How the Supreme Court Works

Sonia Sotomayor, back right, is the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice, or judge.
Sonia Sotomayor, back right, is the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice, or judge. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
Monday, October 5, 2009

Ever get into a fight with your sister, say, over who spilled the soda on your iPod? Your sister blames you and claims you bumped her into the soda, causing the spill. You blame her because her elbow knocked over the soda. You ask your little brother what he thinks. He blames you. You ask your babysitter what she thinks. She also blames you. Finally you ask your mom, the highest authority in the house, what she thinks. She decides that because you were running in the house breaking the rules, it's your fault.

That is, in a way, how the U.S. court system works. Your mom is like the U.S. Supreme Court, which has the final say in court cases. Today, the Supreme Court begins its 2009-2010 session.

The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices (a fancy word for judges) appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The court is the third branch of U.S. government along with the executive branch (the president) and the legislative branch, or the lawmakers (Congress).

The Supreme Court chooses which cases to hear each year. The justices rule on only a small fraction of the cases that are sent to them. They decide the cases based on their understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the newest member of the court and the first justice appointed by President Barack Obama. She took Justice David Souter's place after he retired in June. Sotomayor is the first Hispanic, the third woman and the 111th person to serve on the Supreme Court.

The other serving justices are Samuel A. Alito Jr., Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, John G. Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas.

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

© 2009 The Washington Post Company