decision, which states the Court’s ruling, and an opinion, which explains the Court’s legal reasoning behind its decision.