The Supreme Court overruled Friday the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. The decision came after a draft majority opinion overturning the 1973 case leaked in May and caused national uproar among abortion rights advocates. The ruling clears the way for states to restrict or ban abortion.
How the conservative court, an ideological shift occasioned by the addition of the three new conservative justices nominated by former President Donald Trump, would rule on Roe v. Wade was one of the major questions of the term. Five conservative justices on the nine-member court backed overturning Roe. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a concurring opinion that he would not have gone so far as to upend one of the court's most recognized precedents – though he agreed with the other conservative justices that Mississippi's abortion law should be upheld.
But what exactly is the Supreme Court? Here’s what you need to know.
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What is the Supreme Court?
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. It heads the judicial branch of the U.S. government and makes decisions on cases that carry constitutional implications for the country. For example, it recently struck down Biden’s vaccine mandate for workers at large employers.
It acts as an appellate court, reviewing appeals of decisions made by lower courts. But it also has original jurisdiction over disputes between state governments and cases that involve the federal government.
In some cases, it has been celebrated as a protector of civil rights. In 1954, it ruled segregation of public schools illegal in Brown v. Board of Education. A 2015 ruling made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. It established a constitutional right to abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973.
But not all of the Supreme Court's decisions have proven to last the test of time.
Before Brown v. Board of Education, the court set the table for the Jim Crow South by asserting in 1896 that racial segregation was okay because it was “separate but equal.”
Can the president overturn a Supreme Court ruling?
No, the Constitution does not give the president the power to override a Supreme Court ruling.
Presidents have disregarded Supreme Court rulings on rare occasions in the past, but these instances were largely considered constitutional crises, according to Reveal.
But legislative recourse is a possibility. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass a law codifying the abortion protections once provided by the 1973 ruling. But such a law seems unlikely to reach Biden's desk. It would need to pass in the Senate, where the Democratic majority is too thin.
"The only way we can restore a woman's right to choose and the balance that existed," Biden said in a speech, "is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law. No executive action from the president can do that."
Can a Supreme Court justice be impeached?
Yes, the Constitution provides for the impeachment of Supreme Court justices. The Article II of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to impeach “all Civil Officers of the United States.”
Justices are considered civil officers. But only one has been impeached before. In 1804, the House impeached Associate Justice Samuel Chase over his outspoken partisanship. He was acquitted by the Senate the following year.
Removal from the high court by impeachment requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate. Without a supermajority in a Senate that votes along party lines, the removal of a justice through impeachment is unlikely.
How many justices serve on the court?
Nine justices serve on the court, including the chief justice and eight associate justices. This number isn’t fixed in the Constitution, however. Congress has the power to determine the number of seats on the court. Throughout history, the numberhas fluctuated from five to 10. Congress established the current configuration of the court with the Judiciary Act of 1869.
The flexibility granted by the Constitution allows for the possibility of "court-packing," a strategy famously proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that calls for expanding the court to rebalance it ideologically. This strategy has regained consideration among some Democrats as conservatives hold a decisive majority, with three newly appointed and young conservative justices.
Who are the 9 Supreme Court justices?
The nine justices are Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
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Who appoints the Supreme Court justices?
The president of the United States nominates justices and they must be confirmed by the Senate, which scrutinizes nominees in confirmation hearings.
How long is a Supreme Court justice’s term?
Justices serve a life term, though many, like Stephen Breyer, choose to retire. A 2006 study from the National Institute of Health found that "44.5% of all justices have died in office and 47.4% have retired from office." Four retirements and two deaths have occurred on the court since that study.
What are the requirements to become a Supreme Court justice?
There are no legal eligibility requirements to become a justice, but essentially all justices that have served on the court held a deep background in law, working previously as judges and attorneys.
Who is the chief justice and what do they do?
The chief justice is John Roberts. Nominated by President George W. Bush, Roberts became chief justice in 2005. The chief justice presides over hearings and chooses who will write the opinion of the court if they rule with the majority. Usually, the chief justice writes the opinion in high-profile and controversial cases. If the Senate were to vote to impeach a president, the chief justice would also preside over the impeachment trial.
When is the Supreme Court in session?
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments for cases for a period of two weeks each month from October to April. It releases its decisions throughout that time but usually hands down major opinions in May and June, before entering recess in July.
How many cases does the Supreme Court hear a year?
Anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 cases are petitioned for the court to consider each year, but fewer than about 80 cases are heard each year.
Who holds a majority in the court?
Conservative justices hold a 6-3 majority in the court.
Which Supreme Court justices are liberal?
Sotomayor, Kagan and Jackson are the justices who were appointed by Democratic presidents and tend to be considered the liberal wing.
Who are the conservative justices on the Supreme Court?
Barrett, Thomas, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Alito and Roberts were nominated by Republican presidents and make up the conservative wing of the court.
Which justice has served the longest?
Thomas has served the longest on the current court and is the second-oldest member of the court. He was nominated by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed in Oct. 1991, almost 31 years ago. Before the Supreme Court, the 73 year old briefly served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and held various positions in the federal government, most notably as the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Ronald Reagan.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is the Supreme Court? It just overturned Roe v. Wade