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The U.S. Supreme Court: How it works

By William Mears (Washington Bureau)

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Court's impact in society is incalculable: when disputes arise, they serve as the final word for a nation built on laws. They interpret the Constitution and all that it brings with it: how we conduct ourselves in society, boundaries for individuals and the government, questions literally of life and death.

As the late justice William Brennan once wrote, "The law is not an end in itself, nor does it provide means. It is preeminently a means to serve what we think is right." And whether right or wrong, when it came to deciding who won the presidential election just two years ago, it was the Court's conclusions that ultimately ended the issue, but not the controversy.

Few Americans, however, have any real idea how the Court operates, since cameras are barred, and the case arguments and opinions are often dry and confusing for non-lawyers. Here's a short how-to for the Court.

The Supreme Court first met in 1790, as the ultimate part of the judicial branch of government. There are nine justices, led by the Chief Justice of the United States (that's the official title). All justices are first nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate. The serve for as long as they choose. The Court has only occupied its current building in Washington since 1935. Previously, it borrowed space in Senate chambers in the Capitol Building.

The Constitution's framers envisioned the judiciary as the "weakest," "least dangerous" branch of government. And while the Court has often been accused over the years of being too timid in asserting its power, there is little doubt when the justices choose to flex their judicial muscle, the results can be far-reaching. Just look at how cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954-- integrating public schools), Roe v. Wade (1973-- legalizing abortion), and even Bush v. Gore (2000) have affected the lives of Americans.

Each term traditionally begins the first Monday in October, and final opinions are issued usually by late June. Justices divide their time between "sittings," where they hear cases and issue decisions, and "recesses" where they meet in private to write their decisions and consider other business before the Court.

Court arguments are open to the public in the main courtroom, and visitors have the option of watching all the arguments or only a small portion. Tradition is very important. You'll notice the justices wearing black robes, and quill pills still adorn the desks, as they have for two centuries.

The justices are seated by seniority, with the Chief Justice in the middle. Before public arguments and private conferences, where decisions are discussed, they all shake hands as a show of harmony of purpose. In the past, all lawyers appearing before the Court wore formal "morning clothes," but today only federal government lawyers carry on the tradition. The Solicitor General is the federal government's principal lawyer before the bench.

As the gavel sounds and justices are seated, a marshal shouts the traditional welcome, which reads in part: "Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court."

Arguments begin at 10 a.m. and since most cases involve review of decisions by other courts, there are no juries or witnesses, just lawyers from both sides addressing the bench. Arguments usually last about an hour, and lawyers from both sides very often have their prepared briefs interrupted by pointed questions from a justice.

This give-and-take, question-and-answer repartee can be entertaining, and it requires lawyers to think concisely and logically on their feet. And by the tone of their questioning, it often gives insight into a justice's thinking, a barometer of his/her decision-making.

After the arguments, conferences are scheduled, where justices discuss and vote on the cases. Justices spend much of their time reviewing the cases, and writing opinions. And they must decide which cases they will actually hear in open Court.

Each week, the Court receives about 130 petitions for review, decisions by lower courts appealed to the high Court. Relatively few are granted full review. About 7000 such petitions go on the Court's docket each Term.

Oral arguments may be heard in about 100 cases each year, but final opinions may only be issued in 80-90 cases. In addition, some 1200 legal applications of various types are filed each year that can be acted on by a single justice. The Court's opinions are final, no exceptions.

Case arguments and the opinions are posted on the Court Web site: Click on the "Docket" icon.

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