The first Monday in October is the official beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012-2013 term. The country was fixated by last term's ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the healthcare law. Here are some of the issues the court is scheduled to hear or may take up this term:

Current Supreme Court Members


Served since:

Nominated by:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. 2005 President George W. Bush
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia 1986 President Ronald Reagan
Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy 1988 President Ronald Reagan
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas 1991 President George H. W. Bush
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 1993 President Bill Clinton
Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer 1994 President Bill Clinton

Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

2006 President George W. Bush
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor 2009 President Barack Obama
Associate Justice Elena Kagan 2010 President Barack Obama

Affirmative action - Does theEqual Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allow a university to use race in decisions about admitting students?

Drunk driving - Must police get a search warrant before forcing a suspected drunk driver to have blood drawn?

The Alien Tort Statute - Can a corporation be sued in the U.S. for actions the business took in another country?

Drug sniffing dogs - In one case, the court will answer the question of whether a warrant is needed before a police dog trained to find drugs can sniff around the property of a suspected dealer. In a separate case, the court will address the reliability of drug sniffing dogs.

Same sex marriage - Is theDefense of Marriage Actconstitutional?

Highly publicized cases, such as the healthcare law decision, capture the attention of American citizens. But many people are not so aware of howcases make their way to the Supreme Court.

It can be a long journey. With the Supreme Court's new term now in full swing, it's a good time to review how the high court works.

The Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution

The Constitution limits the Court to dealing with "Cases" and "Controversies."

The Justices exercise considerable discretion in deciding which cases to hear, since more than 10,000 civil and criminal petitions are filed with the Supreme Court each year from the various state and federal courts. At least four of the nine justices must agree to grant a petition to hear a case. Often, the cases involve issues in which one U.S. Court of Appeals or state court of last resort has entered a decision that conflicts with another court.

The Supreme Court also has "original jurisdiction" in a very small number of cases arising out of disputes between States or between a State and the Federal Government.

When the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional issue, the judgment is virtually final. Its decisions can be altered only by the rarely used procedure of constitutional amendment or by a new ruling of the court. However, when the court interprets a statute, new legislative action can be taken.

Issuance of a Writ of Certiorari

When the Supreme Court decides to review a case, it issues a "writ of certiorari," which is a decision to hear an appeal from a lower court. 

Out of the approximately 10,000 petitions for a writ of certiorari each year, the court only grants and hears oral arguments in fewer than 90 cases. In addition, some 1,200 applications of various kinds are filed each year that can be acted upon by a single Justice. The term of the court begins on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October of the next year. Usually, the court issues its final opinions in late June.

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.

The court maintains this schedule each term until all cases ready for submission have been heard and decided. In May and June, the Court sits only to announce orders and opinions. Although the court recesses at the end of June, the work of the justices does not end. During the summer, they continue to analyze new petitions for review, consider motions and applications, and must make preparations for cases scheduled for fall argument.


As you can see, the workings of the Supreme Court can be complex and its decisions have the potential to affect the lives of all Americans. How much do you know about the court's history? Take our quiz below to test your knowledge.


Supreme Court Quiz

1. Who was the only person to serve as both President of the United States and ChiefJustice of the U.S. Supreme Court?

2. Which one of the current justices clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall?

3. Who was the longest serving Supreme Court Justice in history?

4. Which of the current justices did not receive a law degree from Harvard or Yale?

5. What phrase is engraved above the main west entrance of the Supreme Court?

6. Which U.S. president proposed raising the number of Supreme Court justices to 15?

7. Who was the only president in U.S. history to serve a full-term but did not make a Supreme Court appointment?

8. Are Supreme Court justices required to have earned a law degree?


1. William Howard Taft is the only person to serve as both President of the United States (1909-1913) and Chief Justice of the United States (1921-1930).

2. Associate Justice Elena Kagan served as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall during the 1987-1988 term.

3. The longest serving Justice was William O. Douglas who served for 36 years, seven months, and eight days from 1939 to 1975.

4. Ruth Bader Ginsburg received her law degree from Columbia University Law School (although she attended Harvard Law School earlier). The law degrees of the other current justices were received from Harvard (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer and Kagan) and Yale (Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor).

5. "Equal Justice Under Law" is engraved above the main west entrance.

6. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed raising the number of Supreme Court justices to 15 in 1937. However, the "court packing bill" didn't have the necessary votes in Congress to pass.

7. President Jimmy Carter.

8. No. The Constitution does not specify qualifications for justices such as education, age, or native-born citizenship.


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