The Federal Judiciary

The Supreme Court of the United States of America is established in Article III of the Constitution. While the Constitution formally provides for a "Chief Justice" of the Court, it leaves the actual size of the Court up to the Congress. The Congress originally provided for five Associate Justices (for a total of six). The Congress periodically expanded and contracted the size of the Court from seven to nine to ten, back down to six and then back up to its current level of nine. (For practical purposes, the Court tends to function better when there are an odd number of Justices, thereby disallowing the possibility of tie votes.) For a current listing of Supreme Court Justices, see "Quick Facts" about the Federal Judiciary.

The Supreme Court is located just northeast of the United States Capitol. In fact, this building itself is closer to the Capitol than some congressional offices. The impressive building and location of the Court today belie its earlier lack of stature in the American political system. Its evolving role is a significant part of America's history.

The size of the Supreme Court is determined by the Congress. There are currently nine justices on the Court--a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. When a vacancy opens on the Court, the President nominates a new Justice who is then confirmed or rejected by the Senate. If confirmed, the nominee becomes a member of the Court and holds that office "during good behavior." In other words, short of committing an impeachable offense, Supreme Court Justices serve for life or until they voluntarily retire.

Historical Documents

Federalist Papers
No. 78 - The Judiciary Department
No. 79 - The Judiciary Continued
No. 80 - The Powers of the Judiciary
No. 81 - The Judiciary Continued, and the Distribution of the Judicial Authority
No. 82 - The Judiciary Continued
No. 83 - The Judiciary Continued in Relation to Trial by Jury

AntiFederalist Papers
No. 78-79, No. 80, No. 81, and No. 82 - The Power of the Judiciary
No. 83 - The Federal Judiciary and the Issue of Trial by Jury

Read Supreme Court Decisions in the Library

Reasearch and Study Helps

What is a recess appointment?

Facts & Figures

Current Supreme Court Justices

Think About It

What is the proper role of the Supreme Court?

What avenues are available to political leaders and citizens when they disagree with a Supreme Court decision?

How important are the religious beliefs and values of Supreme Court Justices? What can be done to make sure that future Justices are the kinds of people you would like to have sit on the Supreme Court?

Should the Supreme Court be the last defense in the protection of rights and liberties? If not, what institution or what group of people should be? How practical is your answer? (How would they protect rights and liberties, in real-life situations, better than the Court does today?)

Applying What You've Learned

Read The Federalist No. 78. Summarize Hamilton's arguments about the Supreme Court. Is the Court today and its actions consistent with what Hamilton had in mind? Why or why not?

Headlines & Editorials's Court News

The Federal Judiciary on the Web

The United States Supreme Court
The Federal Judiciary Online

The Oyez Project
Supreme Court Multimedia Database
Virtual Tour of the Supreme Court