The United States Supreme Court — Definition and Explanation


The Supreme Court was established by the United States Constitution and organized by the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States of America.

John Jay, Founding Father, Head Justice, Portrait, Stuart

John Jay, first Head Justice of the Supreme Court. Image Source: National Gallery of Art.

Supreme Court Definition

The United States Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the federal government and plays an important role in the American legal system. Established by the United States Constitution, it consists of nine justices appointed for life by the President with Senate approval. The Court’s primary function is to interpret the Constitution and federal laws, resolve legal disputes and ensure the protection of individual rights. Landmark decisions, such as Marbury v. Madison and Brown v. Board of Education, have shaped American jurisprudence and influenced the nation’s social and political landscape. The Supreme Court’s rulings have far-reaching implications, addressing civil rights, civil liberties, and the balance of power between the branches of government.

Supreme Court APUSH Resource and Study Guide

The following sections provide information about important people, court cases, and legal terms that are part of the AP US History curriculum. The Supreme Court was established during the Constitution Convention of 1787 and its powers have been expanded and affirmed through the Bill of Rights and Constitutional Amendments.

Constitutional Convention, Signing the Constitution, Christy
This painting by Howard Chandler Christy depicts the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Supreme Court Terms and Definitions — People

John Jay, First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

John Jay, born in 1745, was a prominent American statesman and Founding Father. He played a crucial role in the American Revolutionary War, serving as a diplomat and negotiator of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the war and recognized American independence. Jay also co-authored The Federalist Papers, a series of essays advocating for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He served as the first Chief Justice of the United States from 1789 to 1795.

John Marshall, Fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

John Marshall was an American statesman and jurist who served as the Chief Justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835. He is widely considered one of the most influential figures in American legal history, and his decisions as Chief Justice established many important precedents that continue to shape the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution. Marshall was a Federalist who believed in a strong national government and a limited role for the states. He is best known for his decisions in several significant cases, including Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland.

Notable Justices

John Rutledge was the 2nd Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Rutledge was notable for his participation in the Stamp Act Congress, the First Continental Congress, and the Second Continental Congress. He also served as the Governor of South Carolina for most of the American Revolutionary War. Rutledge only presided over one term of the Supreme Court, while John Jay was negotiating Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain.

Oliver Ellsworth, the main author of the Judiciary Act of 1789, replaced Rutledge as Chief Justice. When Ellsworth resigned in December 1800, it contributed to the Judiciary Act of 1801 and the appointments of the Midnight Judges.

Salmon P. Chase played an important role as Chief Justice during the Civil War.

William Howard Taft was the 27th President of the United States (1909–1913) and served as the 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft was also Vice President during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

President William Howard Taft, Portrait
William Howard Taft. Image Source: The White House.

Supreme Court Terms and Definitions — Legal Principles

Court Packing

Court Packing refers to the proposal made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to expand the number of justices on the United States Supreme Court. The proposal was made in response to the court’s opposition to New Deal programs, which Roosevelt believed were necessary to address the economic crisis of the Great Depression. The Court Packing Plan was intended to add up to six new justices, which would have allowed Roosevelt to appoint a new majority and overcome the opposition of the conservative justices. The plan was met with widespread opposition and failed to pass in Congress.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944, Campaign Portrait
President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Image Source: FDR Presidential Library & Museum.

Due Process

Due Process refers to the guarantees contained in the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that protect individuals from the government depriving them of life, liberty, or property without proper legal procedures. The Due Process Clause requires the government to follow certain procedures when it takes actions that affect an individual’s rights, such as providing notice, holding a hearing, and allowing to be heard.

Implied Powers

Implied Powers are powers that are not explicitly listed in the U.S. Constitution but are inferred from the broader powers granted to the federal government. Implied powers are a key aspect of the “Elastic Clause,” also known as the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” which gives Congress the authority to pass any laws that are necessary and proper for carrying out its powers and duties. The concept of Implied Powers has been a source of controversy and debate in American politics, as it has been used to justify a broad range of federal actions and policies.

Judicial Review

Judicial Review is the power of a court to review if a law or government action abides by the U.S. Consitution. This power, which is held by courts in many countries, allows the judicial branch to act as a check on the other branches of government and to ensure that they are acting within the limits of their constitutional authority. In the United States, the concept of Judicial Review was established in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, in which Chief Justice John Marshall declared that it was the role of the courts to interpret the Constitution and to determine the constitutionality of government actions.

Separate But Equal

“Separate but equal” was a legal doctrine used to justify segregation and discrimination against African Americans in the United States. The doctrine, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), held that segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities and services provided to African Americans were equal to those provided to whites. The doctrine, which was used to justify discriminatory policies and practices, was eventually overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Strict Interpretation vs. Loose Interpretation

Strict interpretation, also known as strict constructionism, is a method of interpreting the U.S. Constitution in which the words of the document are given their precise and literal meaning. Proponents of strict interpretation believe that the Constitution should be followed exactly as written, without any attempt to consider the intentions or context of the drafters. Loose interpretation, also known as loose constructionism, is a method of interpreting the Constitution that allows for a broader, more flexible interpretation of the document. Proponents of loose interpretation believe that the Constitution should be interpreted in a way that reflects the changing needs and values of society.

John Marshall, Supreme Court Justice, Painting, Jarvis
John Marshall. Image Source: White House History.

Supreme Court Terms and Definitions — Court Cases

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the principle of Judicial Review, giving the Court the power to review and strike down laws passed by Congress or the states if they are deemed unconstitutional.

Fletcher v. Peck (1810)

In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the Supreme Court established the supremacy of the national government in conflicts with state authorities and the importance of the contract clause of the Constitution. Robert Fletcher, a Georgia landowner, challenged the validity of a land grant that had been issued to John Peck by the state of Georgia.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

James McCulloch, the cashier of the Second Bank of the United States, was sued by the state of Maryland for failing to pay a tax on the bank’s operations. The Court, in a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that the state of Maryland did not have the authority to tax the bank, as it was a federal institution. The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland established the principle of federal supremacy, which holds that federal law takes precedence over state law.

Dartmouth College v. Woodford (1819)

The case revolved around the question of whether the state of New Hampshire could alter Dartmouth College’s original charter, which had been granted by King George III in 1769. The Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled in favor of Dartmouth College, asserting that the charter constituted a contract that the state could not unilaterally change. The decision protected private contracts from government interference and established important precedents regarding corporate charters and contract law in the United States.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

This case addressed the issue of federal versus state control over interstate commerce. The case involved a dispute between two steamboat operators, Thomas Gibbons and Aaron Ogden, over the exclusive right to operate in waters between New York and New Jersey. The Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled in favor of Gibbons, asserting that federal law, specifically the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, held authority over state laws in regulating interstate commerce. The decision expanded the scope of federal power in regulating commerce and laid the foundation for future rulings on the supremacy of federal law in matters of interstate trade.

Ex Parte Milligan (1866)

Ex Parte Milligan was a legal case that was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1866. The case involved the detention of a civilian, Lambdin P. Milligan, by the military during the Civil War. Milligan, who was accused of aiding the Confederacy, was detained without trial by a military commission. The case, which was seen as a test of the limits of executive power, ended with a decision in favor of Milligan, which held that the military did not have the authority to detain civilians in areas where the civil courts were functioning.

Wabash v. Illinois (1886)

The case involved a challenge to a state law that regulated railroads and was seen as a major test of the power of the states to regulate interstate commerce. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the railroads, finding that the regulation was unconstitutional and that only the federal government had the power to regulate interstate commerce.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1893)

Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” segregation laws. The case arose when a black man named Homer Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that required separate railway cars for white and black passengers. Plessy argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying equal protection of the laws to any person. The Court, however, ruled that segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities provided for black and white people were equal in quality. The decision was a major setback for the civil rights movement and was used to justify segregation and discrimination for many years.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

The case challenged the constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools, particularly in Topeka, Kansas. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous opinion, declaring that “separate but equal” facilities for Black and white students were inherently unequal and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This decision overturned the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and laid the foundation for desegregation efforts in public education and beyond. Brown v. Board of Education is widely regarded as one of the most significant legal victories for civil rights in American history, as it spurred a wave of desegregation initiatives and set the stage for further challenges to racial discrimination. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured the ruling was enforced by deploying troops from the U.S. Army.