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High Court Happenings

High Court Happenings

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next month or two on CFPB v. CFSA, the case challenging the CFPB’s independent funding mechanism through the Federal Reserve. AFSA submitted an amicus brief in support of CFSA. As we wait for the ruling, here is a brief history of the Supreme Court, how cases are elevated to the highest court in the nation, and how the Supreme Court considers a case.

History of the Supreme Court:

When Congress first met on March 4, 1789, one of the first items of business was to fulfill the requirements of Article III, section 1, of the Constitution.  Article III, section 1, provides that the “judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”  The First Congress responded by enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established 13 district courts in major cities, three circuit courts, and a Supreme Court comprised of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices. The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Supreme Court Justices; the number is set instead by Congress. There have been as few as six, but since 1869 there have been nine Justices, including one Chief Justice. There have been 17 Chief Justices of the United States, and 104 Associate Justices in the Court’s history.

John Jay of New York took the oath as the first Chief Justice on October 19, 1789, and called the Court to assemble for the first time on February 1, 1790, in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City. The Chief Justice postponed the first meeting of the Court until the following day.  At that time, William Cushing of Massachusetts and John Blair of Virginia were sworn in as Associate Justices.  John Rutledge of South Carolina took the oath on February 15, 1790.  James Iredell of North Carolina took the oath on May 12, 1790. The original Supreme Court met for only a few weeks each February and August. When the National Capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Court moved with it, establishing Chambers first in the State House (Independence Hall) and later in the City Hall.

When the Federal Government moved, in 1800, to the permanent Capital, Washington, the District of Columbia, the Court again moved with it. Since no provision had been made for a Supreme Court Building, Congress lent the Court space in the new Capitol Building. The Court changed its meeting place a half dozen times within the Capitol. Additionally, the Court convened for a short period in a private house after the British set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812. Following this episode, the Court returned to the Capitol and met from 1819 to 1860 in a chamber now restored as the “Old Supreme Court Chamber.” Then from 1860 until 1935, the Court sat in what is now known as the “Old Senate Chamber.”

Finally in 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had been President of the United States from 1909 to 1913, persuaded Congress to end this arrangement and authorize the construction of a permanent home for the Court. Architect Cass Gilbert was charged by Chief Justice Taft to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Construction proceeded under the direction of Chief Justice Hughes and architects Cass Gilbert, Jr., and John R. Rockart. The construction, begun in 1932, was completed in 1935, when the Court was finally able to occupy its own building, across from the Capitol on First Street.

Supreme Court Procedures:

Parties who are not satisfied with the decision of a lower court must petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. The primary means to petition the court for review is to ask it to grant a writ of certiorari. This is a request that the Supreme Court order a lower court to send up the record of the case for review. The Court usually is not under any obligation to hear these cases, and it usually only does so if the case could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value. In fact, the Court accepts 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year. Typically, the Court hears cases that have been decided in either an appropriate U.S. Court of Appeals or the highest Court in a given state (if the state court decided a Constitutional issue).

The Supreme Court has its own set of rules. According to these rules, four of the nine Justices must vote to accept a case. Five of the nine Justices must vote in order to grant a stay, e.g., a stay of execution in a death penalty case. Under certain instances, one Justice may grant a stay pending review by the entire Court. The Term of the Supreme Court begins, by statute, on the first Monday in October. Usually Court sessions continue until late June or early July. The Term is divided between “sittings,” when the Justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and intervening “recesses,” when they consider the business before the Court and write opinions. Sittings and recesses alternate at approximately two-week intervals.

With rare exceptions, each side is allowed 30 minutes to present arguments. The Court generally hears two arguments a day, with occasional afternoon arguments. Since the majority of cases involve the review of a decision of some other court, there is no jury and no witnesses are heard. For each case, the Court has before it a record of prior proceedings and printed briefs containing the arguments of each side.

Releasing Opinions:

After all the Justices have decided which opinion they want to write or join, the Court releases the opinion to the public. No one but the Justices and Court staff know what cases will be announced at any particular time. The Court simply announces dates on which it will announce opinions, without saying which ones are coming. This practice means that court watchers and journalists never know if, on a given day, there will be a single simple opinion in a low-profile case, for example, or a number of important and complicated decisions. Typically, decisions that are unanimous are released sooner than those that have concurring and dissenting opinions. While some unanimous decisions are handed down as early as December, some controversial opinions, even if heard in October, may not be handed down until the last day of the term. The Court almost always completes its work for each Term by the end of June.

April 25th, 2024 by

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