Birth, death, marriage, life, what it means B to be a person, to have equal rights, to be fair — this is the stuff the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) examines every year, making decisions that become the law of the land.

"The justices of the Supreme Court establish — by interpreting laws and a constitution — a set of laws for the country. Without that we have no laws," says Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.

Thousands of cases are sent to the Court every year. If four of the nine justices agree a case should be heard, the Court asks the federal courts to send up all the information about the case so they can review it (known as granting a writ of certiorari). The Court chooses cases with national significance: Do kids have the right to pray in school? Should workers pay fees to labor unions if they don't want to be a member? Did President Obama exceed his powers in trying to protect illegal immigrants from deportation? They also take cases when the lower courts can't agree how to interpret the law involved; SCOTUS' decision then becomes the precedent that every court in the U.S. has to follow.

Go to scotus to read about two cases in front of the Court now, and to take our Supreme Court quiz.


1. Anybody can be a justice. The Constitution outlines two requirements: Justices are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. They don't have to be lawyers, judges, citizens or even 21. That said, every justice who's ever served was a lawyer first.

2. There's no term limit. Justices hold their position as long as they choose. William O. Douglas served more than 36 years!

3. Arguments are intimate. "You're very close to the justices physically," says law school professor and SCOTUS blog reporter Amy Howe, who argued two cases in front of the Court. The distance between the attorney podium and the justices' bench is so short that if a justice and lawyer leaned very far forward, they could almost shake hands.

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