Often called the “highest court in the land,” the U.S. Supreme Court serves as the last stop for many cases that make their way through the U.S. justice system. However, the Supreme Court only hears cases it prefers, and it prefers only a selected few. In fact, the Supreme Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions each year but only hears 70-80 cases a year. In some instances, the court declines to take a case, sending it back to a lower court for review. However, normally, if the Supreme Court declines to hear a case, it upholds the lower court’s ruling and brings an end to the legal process.  

The Supreme Court’s role in the justice system is complex and important. If you’ve ever wondered, “How does the U.S. Supreme Court work?” you’ll find a good primer on that national institution below. But first, we offer a look at some of the different levels of federal courts and the functions they perform. 

Levels of Federal Courts in the U.S. 

The Supreme Court sits at the top of the U.S. justice system hierarchy. There are two primary levels of federal courts below it: 

District Courts 

There are 94 district courts that comprise a total of 13 “circuits.” Known as the U.S. District Courts, these courts are trial courts at the federal level. All are presided over by district judges and hear cases before a jury. 

Appellate, Appeals, or Circuit Courts 

Directly below the Supreme Court in terms of authority is the U.S Court of Appeals system, which is divided into 13 geographically dispersed circuits, including the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit. These courts consist of three judges who hear challenges to district court rulings, appeals to decisions made by federal agencies, and certain other specialized cases. No juries are seated in appellate courts.  

What Does the Supreme Court Do? 

The Supreme Court hears appeals to federal court cases as well as state-level cases that involve federal law. Once a circuit court or state supreme court rules on a case, the involved parties may appeal to the Supreme Court by filing what’s called a “writ of certiorari.” The Supreme Court is not obligated to consider any case. In fact, the high court hears fewer than 1% of the cases for which a writ of certiorari is submitted. Rulings from the Supreme Court are final unless Congress introduces a constitutional amendment that essentially overturns their ruling. The Supreme Court uses the so-called “rule of four” to decide which cases they accept. Put simply, if four of the nine justices select a case, the court will take up that case.  

Structure of the Supreme Court 

The first U.S. Supreme Court was created in 1789—the same year the U.S. Congress created the Bill of Rights. The original court had just six judges. Over the years that number would expand to nine, including one chief justice and eight associate judges. Supreme Court justices are chosen by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They hold their seat on the court for life, or until they decide to retire. 

Learn More About the U.S. Justice System Online 

As we’ve discussed, the Supreme Court is at the apex of the U.S. justice system. The University of Texas Permian Basin offers multiple degree programs that can give you a deep understanding of our country’s justice system and even prepare you for employment in a variety of related roles. 

Bachelor of Arts in Political Science 

Designed for students who want a foundational knowledge in political science or to continue on to law schoolthis program delves into topics including American politics at the national, state, and local levels and how these entities function and interact with one another, as well as international political systemsThe program also explores judicial politics, which covers the U.S. judicial system, explaining the role of law and courts in our society, the structures and processes of the judicial system, and judicial policymaking.  

Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies

This program was created for students who desire to serve their community and influence positive change within the criminal justice system. It examines all aspects of the criminal justice system, including many current and controversial issuesin addition to crime prevention and conflict resolution methodsAll courses for this program are taught by faculty with extensive experience in the criminal justice field.  

Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration 

Just as our justice system has different levels, UT Permian Basin offers degree programs for students at different levels of their educational and professional journeys. Our Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration was designed for undergraduate degree holders who wish to expand their mastery of criminal justice principles and those already working within criminal justice who wish to become more competitive for leadership roles in the field. 

Advantages of Our Online Programs 

The above programs, and many others that UT Permian Basin offers, are presented 100% online through asynchronous courses. This format enables you to complete your coursework anywhere, 24/7, on your own schedule. If you’re already working and/or have ongoing family responsibilities, you’ll find this flexibility to be a tremendous advantage. Some programs also feature accelerated time to completioneight-week courses, and six start dates per year. All of them provide a respected educational credential that can help you in your present and future professional endeavors. 

Explore the role of the Supreme Court and all levels of our justice system with an online degree from UT Permian Basin.