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Text: Supreme Court Decisions Test Government Power, Limits

Washington -- On the first Monday in October, the U.S. Supreme Court began a new term. Over the next 9 to 12 months, it will make decisions on cases that for the most part, will test the limits and powers of the federal government over the ordinary American citizen.

Cases this term include a ban on the discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens in the state of Colorado, and whether it is legal in Texas and North Carolina to create congressional districts of black-only voters in order to increase chances of a black candidate winning an election. No matter what the outcome of these and other cases, however, almost all of the Court's decisions most likely will influence in some way the entire fabric of American life.

In order to understand the machinery that runs the Court, it is necessary to look at the U.S. judicial system as a whole.

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the framers deemed that "one supreme Court" was needed to oversee a larger judicial system of state and national, or federal courts. As a result, during the early years of the Republic, the Supreme Court was required to hear and decide nearly every case brought before it. By the end of the 19th century, however, the Court was in danger of becoming overwhelmed with cases. Congress responded in 1891 by creating an intermediate level of federal courts known as circuit courts of appeal, or appellate courts, which heard appeals from lower district courts.

Today, district courts are divided geographically into 12 circuits, each headed by a court of appeals. An additional court of appeals in the District of Columbia hears cases generated by the federal government. A citizen can press a claim in either set of courts -- district or appellate -- but if that person feels that the lower court has ruled unfairly or incorrectly, he or she has the option of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear the case. If the Court decides to take the case, its opinion is final, regardless of the ruling. There is no other legal action that the plaintiff may take.

The Supreme Court cannot hear all cases, however, because of the U.S. Constitution's division of powers between the federal and state governments, as well as between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government. The Constitution stipulates that the Supreme Court's jurisdiction extends only to controversies between two states; controversies between the United States and an individual state; actions by a state against a citizen of another state or an alien; and cases brought by or against a foreign ambassador or consul.

In cases involving two states' disagreements, the Court often appoints a "special master," a retired judge or prominent attorney to cross-examine witnesses, look at documents, hear arguments and then submit a report with his or her recommendations. After looking at the special master's report, the states who disagree are then allowed to present written "briefs" or statements, and oral arguments in support of their point of view, before the justices make a final decision.

Out of the thousands upon thousands of requests each year, the Supreme Court selects only about 300 cases, and of those, about half are actually argued before the Court and a final opinion given.

The justices tend to focus on several types of cases. These include when several lower courts have ruled and disagreed on opinions, and thus a "higher authority's" opinion is sought. These cases are known as "certiorari." The Court also tends to look at cases where a lower court has given an opinion on a matter that was sent to the Court earlier, but at the time was rejected by it for review, or the Court's views have changed on a previous opinion and the justices want to issue a new one.

The Court also has special jurisdiction to answer "certified questions" sent to it from a federal court of appeals or from the U.S. Claims Court. "Certified questions" involve cases in which the lower court was unable to make a judgment. They are resolved in two ways: either the lower court asks the Supreme Court to provide instructions that the lower court will follow, or the lower court will ask the Supreme Court to take over the case and make the final decision.

When someone wants the Supreme Court to review a case, a petition is sent to the clerk of the Court, who makes copies for each justice. Each one may read the petition or have a law clerk read it and give a recommendation as to whether or not the case should be heard.

After the chief justice has looked at all the petitions, he submits a "discuss list" to the other justices of cases that he feels the Court should take. Individual justices are also free to add petitions not on the list that they want the Court to consider. In order for a case to receive Supreme Court review, four of the nine justices must agree that the case merits the Court's attention.

If the Court agrees to review a case, it may decide the case on the briefs that have been submitted by each side, or it may schedule a formal argument with the Court in session. The legal pleas presented by each side provide a more in depth point of view of the litigation, although no new factual evidence may be introduced.

Once the Court has agreed to hear a case, it is at this point, that anyone else also can present a brief to the Court, as long as that person or group obtains permission of the principals in the case or special permission from the Court. That person or group, known as an "amicus curiae," or friend of the court, however, must show a plausible interest in the dispute, and present arguments other than those of the litigants. Sometimes the Court, on its own initiative, will invite someone to appear as an amicus, such as the solicitor general of the United States or a state's attorney general.

If the Supreme Court refuses to hear a case, then the decision of the previous lower court stands. The Court's refusal to review a case in no way implies that the justices agree or disagree with the lower court's ruling.

When the framers decided over 200 years ago that "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court," they designed an institution that stood above all others. Throughout U.S. history, the justices of the Supreme Court have taken their job seriously in deciding the fate not only of individuals, but of the country as a whole. They see this power not as one of demanding that changes take place, but rather as guiding the changes that come.

Former Justice Felix Frankfurter once defined the justices' job as looking beyond the words of the Constitution and observing how Americans live in order to make decisions on cases that come before the Court. "The words of the constitutional document," he said, "leave the individual justice free, if indeed they do not compel him, to gather meaning, not from reading the Constitution, but from reading life."

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