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A federal court; the highest body in the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is composed of a chief justice and eight associate justices, all of whom are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. (See photo, next page.) They serve on the Court as long as they choose, subject only to impeachment. Each state also has a supreme court; these courts are all courts of appeals, primarily hearing cases that have already been tried. The federal Supreme Court (“the” Supreme Court) has the final word on interpretation of all laws and of the Constitution itself.
Note: Supreme Court decisions have a significant impact on public policy and are often extremely controversial. In interpreting the Constitution, the justices of the Supreme Court occasionally have deduced legal doctrines that are not clearly stated (or stated at all) in the Constitution. For example, in the famous case of McCulloch versus Maryland (1819), Chief Justice John Marshall advanced the opinion, accepted by the Court, that the Constitution implicitly gives the federal government the power to establish a national bank, even though such a power is not explicitly granted by the Constitution. Similarly, in Roe versus Wade (1973), the Court ruled that state laws restricting abortion violate the right of privacy.
Note: The McCulloch and Roe decisions illustrate the principle of broad construction (interpretation) of the Constitution. The opposite is narrow construction. Those who favor broad construction, or judicial activism, believe that the spirit of the times, the values of the justices, and the needs of the nation may legitimately influence the way justices decide cases. In contrast, narrow constructionists insist that the Court should be bound by the exact words of the Constitution or by the intentions of the framers of the Constitution or by some combination of both. This view is sometimes called judicial restraint.