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Useful Notes / American Courts

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"Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever."
William Howard Taft, President of the United States (1909-1913) and Chief Justice of the United States (1921-1930)

First, you need to see American Federalism to get an idea that the power of the law is divided between the States and the Federal government.

Second, you should know that the states are allowed to set up different structures and procedures for their courts, and they do. Just about everything mentioned here about state courts will vary from state to state.

Third, you should know that as a former British colony, the United States uses The Common Law system at both the federal and state level (except Louisiana, which, being a former French colony, uses a code based on the French civil-law systemnote ). This has a strong effect on how courts are set up and what they are and are not allowed to do.

Trial Courts
A map of the federal district and circuit courts. If you're ever wondering what Tennessee and Michigan have in common, your answer is here.

This is where the action (and the antics) takes place. Federal trial courts are known as "District Courts" and serve a judicial district consisting of all or part of a state. The names of these courts can get kind of weird; for instance, the federal District Court for the Central District of California is based in Los Angeles (the Southern District being in San Diego). State trial courts have different names depending on the state, but in fiction they'll invariably be called "Superior Courts" because that's what California calls them and the rest of the country is just like California, right?

In reality, it's impossible to state the names of the various state courts with any kind of regularity or with any kind of guidance. In a plurality of states, these are called "Circuit Courts"—confusing, because some jurisdictions call their appellate courts "Circuit Courts", including the federal government. In some other places, these are (happily) "District Courts". In others the trial are called "county court"—confusingly, since in many states "county court" is below the general state trial court—hearing traffic cases, etc. A few states are like California and call them Superior Courts (including Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey)—but not every state "Superior Court" is a trial court: in some places, it's an appellate court (e.g. Pennsylvania). In other states, you find weirder names—for instance, Pennsylvania's trial court is called the Court of Common Pleas (after a British court abolished and absorbed into the High Court of Justice in 1875).note  They usually serve one county each, although especially large/populous counties might be split or especially small/less-populous counties might be combined.note 

In addition to the U.S. Attorney General, there will be something equivalent to an Attorney General for each state, and in most states it is effectively a managerial post, in that most prosecutions have to be done by local District Attorneys, while the Attorney General executes and hammers out the details of the prosecutorial system (and sometimes handle cases in which the state itself is a party). California and New York are the exceptions-the local District Attorney as well as the State Attorney General have the power to prosecute crimes. Furthermore, Delaware is rather unusual: because of the state's small size and population, the State Attorney Generalnote  is responsible for criminal prosecutions statewide.

In the typical criminal trial, the following people will be present:

  • The Judge - The United States, like most English-speaking countries, uses the "adversarial" system of trials, rather than the "inquisitorial" system used in most non-English-speaking countries. What this means is that although the judge has the power to call witnesses, ask questions, or introduce evidence, this power is rarely used except to ask clarifying questions for the benefit of the jury. Instead, these functions are in theory entirely in the hands of the prosecutors and defense attorneys.note  The judge's main duty is to resolve any issues of law that come up, usually when one attorney objects to the other's questioning as inappropriate, and to resolve questions on the admissibility of evidence before trial. The judge also instructs the jury (if the case is being heard by a jury) as to the relevant legal issues, i.e., whether or not certain actions would constitute a crime, and sets the sentence if the defendant is convicted. In the rare criminal case where a jury trial is waived, the judge will themselves decide the facts and deliver the verdict, called a bench trial. Cases in which the US government is sued also do not use juries due to sovereign immunity (i.e. the federal government consents to be sued only if its judges decide the matter alone), and thus are handled this way. Many civil cases also do not use juries, such as divorce, juvenile delinquency, or probate.
  • Prosecutors - In federal court, known as U.S. Attorneys; in state court, known as District Attorneys (okay, not in every state, but both California and New York call them DAs, which fuels the popular perception that they bear this name everywhere). In both cases the people actually prosecuting the case will have the title of "Assistant U.S. Attorney" or "Assistant/Deputy District Attorney", respectively, since the U.S. Attorney (appointed by the President) and the District Attorney (usually elected) are the heads of the prosecution offices for their respective districts/counties and rarely prosecute cases themselves. The prosecutor is either a tireless pursuer of justice or a callous Inspector Javert figure, depending, of course, on whether you think the defendant is guilty. Since the state is the one who builds and operates courthouses, the prosecution always gets the desk that's closer to the jury.note note 
  • Defense Attorneys - Either a heroic Perry Mason type or an Amoral Attorney, again depending on whether you think the defendant is guilty. In all felony cases and some misdemeanorsnote  then if the defendant can't afford an attorney, they are entitled to one, paid for by the government (that's the Sixth Amendment, applied against the states by 1963's Gideon v. Wainwright). There are two main ways of going about this:
    • Public Defender's Office - Aka the "staff attorney" model-the government essentially establishes and pays for a full legal practice devoted entirely to defending criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney (i.e. most of them) for free. Public Defenders tend to be idealistic folks genuinely committed to the idea that everyone deserves a fair shake, but often they have little more than idealism to run on: they are as a rule ridiculously overworked (in some places by entire orders of magnitude) and woefully underfunded pretty much everywhere. The PDO will provide a Public Defender unless there's a conflict of interest, e.g. if there are two defendants and both are accusing the other of committing the crime, the public defender's office can't represent both (a public defender's office is considered to be a law firm for attorney ethics, and one of the cardinal rules of attorney ethics is "one law firm cannot represent different sides in the same case if their interests are at all divergent," which they usually are when you have more than one defendant) and one of them gets a private attorney at state expense under a quasi-judicare system.
    • Judicare: Some jurisdictions forgo having an actual public defender's office and contract with private defense attorneys to represent indigent defendants. The name comes by analogy with "Medicare", and is broadly similar to the British system of Legal Aid (the main difference is that since the legal profession in the US is fused, the government doesn't have to pay both a barrister and a solicitor).
    • Some places offer a hybrid system: for instance, Washington, D.C. (one of the best and most effective PDOs in the country, incidentally) uses the staff-attorney system for more serious crimes, while farming out petty crime to private attorneys by an ingenious system involving a big board on which all the day's new misdemeanors are posted. There's something of a cottage industry of private lawyers in DC who use this system to get a large chunk of their income, although they're forbidden from living primarily off of it.
    • The defendant can also choose to forgo the attorney and represent themself (in technical "cool" Latin, "appearing pro se"); this usually makes the defendant look like a nutcase (the saying in the legal trade that someone who represents themself "has A Fool for a Client"), but hey, it was their choice (and sometimes, against all odds, they are able to win!) However, in high profile felonies where the defendant wants to represent themselves, the defendant will still receive an attorney to advise them so that the appeals court doesn't decide that they were denied adequate representation and overturn a conviction. Outside the criminal realm, litigants in civil cases generally do not have the constitutional right to have an attorney appointed for them,note  and must either pay for an attorney or be poor or oppressed enough to qualify for pro bono representation; this means that a lot of cases in the civil courts are done with self-represented litigants. This is especially true in family court outside of matrimonial cases (i.e. divorces) and adoptions, as the kinds of people who get involved in those sorts of cases (typically including domestic violence, paternity, child support/custody not involving a divorce, etc.) tend not to have much money. Other kinds of cases commonly involving pro se litigants include small claims (where attorneys are often not allowed), mortgage foreclosure (because the defendant is usually in a pretty desperate financial situation), landlord-tenant eviction cases (ditto), and certain legal malpractice claims (because such claims are often frivolous, essentially a client grumbling about their lawyer having lost the case, and no reputable attorney will touch it).
  • The Defendant - The person who the prosecution accuses of committing the crime, though the defendant is considered to be innocent until proven guilty under the law. Will usually be found sitting at the table next to the defense attorney, looking morose or expressionless.
  • Witnesses - Most of the trial consists of the prosecutors or defendants calling and questioning witnesses on the facts of the case. Witnesses can roughly be divided into eyewitnesses, who actually saw what happened, character witnesses, who know the defendant and can vouch for their good character (or against it, if called by the prosecution as rebuttal witnesses; legally the prosecutor cannot call character witnesses to impugn the defendant's character unless the defendant calls them to bolster their own character first), and expert witnesses, who don't actually have anything to do with the specifics of the case but explain medical/scientific/technical/otherwise obscure information that's relevant to what happened.
  • Bailiffs - The ones usually (depending on the jurisdiction) in uniform. Their jobs may include (depending on the jurisdiction) announcing cases on the docket, escorting prisoners to/from the courtroom, and generally maintaining order. In federal court, they're in the U.S. Marshals Service; in state court, usually in the county sheriff's department.
  • Clerk(s) of the court - In charge of keeping the paperwork in order (and there's a lot of paperwork). Most visible role in the courtroom is swearing in witnesses, though sometimes a bailiff or the judge will do this instead.
    • Note that the clerk(s) of the court should be distinguished from the judges' law clerk(s): a judge's law clerk is a lawyer (or recent law school graduate awaiting bar exam results) who is charged with helping the judge research the law and usually with coming up with drafts of judicial opinions when those need to be written. The law clerk(s) may or may not appear in the courtroom; when they do, they tend to be shuttling back and forth between a desk and the judge's bench, getting them documents (typically evidence, motions, and briefs, in case one of the lawyers refers to something) from boxes. Judge's law clerks can be permanent like clerks of the court, but more usually they are "term clerks" serving for a year or two (or maybe three) either right after law school or after leaving an entry-level legal position. Further confusing matters, some judges do have their law clerks do the job of the court clerk, based on the rules of the jurisdiction (for instance, it's fairly common in Pennsylvania, but prohibited in New Jersey).
  • Stenographer - Sits next to the judge's bench typing up a transcript of the proceedings. Occasionally asked to read it back. Many courts have dispensed with the stenographer, choosing instead to simply record the whole proceeding in audio, perhaps having the court clerk keep a running summary of who says what when so the recording is easier to navigate, and if transcripts are needed sending the audio to professional transcribers on a case-by-case basis.
  • Court Artist - Many judges refuse to allow television cameras into the courtroom out of the belief that they would turn the trial into a media circus (judging from the O. J. Simpson trial, they're right). So instead, in high-profile cases garnering media attention, an artist will sit in the gallery and draw or paint renditions of the scene for use in news coverage. The Supreme Court for this reason forbids all cameras, although since the mid-2000s or so the Court has allowed audio recordings of oral argument.
  • The Jury - Finally, the twelve randomly chosen schmoes who actually decide the case. Before the trial starts, both sides get to go through the jury pool and strike a set number of jurors they feel would be biased against their case. An unlimited number can be challenged for specific reasons and stricken with the judge's permission. The judge also kicks out anyone who does not meet their standards of impartiality (or cultural conformity). During the trial itself, the jury sits in its box at the side of the courtroom (and it's always the side that is closer to the prosecution, since it's the state that builds courthouses, the jury is always on the prosecutor's side) carefully observing the proceedings to come to the most just and impartial verdict... pfft, I can't say that with a straight face either, but usually most of them at least try to take things seriously. Most people consider jury duty somewhere around the sixth circle of Dante's Inferno, and try to find ways to get out of it as quickly as possible. In rare cases, the defendant may request a "bench trial" in which there is no jury and the judge decides the verdict. Interestingly enough, the right to trial by jury in the criminal courts is a right of the defendant only-if they decide to waive trial by jury, the prosecutor can't object and has to accept a waiver of jury trial. Defendants usually only waive jury trial if they think that the judge is more sympathetic to them, so this can work against the prosecutor.
    • An important note: for all the shit that it gets, the idea behind the jury is not mere antiquated tradition or sheer lunacy. This derives from the fact that the judge is the "trier of law" and the jury "trier of fact" intersect in a critical but often-overlooked item: the judge's instructions to the jury. The instructions, often seen as kind of odd by outsiders and laypeople, are actually all-important, as they present questions of fact that the jury must answer. Questions of fact are generally of the "if X, Y, and Z are true, it's R crime; are X, Y, and Z true?" form, with the jury being asked to fill in the blanks.For a more concrete example  Having juries do this makes a kind of sense—after all, what gives a judge any more qualification to decide the truth or falsehood of evidence than a bunch of random individuals? You might expect that a judge develops a sense for this kind of thing, but studies have shown that judges are remarkably variable—for instance, they're nicer to defendants after lunchnote —and tend to believe the prosecution slightly more than an entirely impartial person would (explanations range from the kind of person who becomes a judge to the close relationships that develop between judges and prosecuting attorneys-quite a lot of judges are themselves former prosecutors, which also probably has something to do with this). Furthermore, requiring 12 people to agree on everything places a pretty darn high threshold on the proceedings, making it very likely that a jury that is neither bought nor incredibly biasednote  will come to a correct result based on the evidence before it; we even have some theoretical backing for the proposition (from a Frenchman, no less).
      • In other words: Judges ask juries what happened, and tell them which law, if any, would be broken for each possible decision on the question of "what happened". Considering that judges are human, it kind of makes sense for the "what happened" part to be settled by a bunch of ordinary citizens rather than one judge.
    • Note that in some types of criminal (or non-criminal trials, such as minor traffic offenses) which are called an "infraction", you can only be fined, you cannot go to jail, and in most states you cannot get a jury trial, you can only get a bench trial. Some states will, however, allow you a second trial and if you want to ask for it, you can get a jury trial then.
    • A "misdemeanor" is a class of crime which has a maximum penalty of a year in jail. However, if you're charged with a misdemeanor having six months in jail or less, in some states they can also force you to take a bench trial. As with infractions, some states allow an appeal and a new trial, and you may be able to get a jury if you want one. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that you must have the option for a jury trial if you face more than six months in jail.
    • The right to have a jury in a criminal case is reserved exclusively to the defendant. Where the defendant is being tried for a case where they are allowed a jury if they wish, and the defendant wants to waive a jury and get a bench trial, the prosecution cannot object.
    • Technically, you can't get a jury trial in Chancery (see below), though in most jurisdictions this doesn't matter. There are also circumstances when you 'want' a bench trial, as when your suit is based on complex issues and arcane points of law that will bore the pants off of a juror; most commonly, there is little or no dispute as to the facts in such cases (typically fought between gigantic companies, although sometimes government agencies get into the mix), so having a jury would mostly be superfluous.
  • The Audience. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees to all criminal defendants a right to a public trial, which means that all criminal cases - in the absence of the prosecutor and/or the defendant asking for a closed trial—have to be open to the public for anyone who wants to walk in to watch. This is not just because it can be entertaining for the public—although that's often a nice benefit - but it's to protect the defendant against a Hanging Judge and Amoral Attorney holding a Kangaroo Court in secret.

Events in a criminal case

  • Arraignment - In which the defendant is released from police custody or brought in from jail, is read the charges, and pleads guilty, nolo contendere/no contest (effectively the same as guilty but can't be used as evidence in any other case) or not guilty. The judge sentences the defendant (if they plead guilty or no contest) or sets bail, accordingly.
  • Grand Jury Indictment - In federal cases and some states, the prosecutor can't bring charges without an indictment from a grand jury. The grand jury consists of traditionally 23, but today often fewer, randomly chosen citizens, and at least 12 of them must agree that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute for the prosecution to get the indictment. Since the grand jury only sees the prosecution's evidence, this has led to a joke among attorneys that a Grand Jury would indict a ham sandwich, but, yes, there are rare instances where a prosecutor's evidence is just so weak a grand jury doesn't bring the indictment (what's called a "no bill"—if the grand jury approves of the indictment, it's called a "true bill"). Though the prosecutor is free to try again with another grand jury, many will not and that lets it go. Many states do not require a grand jury for most or any proceedings, though they often still maintain them as an investigative toolnote  or for the prosecutor to get a chance to pre-try a case that might be weak or questionable.
    • The point is mostly to keep the prosecutors in line—if all their evidence, presented entirely unquestioned and without any alternate theories, is not enough to get 12 people to say "yeah, that guy probably did it", they shouldn't be wasting the court's time with a case that will surely result in an acquittal. The grand jury is there to make sure they can't.
    • The terminology and order is completely inconsistent between federal and state cases and between states on whether the "arraignment" is the hearing before or after the indictment, or whether the indictment is needed at all. Fortunately, this is irrelevant unless you're a criminal lawyer, in which case you probably know the distinction already, or if you've been arrested, in which case you're fracked anyway.
    • Grand juries have their own subpoena and investigatory power independent of the prosecutor who is presenting to them. It is extremely rare, but can happen, that a "runaway" grand jury can actually eject the prosecutor from the room and run their own investigation, taking it wherever the evidence leads. Additionally, the grand jury testimony is secret. Not even the defendant is allowed into the room (unless they are called as a witness). The only ones who can legally reveal what was said are the witness that said it, and, in very limited circumstances (like that witness being murdered), the prosecutor. Also, testimony in the grand jury room is under oath, so lying is serious, not an Empty Cop Threat.
    • We should note here that unlike usual Jury Duty for serving on a jury in a trial (where the jury only exists for a few days, or maybe like a few weeks while the trial is ongoing, and runs pretty much daily), grand juries—especially at the state level—are often chosen as "standing grand juries", which is to say, the jury exists for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months (3 or 4 months is fairly common; in some states, such as Hawaii, it can go on for a whole year), and hears dozens of cases over its existence (i.e.: the prosecutor calls in one case, presents the evidence, then leaves, and then the grand jury votes; when the vote is done, the prosecutor comes back in, and presents the evidence in the next case, rinse and repeat). That said, standing grand juries generally only meet once or twice a week, so it's not as big of a disruption as jury duty in a trial.
  • Motions, Hearings, etc. - in which both sides' attorneys build their cases and file motions with the judge to include/exclude certain evidence or force the other side to give information up. Takes a few months up to a year, of which only a few days will be spent in court. Most cases criminal or civil, are won or lost at this stage. Unlike TV, the vast, vast majority of criminal cases end with a Plea Bargain or dismissal—usually after the judge has ruled on a motion to suppress evidence (these are particularly common in drug and illegal firearm cases, which in this day and age probably make up at least a third of the criminal docket; if the judge admits the drugs/guns, then the defendant usually changes their plea to guilty, since with the contraband allowed any trial would be a waste of everyone's time, while if the judge suppresses the drugs/guns, the prosecution usually drops charges as their case becomes much harder if not impossible to prove without them). If criminal charges were brought without a grand jury indictment, then the first hearing will typically be a preliminary hearing, in which the judge rules on whether there is probable cause to hold the defendant over for trial.
  • Trial - the interesting part. First the prosecution and defense make statements to the jury outlining their theories of the case. (Once the jury is sworn in, that's when "double jeopardy attaches"—unless you're doing a bench trial,note  in which case it attaches when the first witness is sworn in. Barring extraordinary circumstances, the prosecution has to see it through to the end, or they can never charge that person again for the same crimes.) Then the prosecution calls and questions witnesses, each of whom the defense may cross-examine. Then, vice versa: the defense questions their witnesses and the prosecution cross-examines. Then, closing statements, and the jury is sent out to deliberate. The whole thing rarely takes more than a week, though there are exceptions (see, again, the O.J. Simpson trial).
  • Jury Deliberations - in which the jury argues amongst themselves over whether the defendant did it. In many jurisdictions, and federal court, a verdict must be unanimous, or else it's a mistrial and we start again with a new jury, so if there's disagreement things can get pretty heated. For a good example of this, see the movie 12 Angry Men, which is about this exact step in the trial process.
  • Sentencing - if the verdict is guilty, this is when the judge sets the sentence. There has to be a separate jury determination for the death penalty.
  • Acquittal - because this is a special case in the U.S., this deserves a separate section. An acquittal is when the defendant is found "not guilty," meaning that the prosecution failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It does not mean the defendant is innocent, it means the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence to the trier of fact to prove the defendant's guilt. Some countries allow the prosecution to appeal an acquittal. In the United States, and each of the states, this is not permitted. But, realize that the United States has two forms of government, a Federal government and the state governments. A person can be tried in state court for a crime, and in federal court for a crime, or, if the crime is defined broadly enough, in both. And an acquittal in a court for that jurisdiction ends it for that one, but does not apply to the other. The U.S. has the idea of "separate sovereigns" in which the state governments are considered separate from each other and the Federal government. So an acquittal ends the matter because that government cannot appeal an acquittal, and the defendant certainly has no reason to do so. "If the judgment is upon an acquittal, the defendant, indeed, will not seek to have it reversed, and the government cannot." U. S. v. Sanges, 144 U.S. 310 (1892). "A verdict of acquittal, although not followed by any judgment, is a bar to a subsequent prosecution for the same offense." Ball v. U.S., 163 U.S. 662, 671 (1896) But the acquittal only applies to that government; another state can try and convict - or acquit - the defendant over the same crime if it also happened within their jurisdiction, or the Federal Government can do the same. But they can't appeal an acquittal that happens in their courts.
    • With one exception: If, during a jury trial, the jury returns a guilty verdict but the judge grants a defense motion for a directed verdict of acquittal (also known as JNOV or JMOL), the prosecution is allowed to appeal the judge's decision. See U.S. v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332 (1975).
    • So if someone stands in Colorado, at Four Corners National Monument (it's the only place where 4 states meet, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico; there's s little brass circle with four lines on it where the exact border point is), and shoots someone across the line in Utah, they can be prosecuted by the federal government for the crime committed on federal property (as although the land including the monument is in four separate states, the federal government actually owns the land).note  If the states still have jurisdiction over the area, the person could also be prosecuted by the State of Colorado for firing the gun, and by Utah for shooting one of its citizens. On top of that, because the land on which the monument stands is controlled by two Native American tribes (the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado, and the Navajo Nation, which maintains the monument, in the other three states), the person could also be prosecuted in either tribal court if they have jurisdiction. And if the person is acquitted by any of these, it does not affect the others; the guy could be acquitted in Federal, Colorado, and both tribal courts, but convicted in Utah, or convicted or acquitted in all five, or any combination. They are all considered separate governments.
    • The rule on acquittals applies only to the same government. An acquittal ends a criminal prosecution by that government or any division or subsidiary. A prosecution by a city or county is considered the same as prosecution by a state, so acquittal in a city court means the state can't also prosecute, or vice versa. Also, there are no grounds for the prosecution to appeal an acquittal. If the judge makes a mistake, if the jury makes a mistake, or even if the defendant gets on the stand and lies his ass off, claiming they're innocent, none of these are grounds to overturn an acquittal. Even newly found evidence does not permit an acquittal to be overturned. (If the defendant did lie, they can be charged with perjury, but their acquittal would still stand. The jury has the right to decide if the evidence is valid or not and since the defendant often has a big incentive to lie, it's presumed the jury is aware the defendant might do this so if the jury believes them, that's the prosecution's problem. Actually, this point has never been tested; no person has ever been retried in the United States for the original crime where they lied about their guilt on the stand in their own case.)
    • In the entire history of the United States, only one person, Harry Aleman, has ever been tried twice for the same offense by the same government. Aleman, who was a thuggish assassin for the Chicago Mob with a brutal temper and a 4th grade education, killed a guy, then had a bench trial (trial by the judge alone, without a jury) where the judge had been bribed. The judge acquitted him. Later, the judge committed suicide over the guilt. Since the judge was bribed to throw the case, Aleman was never really at risk to suffer conviction (his trial was essentially a sham), so his acquittal and his right against double jeopardy were considered not applicable, and he could be tried a second time. He was tried again, and he was convicted. Aleman v. Honorable Judges of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, 138 F.3d 302 (1998).
    • So, only the intentional bribery of the judge in a bench trial or possibly bribing the jury, or an appeal of a judge's granting of a directed verdict of acquittal after the jury entered a guilty verdict, are the only possible ways an acquittal can be overturned.

And in civil lawsuits...

If it's a civil lawsuit rather than a criminal trial, replace the prosecutor with the Ambulance Chaser plaintiff's attorney and the criminal defense attorney with an equally-slick civil defense attorney hired by the defendant (if they're loaded) or their insurance company. The rough sequence for a civil case is:

  • Pleadings - in which the plaintiff accuses the defendant of wronging them in a complaint. This must be served upon the defendant, and a whole cottage industry of "process servers" exists to make sure the defendant physically receives the papers.note  Usually today, the defendant is mailed the complaint and the process server is only brought in if the defendant doesn't respond to the mailing, although as you might expect there are variations state to state (for instance, in Pennsylvania, process must be served by the county sheriff or one of the county sheriff's deputies, unless you're serving someone in Philadelphia, where you can use a private process server instead; on the other hand, across the Delaware in New Jersey, there are circumstances where all you have to do is send the papers by regular U.S. Mail and Certified Mail, return receipt requested, and then hope the certified mail is not returned as undeliverable). The defendant typically responds by an answer to the complaint, which very often will include their own complaints against the plaintiff(s) and possibly also against third-parties at the same time (which they are required to bring in the same case or else risk losing the opportunity to ever plead them under a doctrine known as "res judicata" or "claim preclusion"). Alternatively, the defendant can make any of several motions or pleadings, depending on the procedural rules of the jurisdiction, that seek to have the complaint dismissed or parts of it stricken on procedural grounds.note 
    • Examples of procedural motions would include claiming lack of jurisdiction by the court, insufficient service of process, or on the grounds of legal insufficiency—"motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted"—in which the defendant claims that even if everything in the complaint were true, the plaintiff hasn't made out a claim entitling them to any legal relief. If there is a clear legal result based on what is undisputed on the face of the parties' pleadings, either of the parties may make a motion for the court to enter a judgment based on the pleadings alone. For instance:
      1. If somebody tries to sue you for farting too loudly or some such stupidity, you will probably be able to move for dismissal for failure to state a claim and win. If the complaint is particularly ridiculous or the complainant is a perennial filer of asinine and worthless complaints, they may also be faced with economic sanctions or other punishments for wasting the court's time.
      2. If you sue someone and they don't respond at all, you can get a "default judgment" after waiting a certain amount of time, and try to get them to pay on that basis; this only works if they had no excuse for not responding (e.g. they were personally served with papers, they never even bothered to hire a lawyer, they never showed up in court, and it's been six or however many months).note 
      3. If you live in Illinois and someone from Florida tries to sue you in Florida court for punching them in the nose (what state you allegedly punched them in doesn't matter as long as it wasn't Florida) even though you have never even been to Florida, you can easily get that case dismissed based on a lack of personal jurisdiction. (They'll probably re-file in Illinois, though.)
      4. If the court can't hear the kind of case (a somewhat complicated issue), you can move to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. For example, to sue someone in Federal Court, the question must fall under either "federal question jurisdiction" or "diversity jurisdiction". The former requires that the case arise under federal law—either the Constitution, a federal statute or regulation, or a treaty to which the U.S. is a party. The latter involves a dispute in which all of the plaintiffs must be from different states than any of the defendants. However, an extra requirement applies in diversity cases only—the "amount in controversy" must be more than $75,000.note  If these requirements aren't met, the court must dismiss the case. In state courts, there are usually two classes of claim, the lower court (Municipal or District) which exclusively handles smaller cases (say up to $5,000 or so), and the higher court (Superior or Circuit) which can handle cases over $5,000 but up to, say, $15,000, in addition to the lower court, and exclusively handles cases over $15,000. So that means that if you are sued for less than $5,000 the plaintiff must file in the lower court; if the amount is $5,000 to $15,000 they can file in either court, and if the amount is over $15,000 they must file in the higher court. If they file in the wrong court, it doesn't have jurisdiction and must dismiss the case (or transfer it to the correct court).
      5. If the Statute of Limitations has passed, now is the time to bring that up.
      6. We would give an example of a service of process, but that's so technical we won't bother going into detail. Suffice it to say that a lot of it boils down to "the way you sent me the documents telling me I was being sued didn't properly come to me."
    • The above motions (except for dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, which is always proper) are proper only before the defendant has filed an answer (generally speaking); a few of these, particularly the motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, must be filed before any other substantive motionsnote  (or in the answer), or they are waived. Once the answer has been filed, either party may move for judgment on the pleadings. A decent example: If you sue someone for, say, punching you in the nose, and they are stupid enough to file an answer but not to deny that it happened (which depending on jurisdiction you can do just by saying "Denied" or "Denied. Defendant did not punch Plaintiff.") or present a defense, you as plaintiff might have a shot at judgment on the pleadings.
  • Discovery - Once the defendant has responded to the complaint, the long process of discovery begins. The parties have the right to demand vast quantities of information from each other to figure out the precise facts of the case for trial. There are motions and hearings throughout this phase as well to bring new claims, counterclaims, cross-claims, as well as to compel evidence and dismiss certain claims. This can all get very complicated very fast, can drag on for years, and is almost always the most expensive and time-consuming phase of civil litigation. Discovery in complex civil litigation often turns into a major contest in and of itself, as each side may try to strategically wear down the other's resources by forcing them to comply with burdensome discovery requests while seeking legal means to avoid having to produce material themselves, such as by claiming that it is outside the defined proper scope of discovery or is somehow protected or privileged. Courts do retain powers though to sanction (punish) parties and their attorneys who fail to comply with discovery or who otherwise abuse the process too flagrantly (by ordering them to pay money to the other party, requiring production of unfavorable evidence, deeming certain relevant issues admitted, admitting evidence that would not otherwise be admissible, or even dismissing a party's case outright in severe cases). Most cases will be resolved by the end of discovery, either by a settlement between the parties or by "summary judgment" by the court based on undisputed materialnote  facts produced in discovery.
  • Trial - If the parties haven't settled and the case hasn't been dismissed or disposed of through summary judgment, it goes to trial. Trials are intended to resolve remaining disputes of fact between the parties, rather than law or factual issues that have already been agreed upon or decided. The factual disputes they are intended to resolve may often be limited by summary judgment or stipulation by the parties, such as on the amount of damages even when one party has admitted liability (e.g.: "Dan and Penny agree that Dan broke their contract, but they don't agree on how much that's worth. Decide."). The United States is almost unique in using the jury in civil cases, though often with fewer jurors (six is a common number), depending on the jurisdiction and the case (in many civil cases, the attorneys agree to a specific number) and rarely requiring a unanimous verdict (but almost always requiring a supermajority—two short of unanimity is common, so if the jury is 10 jurors, 8 would be a typical required majority). However, cases heard in federal court "at common law" for money damages valued at over $20 (i.e. all non-equity cases field in federal court thanks to inflation) must, by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, be heard by a jury of twelve unless jury trial is waived, the parties agree on a smaller number (but in no case less than six), or the defendant is the federal government (which gets a pass because theoretically Uncle Sam can only be sued because he waived his sovereign immunity under limited circumstances). After each phase of the trial, the attorney for the opposing side may try to end it there by moving for a "directed verdict",note  a.k.a. "judgment as a matter of law (JMOL)", arguing that the evidence produced in the opposing side's case-in-chief wasn't enough to prove their side, and so the moving side wins "as a matter of law". You can even move for JMOL after the verdict—and parties often do—although it doesn't often succeed; this is also called "Judgment non obstante veredicto" (JNOV, Judgment notwithstanding the verdict). (The two were merged by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and many but not all states cheat off the federal courts for their own rules, so in some states the old names remain while others use the new merged motion. The effect is the same, though.)

    Some states allow a non-unanimous verdict of varying majority. Civil jury trials are most common in tort cases—incidentally the sort of civil case most similar to criminal ones—where the plaintiff has a strong incentive to favor going to trial, as juries tend to be sympathetic to tort plaintiffs and often give out pretty hefty judgments. Nevertheless, civil trials of all kinds are exceedingly rare (less than 5% of all cases end up here) and usually the end of the matter, provided there's no appeal.

    One more thing about criminal vs. civil trials: The prosecution in a criminal trial must prove to the jury "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant is guilty. This means if the jurors are not completely convinced that there is no other realistic possibility than "the defendant did it", then they are supposed to find them not guilty. On the other hand, civil trials are based on "the preponderance of the evidence", which means that the jury only has to find one side's argument more likely than the other's. To simplify: In a criminal trial, a verdict of "guilty" means "For us to be wrong about you doing it, God Himself would have to be personally screwing you over,"note  while in a civil trial, the verdict (for either side) means, "yeah, you're probably right."


If one party thinks the case has gone the wrong way, they can appeal the verdict to a higher court. This can only happen for matters of law, not of fact, unless the trier of fact has made a clear error in the findings of fact: "The evidence against me was improperly allowed" is a valid appeal, "I didn't do it" is not.note 

There is an exception for criminal cases in state court where the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death—by law a mandatory appeal is automatically filed to the State Supreme Court (or, in Oklahoma and Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals) which must approve the conviction for the sentence to be valid and carried out. The defendant cannot waive this appeal even if they wanted to be sentenced by the trial court and wanted to die quickly. Of course, if the defendant doesn't file any papers then the appellate court would only have the prosecution's side, so the conviction would be upheld anyway...

As a preliminary note, what follows below only covers appeals from trial courts of "general jurisdiction" (that is, normal trial courts) to standard appellate courts. Most court systems in the US have courts below the "general" trial courts, typically covering minor matters (traffic tickets, civil infractions,note  sometimes small claims, etc.). Usually, these cases can be appealed to the "general" trial court, although whether this is treated as an appeal (where your lawyers just argue the law before a judge) or as a new trial (where you get a jury) is highly dependent on where you are and what you're doing. In the federal system, the District Courts have two such systems: the Magistrate Judges (presiding over minor federal cases and preliminary stuff like pre-trial motions and applications for search and arrest warrants) and the Bankruptcy Courts (presiding over all bankruptcy cases filed in the district); both operate on the principle that they are formally more like pseudo-judges who "recommend" a decision to the "real" judges of the District Court, but in practice the decisions of Magistrate and Bankruptcy Judges are almost always adopted without comment.note 

An appellate court will typically have three judges presiding. Federal appeals generally go to the "Court of Appeals for the Nth Circuit", where N is a number from 1 to 11 (or Washington D.C., which has its own, as appeals from federal administrative agencies are under its jurisdiction). The circuits are laid out geographically. Here's a handy map. The federal court system also has a separate circuit, the Federal Circuit, defined by subject matter rather than geography; it is best known as the court of appeals for patents and government contracts. Circuit Courts are often saddled with the reputation of the city where they sit. The Ninth Circuit (San Francisco) is often criticized for being too liberal, the Second Circuit (New York City) being too pro-business, and the Fifth Circuit (New Orleans) being too harsh on criminal defendants, for example (also, the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago, is noted for its loyalty to the Law and Economics movement, thanks to the influence of the University of Chicago). Certain courts are also noted for their propensity to provide future Supreme Court justices: the D.C. Circuit is particularly noted (as it deals with a lot of heavy federal-law issues, particularly administrative law, and produced five of the current Justices, although the Ninth Circuit also gets attention (as there has been an unwritten rule that at least one Justice must be from the West Coast, preferably California—but it was broken after Ketanji Brown Jackson replaced San Francisco native Stephen Breyer in 2022),note  as do, to a lesser extent, the Second Circuit (because, um, it contains New York), and the Third Circuit (because it contains Delaware, where a lot of corporations are incorporated, and therefore it hears a lot of suits involving corporations and corporate/business law, which affects a lot of cases).

An important thing to note is that when a federal administrative agency makes a decision—be it by deciding a case (e.g. granting or denying a company's application to renew a permit) or by making a rule (e.g. by deciding what the criteria are to get a permit)—someone who disagrees may, depending on which agency it is, appeal the agency decision directly to a Court of Appeals, usually the D.C. Circuit (depending on the way the statute the agency is enforcing is worded; this is why so many Justices come from there). This is called a "petition for review" and is basically an appeal, but it's also weird because it can show up in the context of rule making (which is more like passing legislation than deciding a case).

State courts are broadly similar. Today, most states have intermediate appellate courts, of varying structures and with a bewildering variety of names. A few states have funky systems at the intermediate level—for instance, Pennsylvania has Superior Court for most appeals, but Commonwealth Court for suits involving state government agencies.note  However, it should be noted that intermediate appellate courts are a relatively recent phenomenon in most states—historically, all appeals would go directly to the highest court in the state (usually called the X Supreme Court or the Supreme Court of X, where "X" is the state, avoiding confusion with the federal United States Supreme Court). However, the sheer number of appeals grew over the years, and 40 of the 50 statesnote  established the intermediate appeals courts—which must hear all appealsnote —leaving the state supreme courts to hear only those cases which would have value as judicial precedent. In two of the states without an intermediate appellate court, New Hampshire and West Virginia, the supreme courts long operated under discretionary review in all cases, both civil and criminal, except for death penalty cases in New Hampshire (West Virginia has abolished the death penalty),note  but both states switched to mandatory review, respectively in 2004 and 2010.

Note that in both state and federal appeals, the appeal must only be on a single issue, and appellate courts can't look at any new evidence, but must rely on the trial court's record (or in administrative cases, the record produced by the agency). There will be no witnesses and no jury, simply the two attorneys arguing their cases before the judges. The appellate court's decision may affirm the trial court's decision, or may overturn the decision and order the proceedings to continue or a new trial to be granted depending on the specifics of the case. On certain procedural matters and rulings in trial court before a final judgment, an appellate court may review the lower court's decisions using an "interlocutory appeal" and either affirm the lower court's ruling or reverse it.

Bear in mind that just because a case is being tried in a particular state court does not mean that that state's law is being applied. This is a rather complicated issue called conflict of laws, on which law students can spend an entire semester—at least. Suffice it to say that any state or federal American court might be called upon to apply the law of any state, of the federal government, or of a foreign country; and in some cases (e.g. contract, where the contract so stipulates) it might even interpret religious law (e.g.: two Jewish or Muslim businessmen agree that their contract for the sale and purchase of, say, flour, will be governed by the Halakha or Sharia, respectively), although First Amendment issues usually preclude them from doing so (i.e. unless the contract specifies that the opinions of a particular rabbi or mufti will be binding, the court will decline to interpret the religious provision;note  a few legal scholars think this is too cautious, however). What matters for the average person is that this means that in many cases, state courts are permitted to hear—indeed, sometimes must hear—cases involving issues of federal law, and vice versa. It is in the former case—state interpretation of federal law—that we get the connection between the state and federal court systems.

United States Supreme Court

Should the loser of the appeal want to appeal again, and if they are appealing from federal court or state court of last resort based on issues of federal law, they must submit a petition to the Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court is the "court of last resort", and their decisions are final. As the highest court in the land note , the Supreme Court's time is very precious, and they will only accept a petition if the case is of national importance. Of the thousands of petitions they receive, less than 200 are typically accepted. The estimate is about 1% of all "petitions for writs of certiorari" (fancy talk meaning a notice filed with a lower court that the case is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court) is accepted by the court. If they don't accept the case, then the existing ruling stands, and that's final. The US Supreme Court (and many state supreme courts) practice "discretionary review", meaning that they decide whether or not they wish to review a particular case, as opposed to "mandatory review" by lower courts that must accept appeals.

In theory, the less than 200 cases they agree to accept are the ones where there is "national importance" regardless of the person petitioning. However, if you happen to pay attention, you would notice that rich and/or influential people seem to get their appeals heard far more often than would be expected. Or exactly as often as would be expected, depending on how cynical you are.

Also the terms for those involved are different. The party who files an appeal (the first name on the lawsuit) is still the "plaintiff" and the other party is the "defendant". In most appeals courts, the appealing party is the "appellant" and the responding party is the "appellee".note  In the U.S. Supreme Court, the one who files an appeal is the Petitioner, and the other party is the Respondent, e.g. in Roe v. Wade, Jane Roe (later revealed to be a woman named Norma McCorvey) was the Petitioner, while Henry Wade (the District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas) was the Respondent. The majority of the Supreme Court's work is in handling cases within its appellate jurisdiction, though it has original jurisdiction (meaning that it can be the first court to hear a particular case) in matters involving ambassadors and diplomats, or when one state is suing another. (To this day, a surprising number of cases in the Supreme Court—typically about 1-3 a year—are states suing each other, primarily because states do get into legal disputes with some regularity, and the "original jurisdiction" thing means that there's literally nowhere else they can sue one another—the Supreme Court can't turn them down. One imagines that the justices get rather annoyed and look upon all potential interstate disputes with some trepidation.)

Usually the Supreme Court decides whether a certain law or governmental practice violates the Constitution. If so, the law or practice is struck down as unconstitutional and all lower courts must follow this ruling in the future. Lower courts may also strike down a law as unconstitutional, but their rulings are only binding precedents within their own territorial jurisdictions. Indeed, the Supreme Court will frequently hear cases that are "circuit splits", where the US Courts of Appeals have come to different conclusions on the same issue, and in the absence of a "circuit split" the issue will probably be ignored unless it's seen as exceptionally important. The vast majority of the Supreme Court's work, however, is interpreting federal statute law, much of which is bone-dry and boring but very important nonetheless (e.g. industrial and commercial regulations), and reviewing administrative cases (based on statute law), which is even drier and more boring. Less common, but more interesting, are the occasional cases in admiralty (the law of torts and property at sea, which is exclusive to the federal courts).

Supreme Court decisions are a Big Deal, and massive outcries result whenever they do anything the least bit controversial. Whenever anyone refers to "activist judges", read "judges who made decisions I disagree with". This tends to come from both sides of the aisle, and the definition is recognized by both sides as well; at least one former Republican Solicitor General has agreed with said definition.


The court's membership does not have its number set by The Constitution; its size is set by Congressional statute, and it has been nine since 1869. The justices in alphabetical order are: Samuel A. Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas.

The last attempt to change it was by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it didn't go down well. FDR didn't like the fact that the Supreme Court was striking down a lot of the provisions of the New Deal that he was using to supposedly bring the country out of the Depression. So Roosevelt gets the idea to get Congress to increase the size of the Supreme Court from 9 to 14 membersnote , which means he could appoint 5 more that would vote his way, meaning with 9 votes in his favor the other 4 could complain all they wanted. Opponents saw this for what it clearly was, an attempt to "pack" the court with judges favorable to his ideology, and even Roosevelt's own Democratic Party was split as to whether it was appropriate or not. Thanks in part to the Democratic head of the House Judiciary Committee sitting on it, and the unexpected death of the bill's chief proponent in the Senate, the "court packing" bill went down in flames. Eventually the members of the Supreme Court started changing their minds and/or retiring, and as they started upholding FDR's agenda the whole issue became moot.

Members of the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The Senate does hearings and its confirmation is not always forthcoming—Reagan nominee Robert Bork wasn't confirmed, and recent nominee Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination when it became clear she wouldn't be either—but, since the usual practice is to have Congress informally vet a prospective nominee before officially nominating them, confirmation usually follows swiftly. Members stay in post until they retire, die or are impeached for misconduct.note  Justices are addressed as "Justice so-and-so", even outside the court, a weakened version of a tradition inherited from the British system. More stylistically-conservative legal scholars will generally use the full British terms of reference in writing; do not be surprised to see a constitutional law book speaking of "Mr. Justice Breyer", "Mr. Chief Justice Roberts", and "Madam Justice Sotomayor".

The Chief Justice is the guy in charge and assigns the writing of the majority opinion (if he is on the side of the majority; if not, the longest serving justice on the side of the majority assigns the writing of the majority opinion), and can assign it to themselves if they want. The current Chief Justice is John Roberts (2005-), meaning we are in the Roberts Court. It is split between liberals and conservatives, going 5-4 a fair bit these days. The previous Chief Justice was the late William Rehnquist, who spent 19 years in the post and quite a while as an Associate Justice before that. Rehnquist spent the last 10 years of his CJ period with four gold stripes on his robe, because he saw a production of Iolanthe and thought the Lord Chancellor's robes looked cool. Roberts did not continue the practice and everybody else wears plain black robes, although the women justices will from time to time wear a white collar (a tradition started by the first woman justice, Sandra Day O'Connor) along with the robes.

The Chief Justice also has additional responsibilities. He is also the administrator of the Federal Court system, which in effect means the Chief Justice has the equivalent responsibility of a Presidential Cabinet Department such as the State Department or the Department of Agriculture. The Chief Justice also selects the judges to be assigned to the super-secret FISA court which issues special warrants in cases where suspected Intelligence issues or sensitive National Security issues are involved. Traditionally the Chief Justice swears in the President, although any person who has the authority to swear someone to an oath may do so. In theory that means the President could be sworn in by a notary public.note  Lyndon Johnson famously took the oath of office while on a plane trip back from Dallas (administered by a local federal judge—interestingly, this was Sarah T. Hughes, only the third female federal judge and the only woman ever to administer the Oath to a President) after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Finally, the Chief Justice presides at any trial by the Senate of the President, which has happened only three times in US history, each time ending in acquittal. The first was of Andrew Johnson in 1868, who kept his job by one vote, which is impressive considering that it requires 2/3 of the Senate to convict. The next was Bill Clinton 130 years later, who faced two counts and actually had a majority vote to acquit him on one of them and an even 50-50 on the other. The most recent was that of Donald Trump in 2020, who was acquitted by majority vote on both counts he faced. All three of these trials were highly politicized; the only trial in which any member of the President's party voted to convict was that of Trump,note  and in Johnson's case the whole thing was an elaborate scheme designed to kick him out for political reasons; the statute he was accused of violating was blatantly unconstitutional, so although he blatantly violated the law, he was perfectly within his rights.Added note 

It is not necessary to be an Associate Justice before being Chief Justice (Roberts was appointed Chief Justice without ever having served as an Associate Justice),note  nor is it necessary to have been a judge before being appointed to the Supreme Court (Kagan had never been a judge before being appointed to the High Court). Earl Warren, Chief Justice 1953-1969, combines both, having been appointed Chief Justice directly from being Governor of California, and having only ever been a prosecutor previously. Technically, the Constitution doesn't even require a Supreme Court Justice to be a lawyer, although the President is not going to appoint someone who isn't a lawyer to the court unless he wants the nomination to fail, because the American Bar Association is going to come back and declare the nominee unqualified.

To prevent the Supreme Court from becoming (overly) political, an appointment to the court is for life (or until retirement... or theoretically impeachment, but this has been attempted once with Justice Samuel Chase in 1804–05, and that was over conduct as trial judge in the circuit courts, something Justices still did then, where he was acquitted of all charges-it would no doubt require extreme misconduct by a Justice to even be considered by Congress now). In theory, by removing the need to be reappointed or re-elected, the Justices can decide matters of law based solely on the law. In practice, this has been less likely in the last century as presidents tend to nominate candidates who match their politics (going back as far as Taft, if not even farther), but the principle is sound. And of course there's no guarantee that a Justice's politics will remain unchanged for their entire lifetime.

Fun fact: From the 2010 retirement of John Paul Stevens until Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Court in 2022, there were no undisputed Protestants on the Court. Justices Breyer and Kagan are Jewish; Justices Roberts, Alito, Barrett, Kavanaugh, Sotomayor, and Thomas are Catholic. Gorsuch was born and raised Catholic but currently attends an Episcopal church; he has not publicly stated whether he considers himself Catholic or Protestant. The nine current members, in order of seniority, are as follows:

  1. Chief Justice John Roberts (appointed in 2005) - Nominated by George W. Bush. For more information on him, see the list of Chief Justices below.
  2. Clarence Thomas (appointed in 1991) – Nominated by George H. W. Bush, and the oldest current Justice following the 2022 retirement of Stephen Breyer. Born and raised in and around Savannah, Georgia, and the only current Justice not to have English as a first language, having spoken the creole language Gullah as a child. Appointed from the D.C. Circuit, to which he was also appointed by Bush. The second African American to sit on the Court, and the only one before Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Court in 2022 (he replaced the first, Thurgood Marshall). The most conservative current Justice, probably. His confirmation hearings were an infamous scandal involving sexual harassment charges from a woman working under him in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. Before COVID-19, he was notable for only speaking during a hearing once every few years; a 2016 gun rights case was the first time he had asked questions from the bench since 2006. (Before his 2016 questions, his last remark from the bench was a joke at the expense of Yale, his law school alma mater, in 2013.) This is part of his general opinion that oral argument is a pointless waste of time and the justices should just decide things on the briefs (some have argued that it's just for show, with the Justices making up their minds regardless); he sometimes (visibly) sleeps with the lawyers right in front of him (he'll lean his head back and look like he's staring at the ceiling). However, he was also disdainful of the court's practice of allowing justices to ask questions at any time with no particular order. When the court was forced to go to remote oral arguments due to COVID, it adopted a new procedure in which the justices took turns asking questions in order of seniority, and stayed with that practice when it resumed in-person arguments in the 2021–22 term. Since this procedural change, Thomas has participated regularly in oral arguments, even asking the very first questions in the 2021–22 term. Incidentally, he's one of only two current Justices (the other being Amy Coney Barrett) to not have received his or her bachelor's degree at an Ivy League school, having graduated from Holy Cross.note 
  3. Samuel Alito (appointed in 2006) – Nominated by George W. Bush. Born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey.note  Appointed from the Third Circuit, to which he was appointed by George H. W. Bush. One of the court's staunchest conservatives, but also has a bit of a libertarian twist. He previously served in the Army. Detractors had already nicknamed him "Scalito" even before his elevation to the Supreme Court, due to the perception that he would agree with fellow Trenton conservative Antonin Scalia on nearly everything.note  Most notably, he wrote the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the 2022 case which overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
  4. Sonia Sotomayor (appointed in 2009) – Nominated by Barack Obama. Born and raised in the Bronx. Appointed from the Second Circuit, to which she was appointed by Bill Clinton, having previously served on the District Court for the Southern District of New York, to which she was appointed by George H. W. Bush. On the liberal side, and many of her rulings and comments lead some of her conservative detractors to conclude that she is a racist. note  She's almost universally considered the first Hispanic American to serve on the Court (her parents were born in Puerto Rico).note  She is possibly the first sitting Justice to get "Sesame Street" Cred, appearing on two episodes of Sesame Street in 2012.note 
  5. Elena Kagan (appointed in 2010) – Nominated by Barack Obama. Born and raised in Manhattan. Appointed from being Solicitor General under Obama. Was the youngest Justice until Gorsuch was confirmed. On the liberal side. Noted for her wit and intelligence, she is considered to be the best writer on the current Court, a mantle she inherited when Justice Scalia passed away in 2016 (and before he passed on, it was stiff competition between them). This is kind of funny, as to some degree, she had taken up her predecessor John Paul Stevens' mantle of being the relatively common-sense justice who gets into occasional tiffs with Scalia.note 
  6. Neil Gorsuch (appointed in 2017) – Nominated by Donald Trump. Born and raised in Denver until the family moved to the D.C. area when his mother was appointed EPA administrator in 1981; he graduated from high school in that area. Appointed from the Tenth Circuit, to which he was appointed by George W. Bush. A Harvard Law classmate of Obama, but worlds apart from him (and most of his other classmates) in political philosophy. A strong proponent of originalism, much like Scalia, whose seat he filled. His nomination was one of the more contentious in contemporary American history, with the Republican-controlled Senate invoking the so-called "nuclear option"—changing Senate rules to block filibusters—to put him on the Court. (To be fair, neither major party had clean hands; when Democrats controlled the Senate, they changed the rules in 2013 to ban filibustering lower-court appointees.)
  7. Brett Kavanaugh (appointed in 2018) – Nominated by Donald Trump. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in its Maryland suburbs. Appointed from the DC Circuit, to which he was appointed by George W. Bush. As contentious as the nominations of Thomas and Gorsuch were, Kavanaugh's was arguably those taken up to eleven. Since he was widely viewed as a judicial conservative and was nominated to replace former swing vote Anthony Kennedy, he immediately ran into bitter opposition from Democrats. During the nomination process, he had been accused of sexual abuse in high school and college, with stances on the charges falling pretty much along party lines. In the end, he was narrowly confirmed on an almost completely party-line vote.note 
  8. Amy Coney Barrett (appointed in 2020) – Nominated by Donald Trump. Born in New Orleans and raised in the adjacent suburb of Metairie. Appointed from the Seventh Circuit, to which she was appointed by Trump, and the youngest current Justice (born in 1972). Barrett's nomination was nearly as contentious as that of Kavanaugh, but for quite different reasons. A deeply devout Catholic with seven children, including two adopted from Haiti, and like Kavanaugh seen as a judicial conservative, she was nominated to replace the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The contentiousness involved the timing—Ginsburg died less than two months before the Presidential election, and Democrats wanted no vote until after the start of the next presidential term. Republicans, who controlled the Senate at the time, saw things differently. That said, her former colleagues at Notre Dame's law school, where she had been a professor before being appointed to the Seventh Circuit, publicly lauded her intellectual fairness. She was narrowly confirmed, like Kavanaugh on an almost totally party-line vote.note  Barrett is the only current Justice who did not attend an Ivy League or equivalent law school, having received her law degree from Notre Dame. She and Thomas are also the only current Justices who did not attend an Ivy as undergraduates; Barrett attended Rhodes College, a small liberal arts school in Memphis.
  9. Ketanji Brown Jackson (appointed in 2022) – Nominated by Joe Biden. Jackson is the third African-American Justice, with her arrival marking the first time that two African Americans have been on the Court. Born in D.C. and raised in Miami, and a Harvard product for both her bachelor's and law degrees. Appointed from the DC Circuit, to which Biden had appointed her shortly after his inauguration in 2021; she had been interviewed for the vacancy following Scalia's death in 2016, when she was serving on the D.C. federal District Court, to which she was appointed by Barack Obama. She was nominated shortly after Stephen Breyer announced his retirement from the Court, and her nomination was somewhat contentious (though not as much as those of Thomas, Kavanaugh, or Barrett) for a couple of reasons. The first was that Biden had publicly stated that he would only consider an African-American woman for the vacancy, leading to criticism from (1) those who believed race and sex should play little or no role in judicial nominations and (2) the more strident members of other minority groups. The second was that certain Republicans painted her as an extreme liberal, although seeing that she was replacing a member of the liberal wing in Breyer, it wasn't upsetting the ideological balance on the Court. With the Senate split 50-50, with no Democrats opposing her and Biden's VP Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaker, Jackson's confirmation was seen as certain, and three Republicans ended up crossing the aisle to vote for confirmation.

There have been seventeen Chief Justices in American history. They are, with a summary:

    Chief Justices 

  • John Jay (1789 – 1795) – Nominated by George Washington. A Founding Father, having been a member of the Continental Congress from his native New York, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, ending The American Revolution, and co-wrote the Federalist Papers with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The Court only heard four cases during his time, and Jay had so little to do that he actually spent most of his time doing other things for President Washington, including negotiating Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain, securing fair trading rights for the United States. Jay actually resigned from the Supreme Court to serve as governor of New York, a testimony to just how powerless it was back then. Still, the Court established a few notable precedents, such as the reading of commissions and that the Court can only rule on constitutionality of a legislation, and not take a position on it. In the last days of John Adams' presidency, Jay was once again nominated as Chief Justice and was confirmed by the Senate, but he declined the position and John Marshall was appointed instead. John Jay College, a criminal justice school in New York City, was named for him.
  • John Rutledge (1795) – The Justice with the shortest term as Chief Justice and the shortest term as Associate Justice, though not the shortest overall tenure on the Court. A South Carolinian, nominated by George Washington. He was previously an Associate Justice, but resigned a few years before Washington appointed him Chief Justice. He had also been Governor of South Carolina. Rutledge was a recess appointment meant to take over after Jay’s resignation, and since the Senate was not in session he began immediately. Unfortunately, his very public criticism of both the Washington administration and the Senate did not gain him any favors, and when the Senate resumed session later that year, they unanimously rejected his appointment. There were only two cases during his few months. His term of 138 days as Chief Justice is the shortest ever, as is his 383 days as Associate Justice.
  • Oliver Ellsworth (1796 – 1800) – Nominated by George Washington. Only had four cases, didn’t get to do too much. Only notable accomplishment was affirming that the President is not involved in the process of amending the Constitution, leaving it only to Congress and the states. Before being Chief Justice, he was a Senator from Connecticut.
  • John Marshall (1801 – 1835) – Nominated by John Adams. The longest-serving Chief Justice and the fourth longest-serving Justice. Widely considered to be the best, he’s the one who made the judicial branch the equal of the other two in the federal government. In his ruling in Marbury v. Madison, Marshall established that federal courts have the power of judicial review (a concept that was not found in the text of the Constitution, although not incompatible with it), which gives them the power to declare if a law is or is not constitutional. He made loads of other important rulings, too, such as affirming that the federal government can pass new laws that are deemed “necessary and proper” and that states have to follow Supreme Court decisions and federal laws. Also established the practice of giving unified majority opinions on a case, rather than having each Justice author an opinion (issuing opinions "seriatim", in formal "cool" legal Latin, which was the tradition at the time in the British courts). This makes things much less complicated. Marshall clashed with Andrew Jackson on the matter of Indian removal (the Supreme Court decided the Cherokee could not be removed-Jackson ignored the ruling and did it anyway). Before becoming Chief Justice, he served as Secretary of State and Representative from Virginia. A scion of an old Virginia military and political family; World War II general and later Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense (under Harry S. Truman) George C. Marshall (he of the Marshall Plan) was related to him. Marshall University was named after him.
  • Roger B. Taney (1836 – 1864) – Nominated by Andrew Jackson. A Marylander and the first Catholic to sit on the Court. He previously served as Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury, the latter in a recess appointment that was rejected by the Senate. He was previously nominated to an Associate Justice seat, but that nomination wasn’t acted on before the end of that Senate session. While the Marshall Court tended to favor giving power to the federal government in their decisions, the Taney Court usually favored the states. Slavery was becoming the big issue of the country while he was Chief Justice, and a lot of Court decisions during his time have to do with the subject. These include the Amistad case. However, one in particular has found its place in the history books – the infamous Dred Scott decision. In 1857's Dred Scott v. Sandford, he ruled that African-Americans, whether free men or slaves, were not legally citizens of the United States, could not become free by entering free territory, had no legal rights, and that Congress could not outlaw slavery. Abolitionists' outrage over the Dred Scott decision was yet another factor pushing the nation closer to the impending Civil War. Abraham Lincoln may or may not have sought to throw Taney in prison (rumors to this effect spread even at the time but evidence has always been lacking), and some in Congress sought to impeach him. Understandably, he's usually called the worst for that case alone. Taney County, Missouri, home of the popular tourist town of Branson, is named for him.
  • Salmon P. Chase (1864 – 1873) – Nominated by Abraham Lincoln. The first Chief Justice not from the East Coast (although born in New Hampshire, he was raised in Ohio—Cincinnati, to be exact). He was a noted abolitionist in the years before the The American Civil War, and he served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. Before that, he served as Senator and Governor of Ohio. During the Civil War, he transformed the American currency system and introduced a modern system of banknotes. Chase was a very vain man and put his face on the bills he designed in an attempt to build up his popular support. He wanted to run for President and had previously challenged Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860, but Lincoln convinced him not to on the promise that he'd become Chief Justice when old Taney finally kicked the bucket. Most notable for his support of rights for African Americans and generally ruling in favor of Reconstruction. Chase admitted the first African-American attorney to argue a case before the Supreme Court. He presided over the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, the first of four presidential impeachment trials in American history. He would later unsuccessfully seek the Presidential nomination for the Democratic Party in 1868 and the Liberal Republican Party in 1872. The Court expanded from six to nine members while he was Chief Justice. He's on the $10,000 bill, which has been discontinued since 1969. He is the namesake of Chase Bank, one of the nation's largest, although he had nothing to do with its founding. A law school that started its life in Cincinnati and moved across the Ohio River when it was taken over by Northern Kentucky University also bears his name.
  • Morrison Waite (1874 – 1888) – Nominated by Ulysses S. Grant. Another Ohioan (albeit born in Connecticut; his father had been Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court). Not a great mind, but he was good at making sure everyone else on the Court was doing their job well. The Court pretty much accepted every case to come before it during his time, and decided nearly three and a half thousand cases. His time is most notable for overturning the Reconstruction laws that protected African Americans, leading to the Jim Crow era.
  • Melville Fuller (1888 – 1910) – Nominated by Grover Cleveland. From Maine. Fuller avoided military service during the Civil War, and the Senate nearly didn’t confirm him because of this. The phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” – which is engraved on the Supreme Court building – comes from one of his rulings, though it is really a Beam Me Up, Scotty!. The notorious Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which legalized racial segregation and gave the world the infamous phrase "separate but equal", was given during his time on the bench, with Fuller joining the Associate Justice who gave the ruling.
  • Edward Douglass White (1910 – 1921) – Nominated by William Howard Taft. Was previously an Associate Justice since 1894, having been appointed by Grover Cleveland. Before that, he was a Senator from Louisiana. The second Catholic Chief Justice, and a Louisianan, he probably fought with the Confederacy during the Civil War, though this has not been definitively proven. Surprisingly, White declared in one case that grandfather clauses in Southern literacy tests (which were basically meant to prevent black men from voting) were illegal. Established the “rule of reason”, which basically means that only businesses which unreasonably restrict or interfere with interstate trade can be affected by anti-trust laws. Also determined that conscription is legal.
  • William Howard Taft (1921 – 1930) – Nominated by Warren G. Harding. Yet another Ohioan; his family is one of the great political dynasties of the Buckeye State. More famous for being President, but Taft’s lifelong dream was actually being Chief Justice, and this came true 8 years after his presidency was over; he remains the only person to have ever held both offices. He had previously served on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals from 1892 to 1900, having been appointed by Benjamin Harrison. Generally held to be a much better Chief Justice than a President, and he even once joked “I do not remember that I was ever President.” He’s the one who pushed for the construction of a separate Supreme Court Building (one of the last great Neoclassical structures built in D.C.), rather than have the Court meet in the Old Senate Chamber of the Capitol building, though this didn’t happen until after his death. He helped reform the country’s judicial system, added the courts of the territories and the District of Columbia into the federal court system, and gave the Court the power to decide whether or not to take a case. The Nineteenth Amendment (women's suffrage) was unanimously upheld as constitutional (it had been claimed to not apply in states which didn't ratify it, an argument the Court unanimously rejected as legally nonsensical).
  • Charles Evans Hughes (1930 – 1941) – Nominated by Herbert Hoover. Originally from Upstate New York, he was Woodrow Wilson's Republican opponent in the 1916 presidential election Secretary of State under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge before joining the Court as Chief Justice; before that, he had been Governor of New York. Like Rutledge before him, Hughes was previously an Associate Justice, having been appointed by William Howard Taft and serving in the position in between his stints as Governor of New York and Secretary of State, but resigned – this was during his presidential run and he didn't think he should be on the Court in case something happened. A lot of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation which made its way to the Court was ruled unconstitutional (though Hughes was a swing voter), leading FDR to try and add six extra Justices. Hughes worked behind the scenes to prevent it from passing in Congress, and one of the conservative Associate Justices, Owen Roberts, started voting in favor of FDR's laws, thus saving the Court.
  • Harlan F. Stone (1941 – 1946) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Born in New Hampshire, but he relocated to New York City, where he practiced law and was a law professor at Columbia. A fairly apolitical figure as Chief Justice, he was the first Chief Justice never to have held elective office, and had been Attorney General under Calvin Coolidge for a little less than a year before Silent Cal appointed him as an Associate Justice, where he went on to become one of the liberal "Three Musketeers" of the 1930s. The only Justice thus far to hold all nine positions on the Court, having worked his way up from most junior Associate Justice to most senior Associate Justice and then to Chief Justice. One of the less consequential Chief Justices, his primary "legacy" was upholding Japanese-American internment as legal. Also infamously called the Nuremberg trials "a fraud" to the Germans. Given the lax at best standards of evidence, the fact that some of the crimes being tried were only retroactively defined as such and the fact that all of this rigging wasn't even necessary given the obvious guilt of most of the defendants, he had actually had a point in that regard, but the man who upheld Japanese-American interment complaining about an unfair court is rather blatant hypocrisy. He had a cerebral hemorrhage during an open session and died later that day.
  • Fred M. Vinson (1946 – 1953) – Nominated by Harry Truman. A member of a prominent Kentucky political family, Vinson had been Truman’s friend since they both served in Congress (Truman as a Senator from Missouri, Vinson in the House from Kentucky) in the 1930s. One of the few people to serve in all three branches; besides representing Kentucky in Congress, he (briefly) served as Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury. He also sat on the D.C. Circuit from 1937 to 1943, having been appointed to the position by Franklin D. Roosevelt before resigning to become Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization. Currently the last Chief Justice appointed by a Democrat. Most notable for refusing to hear the appeal of the Hollywood Ten during the early years of the Cold War.
  • Earl Warren (1953 – 1969) – Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Previously California's Attorney General and later Governor and the 1948 Republican vice presidential nominee, Warren was the mastermind behind Japanese internment. He seemed to highly regret this decision later in life and tried to make up for it with his Court rulings. Eisenhower nominated him expecting Warren to be a conservative, but he shocked everyone by taking the Court in a highly liberal direction.note  Starting with Brown v. Board of Education, which ended school segregation, the Warren Court gave several rulings which considerably changed American politics. The Warren Court fought against racism and segregation, required states to allow interracial marriage, and ruled in favor of civil rights bills. Other notable achievements of the Warren Court include declaring schools cannot force students to read the Bible or pray, declaring that withholding evidence is illegal, that state legislature districts must be roughly equal in population (“one man, one vote”), that police officers have to tell someone their rights when they are arrested, that there is a right to privacy, that “actual malice” had to be proven to sue a newspaper for libel, courts have to provide counsel for those who can’t afford one themselves, and that contraceptives are completely legal. Widely controversial during his time, there were many “Impeach Earl Warren” signs across the Deep South while he was on the bench. Considered the most powerful Chief Justice besides Marshall, and usually ranks behind only him. As a side note, he also chaired the Warren Commission, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, thus earning him a place in JFK conspiracy lore.
  • Warren E. Burger (1969 – 1986) – Nominated by Richard Nixon. Originally from Minnesota. Was appointed from the D.C. Circuit, to which he had been appointed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Much to Nixon’s anger, the Burger Court did not reverse Warren Court decisions and, in fact, extended some of them. During the Watergate scandal, the Court ruled against Nixon and forced him to release tapes which would prove his guilt in covering up the full extent of the scandal. Like Warren, Burger initially moved the Court in a liberal direction, but he moved to the right over time. He wasn’t well-liked by the other Justices because he was clearly biased when he assigned rulings, giving his friends easy ones and his enemies difficult ones. He would often switch his vote in favor of positions he actually opposed just to do this once it became clear his side had lost, because the Chief Justice can only assign the writing of the majority opinion if he's part of the majority. The highly divisive Roe v. Wade decision was made during his time. Additionally, his Court gave a ruling which invalidated all existing death penalty laws but didn’t make the death penalty illegal. While Taney is still understandably considered the worst Chief Justice, Burger is widely seen as the least competent.
  • William Rehnquist (1986 – 2005) – Nominated by Ronald Reagan. Swedish-American from Wisconsin. He was an Associate Justice for 14 years before becoming Chief, having been appointed to the position by Richard Nixon. A conservative Justice, he tried to limit the growth of federal power after decades of liberal expansion. Typically favored states in his decisions. Rehnquist ran the Court fairly after the overbearing Burger alienated the other Justices, which made him well-liked even by those who disagreed with him. (In)famously wore four yellow stripes on his robes after seeing a production of Iolanthe and liking the Lord Chancellor's robes. Also infamously had to defend himself against charges of racism during his confirmation hearing, as during his time as a clerk to Justice Robert H. Jackson he wrote a memo arguing that Plessy v. Ferguson should not be overturned. Rehnquist insisted that this memo reflected Justice Jackson's opinion and not his own, and though Jackson's secretary insisted that he never had clerks do this and most scholars of the Court find Rehnquist's explanation implausible, he was easily confirmed. On the other hand Rehnquist on several times wrote opinions that relied on Brown v. Board of Education as precedent, so if that memo reflected his beliefs at the age of 28 it's unlikely he still believed in segregation by the time of his appointment. He presided over the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, becoming the second Chief Justice to do so.
  • John Roberts (2005 – Present) – Nominated by George W. Bush. Born in Buffalo, New York; moved to northern Indiana when he was nine. The current guy. Dubya had previously appointed him to the DC Circuit; before then, he served as Principal Deputy Solicitor General under George H. W. Bush and had spent a good deal of time arguing cases on appeal, particularly before the Supreme Court, and teaching as an adjunct at Georgetown University Law Center. (Also, Bush Sr. had attempted to appoint him to the US District Court for the District of Columbia, but that went nowhere.) He was initially nominated to be Associate Justice to replace the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor, but was instead nominated as Chief Justice after Rehnquist's death. He basically has the same leadership style as Rehnquist. Initially considered to be a conservative, he’s been gaining a reputation as a swing voter lately, especially after he unexpectedly voted in favor of Obamacare. He probably did this to limit the scope of the decision, though. We’ll see how he votes on later issues. Roberts infamously messed up Obama’s Oath of Office during his first inauguration (resulting in his liberal critics gleefully nicknaming him the "Oaf of Office"), though they met again the next day to do it correctly. The third Chief Justice to have presided over a presidential impeachment trial, that of Donald Trump. Only 50 years old when he became Chief Justice, Roberts will probably be around for a long time.

There have been 104 Associate Justices. In addition to the eight serving Associate Justices and former Chief Justices Rutledge, White, Hughes, Stone, and Rehnquist, some others are discussed below, listed in reverse chronological order from when they left office.

    Former Associate Justices 
  • Stephen Breyer (appointed in 1994, served until 2022) – Nominated by Bill Clinton. Born and raised in San Francisco and appointed from the First Circuit, to which he was appointed by Jimmy Carter. Generally on the liberal side. He believes that the point of government policy is to encourage the public and voters to get involved in government decisions.
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (appointed in 1993, served until 2020) – Nominated by Bill Clinton. Born and raised in Brooklyn. Appointed from the D.C. Circuit, to which she was appointed by Jimmy Carter. Before her passing, she was the oldest current Justice. The second woman to sit on the Court, following Sandra Day O'Connor. Generally on the liberal side. Known for her support of women's rights; her appointments to the D.C. Circuit and then the Supreme Court grew out of her prominence as the premier women's rights lawyer in the country in the late 1970s. Something of a Memetic Badass to left-wing political geeks, earning her the nickname "The Notorious RBG" (which seemed to amuse her). Had a standing dinner appointment and celebrated Christmas with Antonin Scalia, with whom she was very close friends despite their disagreements, until he died in 2016. This dated back to before either of them was appointed to the Supreme Court, as they had previously served together on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. During her confirmation hearings some Senate Democrats actually found this worrying, fearing that Scalia would be able to sway her vote. Her disparaging comments regarding Donald Trump in two successive interviews shortly before he became the 2016 Republican presidential nominee raised the ire of many critics on both sides of the political aisle, believing that her impartiality could now be called into question. Subject of not one, but two feature films in 2018—the documentary RBG and biopic On the Basis of Sex. Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020 after a long battle with metastatic pancreatic cancer.
  • Anthony Kennedy (appointed in 1988, served until 2018) – Nominated by Ronald Reagan. Born and raised in Sacramento, California. Not related to those other Kennedys. Appointed from the Ninth Circuit, to which he was appointed by Gerald Ford. Famous for being a swing vote. Something of a libertarian, he believes in states' rights but also believes that some individual rights come first. Gave some rulings that were major gains for the gay community (e.g. United States v. Windsor (2013), requiring the federal government to recognize gay marriages performed in the US; Lawrence v. Texas (2003), holding bans on gay sex unconstitutional; and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), making same-sex marriage a right nationwide.)
  • Antonin Scalia (appointed in 1986, served until 2016) – Nominated by Ronald Reagan. Born in Trenton, New Jersey; he was raised in Trenton and Queens. Appointed from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to which he was also appointed by Reagan. Known for his short-fuse of a temper and erudite if dyspeptic judicial snark, and blunt and direct but still excellent writing style. One of the Court's most conservative Justices throughout his tenure. He (in)famously believed the federal government has the authority to regulate morality if it wishes. A great Grammar Nazi, he wrote books with Bryan A. Garner to help improve lawyers' prose; he was generally considered the best writer on the court until Kagan made it a contest. Shortly after his passing in 2016, George Mason University renamed its law school after him.
  • John Paul Stevens (appointed in 1975, served until 2010) – Nominated by Gerald Ford. Appointed from the Seventh Circuit, to which he was appointed by Richard Nixon. While he was moderately conservative during his appellate court service and early Supreme Court tenure, he had moved to the liberal wing by the end of his service. The longest-lived Justice ever, passing away at age 99 in 2019, and also the second-oldest to serve (behind Oliver Wendell Holmes), retiring about a week before turning 90.
  • David Souter (appointed in 1990, served until 2009) – Nominated by George H. W. Bush. Appointed from the First Circuit, to which he was also appointed by Bush. Had previously served as Attorney General of New Hampshire and on the New Hampshire Supreme Court. It's said that Bush nominated him because there were no records about his stances on controversial issues, therefore, the Democratic majority of the senate, at that time, had no reason to vote against him. The move backfired when he started becoming a reliable vote for the liberal bloc. He ended up retiring when Democrats had the presidency and a Senate supermajority, giving Obama the chance to easily appoint a young liberal judge like Sotomayor.
  • Sandra Day O'Connor (appointed in 1981, served until 2006) – Nominated by Ronald Reagan. First female Justice. Previously served on the Arizona Court of Appeals. While she often sided with the conservative wing, she was a swing vote later on. Immediately after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Arizona State University named its law school after her. Currently the oldest living former Justice, having turned 93 in March 2023.
  • Harry Blackmun (appointed in 1970, served until 1994) – Nominated by Richard Nixon. Appointed from the Eight Circuit, to which he was appointed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Author of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, the case that made abortion a right. While initially voting similarity to Chief Justice Warren Burger, whom he was good friends with, he eventually became one of the most liberal justices.
  • Byron White (appointed in 1962, served until 1993) – Nominated by John F. Kennedy. Was formerly Deputy Attorney General under Kennedy. A moderate justice who won the Heisman Trophy as a college running back at Colorado, where he was nicknamed "Whizzer", and played in the NFL before going to law school. JFK said he had excelled at everything when he announced his nomination.
  • Thurgood Marshall (appointed in 1967, served until 1991) – Nominated by Lyndon Johnson. First African-American Justice. Was previously LBJ's Solicitor General and was on the Second Circuit, to which he was appointed by John F. Kennedy. As Chief Counsel for the NAACP, he successfully argued many cases before the Supreme Court, most notably Brown v. Board of Education. He was a leader of the liberal bloc. Marshall's name was added to that of Baltimore/Washington International Airport in 2005.
  • William J. Brennan Jr. (appointed in 1956, served until 1990) – Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Previously served as an Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. A Democrat, he was one of the most liberal appointees, voting with Thurgood Marshall almost all the time.
  • Lewis F. Powell Jr. (appointed in 1972, served until 1987) – Nominated by Richard Nixon. A Democrat, he was seen as a moderate swing vote.
  • Potter Stewart (appointed in 1958, served until 1981) – Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Appointed from the Sixth Circuit, to which he was also appointed by Eisenhower. Most famous for the phrase "I know it when I see it", stated in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, a 1964 obscenity case.Context  He was a swing vote.
  • William O. Douglas (appointed in 1939, served until 1975) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Longest serving Supreme Court Justice. Was previously Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Considered to be the most liberal justice.
  • John Marshall Harlan II (appointed in 1955, served until 1971) – Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Appointed from the Second Circuit, to which he was also appointed by Eisenhower. Grandson of the first Justice Harlan (see below). He was generally a conservative.
  • Hugo Black (appointed in 1937, served until 1971) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Previously a Senator from Alabama. He was part of the liberal wing.
  • Abe Fortas (appointed in 1965, served until 1969) – Nominated by Lyndon Johnson. He was unsuccessfully nominated by Johnson as Chief Justice. He was in the liberal bloc.
  • Tom C. Clark (appointed in 1949, served until 1967) – Nominated by Harry Truman. Was previously Attorney General under Truman and father of Ramsay Clark, who served in the same position under Lyndon Johnson. He was a swing vote.
  • Arthur Goldberg (appointed in 1962, served until 1965) – Nominated by John F. Kennedy. Had previously served as Kennedy's Secretary of Labor and resigned from the Court to become Ambassador to the United Nations under Lyndon Johnson. He was in the liberal bloc.
  • Felix Frankfurter (appointed in 1939, served until 1962) Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. An immigrant from Austria-Hungary (and the last foreign-born Justice to date), Frankfurter was generally considered a liberal on the court, but strongly opposed judicial intervention.
  • Charles Evans Whittaker (appointed in 1957, served until 1962) – Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Appointed from the 8th Circuit, having previously served on the District Court for the Western District of Missouri, both to which he was also appointed by Eisenhower. While he had enough legal knowledge and experience to be a judge, his lack of a defined ideology made him an indecisive justice. He retired after a nervous breakdown trying to decide his vote on landmark case Baker v. Carr. He was a swing vote.
  • Harold Hitz Burton (appointed in 1945, served until 1958) – Nominated by Harry S. Truman. Previously a Senator from Ohio and Mayor of Cleveland. He was a centrist on the court.
  • Stanley Forman Reed (appointed in 1938, served until 1957) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Was previously Solicitor General under Roosevelt. He was considered a swing vote.
  • Sherman Minton (appointed in 1949, served until 1956) – Nominated by Harry S. Truman. Appointed from the Seventh Circuit, to which he was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Had previously served as Senator from Indiana. He was conservative-leaning. The bridge that carries Interstate 64 across the Ohio River from his childhood home of New Albany, Indiana to Louisville bears his name.
  • Robert H. Jackson (appointed in 1941, served until 1954) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Had previously been both Attorney General and Solicitor General under Roosevelt.
  • Wiley Blount Rutledge (appointed in 1943, served until 1949) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Appointed from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to which he was also appointed by Roosevelt.
  • Frank Murphy (appointed in 1940, served until 1949) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Had previously served as Attorney General and Governor of Michigan.
  • Owen Roberts (appointed in 1930, served until 1945) – Nominated by Herbert Hoover. He was a swing vote on the court.
  • James F. Byrnes (appointed in 1941, served until 1942) – Nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Previously a Senator and Representative from South Carolina. Left the Court to head a key agency in the homefront during WWII; would later serve as Secretary of State and Governor of South Carolina. The last Justice who never attended law school; he apprenticed under a lawyer and "read for the law" before passing the bar exam, still a common practice at the turn of the 20th century. Also has the shortest total tenure of any Justice, having served for a total of 452 days.note 
  • James Clark McReynolds (appointed in 1914, served until 1941) – Nominated by Woodrow Wilson. Was previously Attorney General under Wilson. He was one of the conservative "Four Horsemen" during the 1930s. McReynolds was notorious for his history of making racist and anti-semitic comments.
  • Pierce Butler (appointed in 1922, served until 1939) – Nominated by Warren G. Harding. He was one of the conservative "Four Horsemen" during the 1930s.
  • Louis Brandeis (appointed in 1916, served until 1939) – Nominated by Woodrow Wilson. He was the first Jewish Justice. He was one of the liberal "Three Musketeers" during the 1930s. The law school of the University of Louisville, in his hometown, is named after him, as is Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
  • Benjamin N. Cardozo (appointed in 1932, served until 1938) – Nominated by Herbert Hoover. Was previously Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. The second Jewish Justice, he was also part of the liberal "Three Musketeers" during the 1930s. The law school of Yeshiva University, a Jewish university in New York City, is named after him.
  • George Sutherland (appointed in 1922, served until 1938) – Nominated by Warren G. Harding. Was previously a Senator and Representative from Utah. He was one of the conservative "Four Horsemen" during the 1930s, and was also one of the few foreign-born Justices, having been born in England.
  • Willis Van Devanter (appointed in 1910, served until 1937) – Nominated by William Howard Taft. Appointed from the Eighth Circuit, to which he was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt. He was one of the conservative "Four Horsemen" during the 1930s.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (appointed in 1902, served until 1932) – Nominated by Theodore Roosevelt. Retired at age 90, making him the oldest Justice in history.note  He was a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the son of famous poet Oliver Wendell Holmes.
  • Edward Terry Sanford (appointed in 1923, served until 1930) – Nominated by Warren G. Harding. Appointed from the District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee and the Middle District of Tennessee, to which he was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, under whom he had previously served as Assistant Attorney General. Incidentally, he died the exact same day as recently retired Chief Justice William Howard Taft.
  • Joseph McKenna (appointed in 1898, served until 1925) – Nominated by William McKinley. Had previously served as McKinley's Attorney General, on the Ninth Circuit, to which he was appointed by Benjamin Harrison, and as Representative from California.
  • Mahlon Pitney (appointed in 1912, served until 1922) – Nominated by William Howard Taft. Previously a Representative from New Jersey. He was the great-grandfather of Christopher Reeve.
  • William R. Day (appointed in 1902, served until 1922) – Nominated by Theodore Roosevelt. Appointed from the Sixth Circuit, to which he was appointed by William McKinley. Before that, he served as McKinley's Secretary of State.
  • John Hessin Clarke (appointed in 1916, served until 1922) – Nominated by Woodrow Wilson. Appointed from the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, to which he was also appointed by Wilson.
  • Joseph Rucker Lamar (appointed in 1910, served until 1916) – Nominated by William Howard Taft. He was a cousin of former Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar.
  • Horace Harmon Lurton (appointed in 1909, served until 1914) – Nominated by William Howard Taft. Appointed from the 6th Circuit, to which he was appointed by Grover Cleveland.
  • John Marshall Harlan (appointed in 1877, served until 1911) – Nominated by Rutherford B. Hayes. Most famous for being the sole dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson; his position would be vindicated in 1954 with the Brown decision. Had previously served as Attorney General of Kentucky. As noted above, his grandson of the same name would also serve on the Court.
  • William Henry Moody (appointed in 1906, served until 1910) – Nominated by Theodore Roosevelt. Previously served as Attorney General, Secretary of the Navy, and Representative from Massachusetts.
  • David Josiah Brewer (appointed in 1889, served until 1910) – Nominated by Benjamin Harrison. Appointed from the Eighth Circuit, to which he was appointed by Chester A. Arthur. He was the nephew of fellow Supreme Court Justice Stephen Johnson Field. He was one of a small number of justices not born in the U.S. — he was born in modern-day Turkey to American parents.
  • Rufus W. Peckham (appointed in 1896, served until 1909) – Nominated by Grover Cleveland. He was the brother of Wheeler Hazard Peckham, who had been unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court a year prior.
  • Henry Billings Brown (appointed in 1890, served until 1906) – Nominated by Benjamin Harrison. Appointed from the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, to which he was appointed by Ulysses S. Grant.
  • George Shiras Jr. (appointed in 1892, served until 1903) – Nominated by Benjamin Harrison.
  • Horace Gray (appointed in 1882, served until 1902) – Nominated by Chester A. Arthur. Had previously served as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
  • Stephen Johnson Field (appointed in 1863, served until 1897) – Nominated by Abraham Lincoln. Formerly Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California.
  • Howell Edmunds Jackson (appointed in 1893, served until 1895) – Nominated by Benjamin Harrison. Appointed from the Sixth Circuit, to which he was appointed by Grover Cleveland. Previously served as a Senator from Tennessee.
  • Samuel Blatchford (appointed in 1882, served until 1893) – Nominated by Chester A. Arthur. Appointed from the Second Circuit, to which he was appointed by Rutherford B. Hayes. Had previously served on the District Court for the Southern District of New York to which he was appointed by Andrew Johnson.
  • Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (appointed in 1888, served until 1893) – Nominated by Grover Cleveland. Previously served as Secretary of the Interior and Senator and Representative from Mississippi.
  • Joseph P. Bradley (appointed in 1870, served until 1892) – Nominated by Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Samuel Freeman Miller (appointed in 1862, served until 1890) – Nominated by Abraham Lincoln.
  • Stanley Matthews (appointed in 1881, served until 1889) – Nominated by James Garfield. Previously a Senator from Ohio. He was initially nominated by Rutherford B. Hayes, whom he was good friends with, but his nomination drew controversy due to being too close to railroad interests and his nomination wasn't acted on before Hayes left office. His renomination by Garfield was also controversial and he was ultimately confirmed by only one vote, the closest margin in history.
  • William Burnham Woods (appointed in 1880, served until 1887) – Nominated by Rutherford B. Hayes. Appointed from the 5th Circuit to which he was appointed by Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Ward Hunt (appointed in 1872, served until 1882) – Nominated by Ulysses S. Grant. Previously Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
  • Nathan Clifford (appointed in 1858, served until 1881) – Nominated by James Buchanan. Was previously Attorney General, Ambassador to Mexico, and a Representative and State Attorney General from Maine.
  • Noah Haynes Swayne (appointed in 1862, served until 1881) – Nominated by Abraham Lincoln.
  • William Strong (appointed in 1870, served until 1880) – Nominated by Ulysses S. Grant. Previously a Representative from Pennsylvania.
  • David Davis (appointed in 1862, served until 1877) – Nominated by Abraham Lincoln. Resigned upon being elected Senator from Illinois. Best known for his role in the 1876 electoral commission that was formed to settle the disputed election, his resignation being part of a deal to hand the election to Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for ending Reconstruction.
  • Samuel Nelson (appointed in 1845, served until 1872) – Nominated by John Tyler.
  • Robert Cooper Grier (appointed in 1846, served until 1870) – Nominated by James K. Polk.
  • James Moore Wayne (appointed in 1835, served until 1867) – Nominated by Andrew Jackson. Previously a Representative from Georgia.
  • John Catron (appointed in 1837, served until 1865) – Nominated by Andrew Jackson. He was nominated on the last day of Jackson's Presidency, so it was Jackson's successor Martin Van Buren who officially appointed him.
  • John Archibald Campbell (appointed in 1853, served until 1861) – Nominated by Franklin Pierce. He later joined the Confederacy.
  • John McLean (appointed in 1829, served until 1861) – Nominated by Andrew Jackson. Previously served as Postmaster General and Representative from Ohio.
  • Peter Vivian Daniel (appointed in 1842, served until 1860) – Nominated by Martin Van Buren. Appointed from the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, to which he was appointed by Andrew Jackson.
  • Benjamin Robbins Curtis (appointed in 1851, served until 1857) – Nominated by Millard Fillmore.
  • John McKinley (appointed in 1838, served until 1852) – Nominated by Martin Van Buren. Previously a Senator and Representative from Alabama.
  • Levi Woodbury (appointed in 1845, served until 1851) – Nominated by James K. Polk. The first Justice to have attended law school, specifically the long-defunct Litchfield Law School in Connecticut. Was previously a Senator and Governor of New Hampshire and later Secretary of the Navy and Treasury, making him one of few people to have served in all of the branches of government. Woodbury County, Iowa, home of Sioux City, was named after him.
  • Joseph Story (appointed in 1812, served until 1845) – Nominated by James Madison. Previously a Representative from Massachusetts. He was the youngest Justice, being 32 at his appointment. Story County, Iowa, home of Ames and Iowa State University, is named for him.
  • Henry Baldwin (appointed in 1830, served until 1844) – Nominated by Andrew Jackson. Previously a Representative from Pennsylvania.
  • Smith Thompson (appointed in 1823, served until 1843) – Nominated by James Monroe. Was previously Monroe's Secretary of the Navy.
  • Philip Pendleton Barbour (appointed in 1836, served until 1841) – Nominated by Andrew Jackson. Appointed from the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, to which he was also appointed by Jackson. Was previously a Representative from Virginia and Speaker of the House. Barbour County, Virginia and its county seat Philippi, now in West Virginia, were named after him not long after his passing in 1841; when the county consolidated its three high schools into one in 1963, the new school became (and remains) Philip Barbour High School.
  • Gabriel Duvall (appointed in 1811, served until 1835) – Nominated by James Madison. Previously a Representative from Maryland.
  • William Johnson (appointed in 1804, served until 1834) – Nominated by Thomas Jefferson.
  • Bushrod Washington (appointed in 1798, served until 1829) – Nominated by John Adams. The nephew of George Washington.
  • Robert Trimble (appointed in 1826, served until 1828) – Nominated by John Quincy Adams. Appointed from the District Court for the District of Kentucky, to which he was appointed by James Madison.
  • Thomas Todd (appointed in 1807, served until 1826) – Nominated by Thomas Jefferson.
  • Henry Brockholst Livingston (appointed in 1806, served until 1823) – Nominated by Thomas Jefferson.
  • Samuel Chase (appointed in 1796, served until 1811) – Nominated by George Washington.
  • William Cushing (appointed in 1790, served until 1810) – Nominated by George Washington.
  • William Paterson (appointed in 1793, served until 1806) – Nominated by George Washington. Was previously a Senator and Governor of New Jersey, as well as a signer of the Constitution. Born in what is now Northern Ireland. Paterson, New Jersey's third largest city, is named after him, as is William Paterson University.
  • Alfred Moore (appointed in 1800, served until 1804) – Nominated by John Adams. Was previously Attorney General of North Carolina.
  • James Iredell (appointed in 1790, served until 1799) – Nominated by George Washington. Born in England and emigrated to North Carolina in his late teens, eventually becoming Attorney General of North Carolina. He gave his name to Iredell County, North Carolina, a large suburban county north of Charlotte.
  • James Wilson (appointed in 1789, served until 1798) – Nominated by George Washington. The first foreign-born Justice, having been born in Scotland. After emigrating to Pennsylvania in his twenties, he became a prominent lawyer, one of the intellectual leaders of the American Revolution, and a major contributor to the drafting of the Constitution, most notably defining the scope of the executive branch and also proposing the Electoral College. Wilson became the first Justice to die, passing while in office.
  • John Blair Jr. (appointed in 1790, served until 1795) – Nominated by George Washington.
  • Thomas Johnson (appointed in 1791, served until 1793) – Nominated by George Washington. His 485 days as Associate Justice was the shortest overall tenure on the Court until James Byrnes (above) nearly 150 years later. Was previously Governor of Maryland. His niece Louisa married John Quincy Adams.


The Supreme Court will issue up to three types of ruling per case. Not every Justice has to write one; most will sign one that someone else has written. Justices can also be selective, agreeing with another except for Part X or Footnote Y. Supreme Court rulings are occasionally good source of witty quotes (Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" on obscenity/pornography for example).

The types are:

  • The majority opinion. The one that counts. The justice with the most seniority on the side with the most justices agreeing with the decision gets to decide who writes the opinion. This means the Chief Justice if they agree with that side, else the justice with the highest seniority. (In some cases the Chief Justice has sometimes changed sides and voted in opposition to their own feelings on the case, just so they could write the majority opinion. This is more than ego at work—the Chief Justice who does this can then write the opinion in a manner more consistent with their judicial philosophy, potentially limiting the impact of the case; it's suspected that Chief Justice Roberts did this in the "Obamacare" decision.)
  • Concurring opinion. Agreeing with the ruling, but on different grounds. May be more than one. In some instances, the Concurring opinion will be held in higher regard than the Majority opinion, but this is rare (the most famous occurrences of this being Justice Jackson's opinion from Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer and Justice Powell's from Bakke).
  • Dissenting opinion. Exactly how it sounds. No legal force. May be up to four. However, should the Court decide to reverse a previous decision, it might rely on a dissent for guidance and justification (essentially saying "the majority didn't know what it was doing, but this other justice knew what was up"). The most important example is probably the 1941 case United States v. Darby, where the Supreme Court reversed its decision in 1918's Hammer v. Dagenhart, explicitly citing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' dissent in that case as justification.
  • Concur/Dissent. While a Justice often signs on to the opinion of another Justice, a Justice is not required to sign on to all of another Justice's opinion. Sometimes, a concurrence or a dissent will omit a portion of that other Justice's opinion.
    • One of the more notable is concerning the plurality decision (for which see below) in 1992's Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where the plurality opinion by Justice O'Connor was so weird and complicated that all of the other opinions both concurred with and dissented from it: since it upheld Roe v. Wade but upheld certain provisions of the Pennsylvania statute that would be struck down under a "pure" reading of Roe, it meant that both Justice Blackmun's opinion (following Roe—which he had written—to the letter) and Justice Scalia's opinion (which would have struck down Roe altogether) were considered to both concur and dissent in the Court's decision.
      • The only way to figure out what parts of the opinion got a majority (and thus became precedent) and which didn't is to literally draw up a chart: you see, O'Connor was joined by Kennedy and Souter; Stevens and Blackmun both wrote their own opinions more liberal than the O'Connor one but in different ways and on different grounds; and Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and White all joined two opinions—penned by Rehnquist and Scalia—that were more conservative than the plurality, but in different ways and on different grounds. In other words, teaching this case is a nightmarish day of utter confusion for even the most adept student.
    • Asahi Metals Industries v. Superior Court of California, a 1987 case regarding specific jurisdiction—when someone can be sued in a particular state's courts about something that happened in that state—always taught in first-year civil procedure, is even more of a nightmare: all nine agreed with Part I of O'Connor's opinion (the facts of the case), but only four joined in Part II-A (on the subject of what a company needs to do to become subject to a state's laws, setting a pretty high standard), and eight (everyone but Scalia) agreed with Part II-B (that it was just unfair to have this poor Japanese company that only really does business in East Asia come to California just to get sued by over something they shipped to Taiwan)...and then four justices (including the author) signed on to a Concur/Dissent by Brennan (setting a pretty low bar for what a company needs to do to become subject to a state's laws) and two of the justices who signed on to Brennan also signed on to a separate one by Stevens (that said "I don't know what the bar is, but it's certainly passed in this case, except that it's not fair for the company to be sued in California for something that happened in Taiwan."). As a result, you have a near-unanimous opinion and a totally-fractured opinion. This has left the lower courts gibbering in confusion and frustration for nearly thirty years.note 
    • One of the more infamous is Flood v. Kuhn, where Justice Blackmun (again) used a section of a Supreme Court decision to write an off-topic essay about how cool baseball was. No one who signed on with his decision signed on with that section. Later in life, Blackmun said his only regret was that he left Hall of Famer Mel Ott out of his list of great baseball players.

There is possibility of a plurality rather than a majority. If no majority of Justices agree, whoever has the most wins, but the decision isn't the final in the same way. And if there is no plurality either (meaning a tie, under the current 9-member Court only possible with a vacancy or recusal by one Justice), the lower court ruling stands, although it is binding authority only in the circuit from which the appeal came.note  Legally, this is the same as if the Supreme Court had refused to hear the case... which can get very messy if multiple Circuit Courts have given different rulings on the subject (such splits being something that almost guarantees the Supreme Court will hear a case) and thus a different precedent is set in different parts of the country.

The 2012 term was particularly notorious for the specter of numerous plurality and tie decisions. Justices must—or rather, are expected to—recuse if they have an affected interest. For example, the case allowing women to be admitted into Virginia Military Institute had no vote by Thomas because his son attended the school. The court is split 5-4 on many issues due to ideology. However, newly appointed Justice Kagan was Solicitor-General, the lawyer whose job it is to present cases to the Supreme Court when the federal government is one of the parties (which is fairly often; the S-G is often called the "tenth justice" for how much they work with the Court). Approximately half the cases until June 2012 only had 8 justices voting because Kagan recused herself due to working on the presentation of the cases. Omega v. Costco where Omega Watches sued Costco for buying watches overseas and importing them for lower than Omega's American prices, is the first of a 4-4 split, which means the lower court decision stood as precedent—although it was binding authority only in the Ninth Circuit. In other words, produces the same result as if the Court had never agreed to hear the case. In Omega that meant an American rights holder who sold a good overseas didn't really sell it until he sold it in the US.note Postscript 

Note again that the "must recuse" is a misnomer. Only the individual Justice decides if they have a conflict of interest or not. In lower courts, a judge's failure to recuse himself or herself when a conflict of interest exists can be grounds for appeal, but with the Supreme Court by definition there is no higher court to appeal to. If the court was deciding if the Justice's son would be executed or not, the Justice still wouldn't have to recuse themselves. (Although it is likely in that case they would be impeached rather quickly.)

The specter of 4-4 tie decisions reared its head again in 2016, with the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the near-immediate declaration (before he was even buried) by Senate Republicans that they would reject any nominee until the next President took office in January 2017. This is widely considered to be proof that partisanship over Supreme Court nominations has finally reached its maximum possible level. The first 4-4 decision of this period was Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, regarding whether public-sector employees can be required to pay a "fair share service fee" (the term used under California law) to a labor union even if they refuse to join the union. The Ninth Circuit upheld this practice, and due to the tie their decision stands (though it's only binding authority within that circuit).

The court can—and has—reversed itself, most famously in 1954's Brown vs. Board of Education and Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in 2022. In Brown, the Court unanimously reversed Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision that upheld segregation if it was "separate but equal". By 1954, they agreed that it was wrong and that "separate but equal" was an oxymoron. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer in this case, would become the first black Justice. In Dobbs, a 5–4 majority overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, returning regulation of abortion to the states and/or the US Congress.note  Likewise, laws banning sodomy were upheld in 1986's Bowers v. Hardwick but overturned in 2003's Lawrence v. Texas.note note note 

Another famous instance where the Court has reversed itself is in 1941, when the aforementioned United States v. Darby overturned Hammer v. Dagenhart, allowing the federal government to pass whatever restrictions on interstate commerce it pleased for social legislation. Sometimes a case is clearly overturned, but precisely where is uncertain; for instance, it is widely agreed that Lochner v. New York (which struck down a New York law that kept bakers from working more than ten hours a day or 60 hours a week—yes, we know what you're thinking) was (mostly) overturned, but which case exactly did the overturning is the subject of lengthy debate by legal scholars.

Finally, there's the time when the people of the United States overruled the Court by ratifying the 13th and 14th Amendments (not to mention fighting a Civil War over it), which effectively overturned Dred Scott v. Sandford. And when the Court decides a case on the grounds of federal law rather than on constitutional grounds (which is actually quite common; Supreme Court cases frequently have nothing to do with constitutionality and instead are about reconciling apparent contradictions between state and federal law or between two different federal laws), Congress can overrule this by repealing or modifying the law in question.

Of some interest is that the vast majority of Supreme Court cases are actually quite boring; to take from three cases in the 2010 term, one case involved whether one state agency could sue another in federal court, another involved whether an employment benefits package summary or the detailed document governed when the two significantly disagreed, and a third involved whether Wyoming violated a water rights compact with Montana by using more efficient irrigation methods. Most fictional works ignore this rather mundane fact.

State Supreme Courts

State supreme courts are similar, but on a smaller scale, and decide on issues of state law. Though the federal Supreme Court has found that the death penalty is not inherently "cruel and unusual punishment" under the federal Constitution (but can be depending on how it's implemented), several states have banned it as "cruel and unusual" under state constitutions or state law. In some states, their State Constitution will prohibit punishments that are cruel or unusual, not merely both. If the state supreme court is deciding on a matter of both state and federal law, then appeals are possible to the federal Supreme Court; if it's pure state law (like the gay marriage decisions in Massachusetts, California, Iowa and Connecticut), no further appeal is possible.

In a few small states, there's no intermediate Court of Appeals, and all appeals go directly to the State Supreme Court. Also, the name of the court may vary from state to state - a notable example is New York, where the Supreme Court is actually NOT the supreme court of New York (that would be the Court of Appeals). Maryland's highest court is also called the Court of Appeals, and it's the only court in the U.S. where the judges do not wear black robes. In most states, the head judge and the other judges of the highest court are called the Chief Justice and associate Justices. Again, except Maryland and New York, again, where the members are the Chief Judge and Associate Judges, and the ones in Maryland wear red robes. Probably a holdover from Britain where some of the judges' robes are red as well.

Note that State Supreme Court justices do have to recuse themselves if there is a conflict of interest. In a very nasty case, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company, Justice Brent Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court had received more than half of the funds needed to run for election to the Supreme Court seat from a group sponsored by Don L. Blankenship, the president of Massey Coal. He refused to recuse himself, and ruled in favor of Massey. The U.S. Supreme Court took a dim view of this and reversed the decision.


A few states have notable oddities in their judicial systems:

  • New York has a perversely complicated court system, made even more so by the weird naming. The New York Supreme Court is a trial court, akin to the Superior Court in California; the intermediate appeals court is the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court; and the high court of the state is the Court of Appeals. (This isn't even getting into the half-dozen other courts in the state.) Adding to the oddities, the judges of the Court of Appeals are titled "Judge" and all others are titled "Justice"; everywhere else, "Justice" is reserved for those serving on the highest court.
  • New Jersey resembles a streamlined New York with sensible naming (the general trial court is the Superior Court, except that the intermediate appellate court is the Appellate Division of the Superior Court; the Supreme Court is the actual highest state court). This is because it is in many ways a streamlined version of the New York system: New Jersey's court system was ludicrously complex up until 1947, in ways that mirrored New York; for instance, the Supreme Court was the name of an intermediate or trial court (depending on era), with the top court being called the "Court of Errors and Appeals". New Jersey is also somewhat peculiar in that it is the only state besides Delaware with separate "compartments" for cases in Chancery and at Law: the Superior Court's trial system is split between the Law Division (further subdivided into the Criminal Part, Civil Part, and Special Civil Part, that last being mostly small claims and residential landlord-tenant) and the Chancery Division (further subdivided into the General Equity Part, Probate Part, and Family Part).
  • Massachusetts also enjoys weird naming to a lesser extent: the highest court in the Commonwealth is the Supreme Judicial Court. This sounds redundant, but it is actually to distinguish it from the legislature, which is called the General Court (and which used to be a court too, but not anymore).note 
    • Bizarrely, Maine also has a "Supreme Judicial Court" even though the name of its legislature has always just been "the Maine Legislature";note  and infuriatingly, New Hampshire's highest court is the "New Hampshire Supreme Court" even though the New Hampshire legislature is also called the General Court.
  • Four states—Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas—are the only states in the Union to have a bifurcated court system, with two separate branches for civil and criminal cases. Two of these states are partially bifurcated, and the other two completely so.
    • Alabama and Tennessee have separate intermediate appellate courts for civil and criminal cases, but a single Supreme Court for all types of cases.
    • Oklahoma has an intermediate appellate court for civil cases only. At least theoretically, an appeal from that court can go to the Supreme Court—but for reasons we'll get into later, it's highly unlikely that the Supremes will hear the appeal. All criminal appeals go directly to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
    • In Texas, this works out to having two high courts and several different county level courts. At the municipal level, you have the Justice Courts for small claims, while the Municipal Courts involve criminal cases punishable by fine only and ordinance cases. At the county level you have the Constitutional County Court which handles all county level cases, with County Court-at-Laws having limited authority to help ease the workload in counties with large population densities. The District Courts have authority over civil actions under $5,000, divorce, title to land, felonies, juvenile matters, etc. Appeals from the county-level courts and district level courts are heard in the Courts of Appeals (14 such courts exist in Texas). If the case cannot be resolved or the appeal is approved, it goes to one of the high courts. If it's a civil case, it goes on the Supreme Court of Texas. If it's a criminal case, it goes to the Court of Criminal Appeals... unless it's a juvenile case. Under Texas law, juvenile proceedings, even those involving criminal activity, are considered civil proceedings, and thus go to the Supreme Court (although that court defers to the Court of Criminal Appeals on matters relating to interpretation of the state's penal code).
      • Furthermore, in Texas all judges are elected rather than appointed. (This makes sense when you consider the state's culture heavily favors Jacksonian-style politics.) Also unlike most states in which judges are elected, they are elected on an explicitly partisan ticket (in most states with judicial elections, judges are nominally non-partisan, although in practice judges' political leanings are public knowledge). This includes justices for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. There is also no requirement for running for Justice of the Peace, save that afterward you're willing to take the equivalent of three college courses.
  • Delaware, by chance, had a very corporation-favoring court. Also, in 1899, the State of Delaware passed a very lenient incorporation statute, allowing just about anybody to start a Delaware corporation—provided they paid the nice fat annual fee that anyone who didn't actually live and do business primarily in Delaware had to pay for the privilege.note note  Because of some corporate quirks like the way they're treated a citizen of where they incorporate, corporations decided that Delaware was the go-to locale. This leads to most "big" corporations wanting to incorporate in Delaware, regardless of where in the U.S. they are. Over time, the Delaware court has become less pro-corporation (maybe), but here's the thing: because Delaware was a center for corporate lawsuits for so long its corporate law is the most developed in the U.S., to the point that other states look to what Delaware does for guidance. It even has a separate court for corporate issues. And people still want to incorporate there, not because its courts favor corporations, but because virtually every corporate issue has been tried there, so there's no unpredictability.
  • Louisiana has a Civil Law system modeled on the Napoleonic Code, rather than the English Common Law system practiced everywhere else. Again, the distinction is largely insignificant unless you are a defendant or lawyer, although it does mean that Loophole Abuse is easier in Louisiana courts than elsewhere: one of the features of the common law is that the judge has extensive power to declare "no loopholes", especially in civil cases; the French law, developed out of a visceral hatred of judge-made law (see The Other Wiki's article on the ancien regime parlements for why), has no such provision.
  • Virginia has General District Courts (as distinct from Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts) that handle small claims, misdemeanors and traffic offenses. Cases involving $15,000 or more, felonies and death penalty cases are tried exclusively in Circuit Court. If you lose in General District Court, you also have the right in any case to appeal for a new trial, or Trial de Novo at Circuit Court. In a Virginia Circuit Court you always have the right to a trial by jury in every single case. Virginia is one of only two states (Vermont being the other one) where, if you're willing to pay for the cost if you lose, that you could actually get a jury trial on a parking ticket.
    • Before 2022, Virginia had a very unusual appellate procedure. Appeals in civil cases, as well as appeals in death penalty cases, went directly to the Supreme Court, which operated under discretionary review on the civil side. Appeals in other criminal cases not involving the death penalty went to the Court of Appeals, which operated under discretionary review. The Court of Appeals also heard appeals under mandatory review in family and administrative law cases. With the 2022 reforms, the Court of Appeals' jurisdiction expanded greatly, with all civil appeals added to its jurisdiction. Also, the Court of Appeals now operates under mandatory review in all cases.
  • Iowa and Oklahoma have a unique appellate procedure. In those states, all appeals are filed with the appropriate Supreme Court. (Iowa has a single Supreme Court; Oklahoma's system was discussed just above.) In Iowa, as well as in civil matters in Oklahoma, the high court keeps only "cases of first impression" (involving issues it hasn't addressed before), plus cases dealing with issues that it believes to be worthy of reconsideration, for itself. All other cases are handed off to the (Civil) Court of Appeals. In Oklahoma, the Court of Criminal Appeals is the only appellate body on the criminal side, and it operates under mandatory review.
  • New York and Georgia are unique in the way they handle bar admissions. In every other US jurisdiction, bar admissions are handled either directly through the jurisdiction's highest court, or by an agency designated by said court.
    • Bar admissions in New York are handled by the Appellate Division; new lawyers are admitted by one of that court's four departments that corresponds to the individual's residence. Out-of-state residents are admitted through the Albany-based Third Department. Once admitted, however, lawyers may practice in any non-federal court in the state. (Like everywhere else, federal courts require separate admission.)
    • Georgia admits new lawyers through its local courts, usually corresponding to the individual's residence or workplace. Once admitted, lawyers may practice in any trial court within the state system—but unlike anywhere else in the US, bar admission does not make a lawyer eligible to practice before any appellate court. The new lawyer must seek separate admission from the state's Court of Appeals and Supreme Court to practice before those bodies.

There are some subject-matter-specific trial courts in many states. The precise names and jurisdictions of these courts differ from state to state, yadda yadda yadda.

  • Family Court: Can handle issues involving adoption, divorce, juvenile offenders, inheritances, etc. As you can see above, sometimes this is incorporated into the general trial court, either as a separate unit (see, e.g., New Jersey's Chancery Division, Family Part, which is the only Part of the Superior Court whose existence is mandated by the state constitution) or not (see, e.g., Pennsylvania, where family cases are heard in the Court of Common Pleas.note )
  • Probate Court: Settling wills and issues of who gets what when someone dies. Again, this may be incorporated into the general trial court.
  • Traffic Court: Many states have special proceedings to challenge traffic tickets. Instead of wasting lots of people's time with a full jury trial for a parking offense, in traffic court it's just the offender, the ticketing officer, and the magistrate (sometimes not even a full judge). In some states the officer doesn't even need to show up, so appeal a ticket and you're only wasting your own time.
  • Small Claims: To avoid the expense of the whole lawsuit rigmarole, there are special tribunals for cases under, say, $5000, in which no lawyers or juries are present and the judge questions the plaintiff and defendant on their stories, then makes a decision. There can be some good stories in Small Claims court, hence the "courtroom shows" (The People's Court, Judge Judy, etc.) that take the form of a Small Claims court with a retired judge presiding. (Technically these shows are private arbitration, not public courts of law, but nobody would watch a show called The People's Binding Arbitration Tribunal or Arbitrator Judy, now would they?) Hmm...
  • Landlord-Tenant: Self-explanatory.
  • Arbitration: Some contracts and labor agreements include provisions for settling disputes in arbitration. This is similar to a bench trial and is usually conducted in closed session. In addition, arbitrators are rarely actual judges, but rather highly experienced attorneys or retired judges. This is all done to avoid cluttering up the courts, as well as to reduce costs and delay from litigation procedure (such as discovery). Appeals (which are very limited) filter into the civil court system. For businesses, requiring arbitration also has the bonus of preventing consumer or employee class actions.
    • Companies contracted by the federal government are not allowed to force arbitration for all issues, after a woman working in Iraq was gang-raped by contractors working over there and lost her arbitration trial (despite one of the rapists admitting to it).
  • Chancery aka Equity... is a long topic, so this is a quick & dirty version. The legal system is the result of the merger of two legal systems. Before the systems were joined, there were cases at law and cases at chancery/equity. You would wind up in different courts, depending on what the problem was. The distinction often seems strange and arbitrary. (For instance, someone squatting on your land? Law. But a tenant doesn't move after the lease? Chancery).note  In fact, because of its strangeness and arbitrariness, most jurisdictions sought to eliminate the distinction as much as possible. But not all jurisdictions did, and there's a lot of technical differences between the two (specifically in what you can get out of the lawsuit (money or actions tend to be the difference)), which may or may not be observed by the court.
    • A famous (to people who follow this sort of thing) example of this is 1950's United States v. Louisiana, which, since it consisted of the federal government suing a state, was under the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction; Louisiana moved to have a jury trial, which was denied by the Supreme Court because it was an equity action rather than a law action. If the Court had let the motion go through, it would have been the first jury trial before the Supreme Court since 1794.

The death penalty

The United States is pretty much the only Western nation that still puts people to death as punishment for a crime - among economically developed countries, you can add Japan, Taiwan, South Koreanote , Malaysia, and Singapore. At present, the federal government, the US military, 27 out of 50 states, and American Samoa retain the death penalty. A 28th state (New Mexico) still has inmates on death row because they only abolished the death penalty in the past few years and the state legislation signed did not make the ban retroactive; conversely, when New Jersey (2007), Illinois (2011), Maryland (2013), and Colorado (2020) passed legislation abolishing the death penalty their governors also commuted the sentences of those already on death row to life imprisonment instead (Connecticut's didn't when similar legislation was passed in 2012 but its Supreme Court ruled the ban had to be retroactive a few years later). Note that having the death penalty available on the books does not mean it'll actually be used in a qualifying verdict. Seven retention states (Arizona, California, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania) have a moratorium in place which basically suspended it until further notice (in North Carolina's case, because the state's medical board refuses to allow any of its members to participate in any further executions and the state cannot carry one out without it); six other states haven't conducted any executions since 2010. The federal government executed 13 people in the last seven months of Donald Trump's presidency (July 2020–January 2021) after having carried out no executions since 2003. One of these was the first federal execution of a woman since 1953.note 

While the majority of Americans support the idea of executing "murderers", some current scandals have reduced support. DNA evidence started to show that several people on death row (as well as others who were sentenced to life imprisonment) were actually innocent. Instead, states are starting to rethink it because the current budget crises make the huge cost of death penalty trials an expense they can't afford. Proponents will argue, however, that there is very little evidence that post-Furman states have actually executed an innocent man (though one case in Texas is particularly controversial in that regard), and that the cost issue is due to opponents of capital punishment putting up legal roadblocks (in particular, the federal court system has allowed numerous habeas corpus appeals from the same inmates in contravention of a 1996 statute).

There are also the issues where the imposition of the death penalty is restricted. Rape of an adult - Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977); child rape - Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) (in fact Kennedy declared the death penalty cannot be imposed where the victim does not die, except in cases about "treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity," where the victim—the state—can't exactly die in the conventional sense); crimes committed by a person under 18 - Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); and crimes committed by the mentally retarded - Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002); are prohibited from being made death penalty eligible. So the only things left for which the death penalty can be applied is exclusively to crimes where the perpetrator is over 18 and of normal intelligence and where someone died as a result of the crime, or to crimes of treason (which is very strictly defined in the Constitution and also has very strict evidentiary standards, also written into the Constitutionnote )note  and possibly those involving terrorism.

In addition the Supreme Court has very limited jurisdiction over U.S. military courts-martial, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice as currently written allows a general court-martial to sentence individuals to death for murder and rape, as well as certain offenses in wartime (desertion, mutiny, espionage, cowardice, etc.). Executing a service member for a strictly military offense has only been carried out once (in 1945, for desertion) since the end of the Civil War, and no military executions have been performed at all since 1961, although there are individuals sentenced to death (all for murder). The President of the United States must personally assent to all executions carried out by the military.

Rarely mentioned is the fact that any murder case where the Prosecution announces they are seeking the death penalty means that any prospective jury member who opposes capital punishment is barred from serving on the jury. This just happens to remove a large number of people from getting to decide if someone is guilty or innocent, including those most likely to question the prosecution's case. The unfairness, or mere existence, of this is largely unknown in the general public...until they get called to such a case. This is, however, not limited to capital cases; a jury empaneled for any crime must be willing to consider the full range of court-provided punishments (drug legalization proponents can't sit on a jury for drug-related crimes, just to provide one example).

Actually, the above isn't quite right, either. If you, as a juror, admit that you could never impose the death penalty at all, (or could never convict someone of a drug offense), then, yes, the prosecution will have you excused for cause. But if you are simply disapproving of the death penalty (or a drug case) but admit you would impose the sentence if warranted, then they can't remove you for cause, but basically if you ain't a "fry 'em at all costs" supporter of the penalty the prosecutor is probably going to use a peremptory challenge to throw you off the case.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice

These are laws and a justice system specially made for the Armed Forces. The "uniform" in this code's name isn't an Incredibly Lame Pun about military personnel being in uniform, it is instead used to describe a uniformity in the laws that apply to members of all services. This was imposed after World War II, when the military saw that the way that the Army, Navy and the Corps conducted courts martial weren't optimal and couldn't apply to situations where multiple services cooperate on operations. These rules now dictate how all courts martial must be conducted.

For the most part, a military court martial proceeds in the same manner as a civilian trial. Judge Advocate General Corps officers are all lawyers who have passed a bar exam of at least one US jurisdiction and are in good standing with a US jurisdiction (not necessarily the one in which they were first admitted), and are therefore authorized to practice law. They serve as prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys note . A jury consists usually of commissioned officers, with enlisted defendants being allowed to request that at least some members also be enlisted. The foreman is called "Count President", and is the senior most officer among the members. An arraignment hearing is held, although called an "Article 32" instead. The same rules of evidence and court procedures apply, and the defendant has the same protections as in a civilian trial. If convicted and sentenced, the defendants are sent to a military prison (Leavenworth for men and the Consolidated Brig at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for women). Convicted personnel can appeal, initially to a military appeals court, but then to a US Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, if s/he so wishes. At the end of their sentence, enlisted personnel are given Dishonorable Discharges, while officers are given Dismissals. Both are the equivalent of felonies on a criminal record.

The military however, deals with smaller petty crimes and minor breaches in discipline via "Special Court Martial" which can only hand out short term confinements and discharges up to a Bad Conduct Discharge, or more informally through Non Judicial Punishments meted out by officers. The lower the rank, the lighter the punishments s/he is restricted to prescribing. Ensign Newbies cannot dole out Non Judicial Punishments. In the navy aboard ship, only the commanding officer can dole out non judicial punishments. While the term Non Judicial Punishment brings to mind giving someone x number of lashes, actually doing such a thing these days will get you court martialed for "Cruelty and Maltreatment of a subordinate". These punishments can only consist of restriction to quarters aka House Arrest, confinement in the stockade or brig, forefeiture of pay for up to a year, Other than Honorable or Bad Conduct Discharges for enlisted men or Reduction in Rank for enlisted men. Officers usually get letters of Caution, Warning, Admonition or Reprimand, all of which can be career killers. People can be restricted to only consume bread and water, but this punishment is reserved only for sailors onboard ship and only for a maximum of three days.

Since these laws are meant for military personnel, certain offenses that are treated as trivial in the civilian world are Serious Business here. These are

Disobedience aka Insubordination: Chain of command is paramount in the military, and therefore someone who flat out refuses an order given by a higher ranking person, can and will be court martialed. However, the order itself must be a Lawful Order that does not compel a person to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. This was put in specifically to counter the Just Following Orders justification many of Those Wacky Nazis used in World War II. But a lawful order, even if it seems to someone to be a stupid order must be obeyed. Depending on the order, penalties can range from simple NJP to years in prison.

AWOL and Desertion: In the civilian world, not showing up for work without taking leave, only gets you a stern talking to by your boss, while quitting a job and walking away for good usually has no consequences. But in the military, being Absent Without Leave usually gets you NJP, while an extended absence is considered desertion. While AWOL is not that serious an offense, desertion is. That is because pulling a Screw This, I'm Outta Here leaves your unit undermanned and its performance drops. If this happens during combat, people can get seriously injured or killed. Therefore, depending on the circumstance, desertion can get you long prison sentences and even death. A related offense is “Missing Movement” which refers to a service member either remaining ashore/stateside when their military unit deploys overseas, or remaining behind in a previous operational location when the entire unit is redeployed to a different location. Note that those considered MIA or captured by the enemy aren’t considered as AWOL.

Improper Use of a Countersign: This quaint phrase refers to the sign and countersign system used by deployed units to prevent enemy infiltration. Sign and countersign can vary from simple shibboleths to complex codes. An “improper use” refers primarily to not strictly following these Identify Friend or Foe protocols while on sentry duty, as slacking off on this can cause your unit, their equipment, even vital information to become vulnerable to theft, espionage or sabotage by the enemy. Due to this, depending on the circumstance, this can be a capital offense.

Misbehavior Before the Enemy: Misbehavior in this case does not refer to cursing the enemy, making funny faces at them, taunting them or other kinds of similar behavior towards the enemy. It instead refers to acts of cowardice while engaging the enemy. This includes actions such as running away (not necessarily retreating in an orderly manner with the rest of your unit), panicking and surrendering yourself (not necessarily surrendering with your entire unit), note , malingering, self infliction of wounds to be excused from combat, removing your uniform to be considered a civilian and hopefully be spared from attack, or other acts of perfidy can get you brought up on these charges. Since cowardice in battle is a serious problem, this is another military related offense that can get you sentenced to death. An accompanying offense is “Giving Aid and Comfort to the Enemy”, which refers to knowingly performing actions that help the enemy’s cause. This covers actions such as sheltering enemy combatants, giving them information, material and supplies, abetting enemies in escaping from action by friendly forces, unauthorized correspondence with them etc. Note that humanely treating captured enemy combatants doesn’t violate this law.

See also the Useful Notes for American Prisons.