First Monday in October, ma’am

Traditionally, the U.S. Supreme Court opens its term on the first Monday in October.  The 2010-11 term runs until early June, and the court will hear fewer than 100 cases per year — but those cases have a huge influence on how we do things in the United States. 

For this post, I’m focusing on how, for the first time, the Court opened yesterday with three female justices.  Can you name them?  The most recent addition to the court is Elena Kagan, who replaced 90-year old John Paul Stevens when he retired at the end of the 2009-10 term. 

Here’s a neat game you can play from the Washington Post, helping you get to know the justices.  Try clicking on the link — it’s fun!  To get you started, I noted that Justice Kagan is the newest member (I used a blue line, since she was appointed by a Democratic president), and that Justice Roberts is the Chief Justice (red line for Republican appointment).

I heard a story about the Court on NPR that talked about how Justice Kagan will have to recuse herself from many cases because she was Solicitor General, which means she represented the United States in a number of cases.  If some of those cases come before the Supreme Court, she would have a potential conflict of interest, and so she has to sit out (“recuse” is a lawerly word for “sit out” or “not take part in”) any cases involving the United States from the time when she was Solicitor General.

There are nine justices on the court, so this means that a number of cases may result in a 4-4 tie.  That sounds like a big deal but it’s not.  When a case results in a tie, the lower court’s decision stands (nearly all of the cases that the Court hears are appeals from lower courts that are in some sort of conflict), and it’s as though the Supreme Court never heard the case.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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