Judicial process

The U.S. Constitution promises that a person accused of a crime will receive a fair trial. There are two types of cases:

• Criminal, in which someone has committed a crime.

• Civil, or cases in which people or organizations are arguing about something.

A trial verdict may be appealed to a state or federal appeals court. Someone who loses at this level may ask the Supreme Court to review the lower court’s decision.

The Supreme Court usually hears cases that will decide important legal principles. Out of thousands of requests received each year, the court may choose about 150 of them.

Deciding a case

On the first Monday in October of each year, the Supreme Court begins its new term.

Once the Supreme Court has accepted a case for review, the two sides present their arguments to the justices. Each justice works with young law school graduates who study cases and discuss them with the justice. They may also examine all the records from the case and ask questions of the people involved.

The justices meet with each other to talk about the case. Sometimes this takes months. Then they offer their opinion. At least five votes are needed to make a decision.

One of the justices writes a summary of the opinion. A justice who dissented, or disagreed, may write an opposing argument.

How do they decide?

The decisions of the Supreme Court can have important impacts on Americans’ daily lives. Supreme Court justices use the Constitution and previous court decisions to help them make judgments about current cases. In fact, they may disagree about the outcome of an earlier case and write a decision that goes against one from years before.

For example, some of the Supreme Court’s early decisions supported the idea of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. (We call this segregation.) But in 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the court ruled that “the doctrine (or belief) of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” This was the ruling that declared that public schools must be desegregated – a decision that affected almost every family in the United States.

The first woman justice

Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. She was the first woman to serve on the court.

Justice O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. She went to Stanford University and received a law degree, but many law firms did not hire women lawyers in 1952, when she graduated. Finally, in 1965, she was hired as assistant attorney general for the state of Arizona.

Later, Justice O’Connor served as a state senator in Arizona and as a trial judge.

After the 1954 Supreme Court decision, black and white children were allowed to attend the same schools, such as this one in Washington, D.C. Right, Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She retired in 2006.