A Supreme Court Quiz: How Much Do You Know About the Nation’s Highest Court?

Test your legal acumen. Pencils ready!


In my new book on the Supreme Court, which comes out today, I note that very few Americans know very much about the highest tribunal in the land. Only two-thirds can name a single Supreme Court justice, and only 1 in 100 can rattle off the names of all nine.

This is no shock. Unlike presidents, whose faces we couldn’t erase from our minds if we wanted to, Supreme Court justices are rarely seen. Cameras are not allowed in the courtroom, and the justices typically make prime-time TV only once a year: during the president’s annual State of the Union address, when they sit in the audience, berobed and stone-faced (and sometimes doze off). Several justices typically bow out of this affair, preferring to watch the chief executive’s remarks from the privacy of their homes, or not at all.

But it seems prudent for citizens to have at least a passing familiarity with the institution tasked with deciding whether they should be able to get married, or have health care, or say nasty things in public.  

So to celebrate my book’s release, here is a little quiz to test your SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) knowledge.

 The Questions

1. True or False: The number of Supreme Court justices is set in the Constitution.

2. Which one of the following people was NOT a Supreme Court justice?

a. John Marshall

b. Preston Funkybottom

c. John Marshall Harlan

d. John Marshall Harlan II

3. True or False: Supreme Court justices must have law degrees.

4. The motto etched above the entrance to the Supreme Court’s building in Washington, D.C. is:

a. “All men are created equal”

b. “Equal justice under law”

c. “Clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose”

5. The following figures are all depicted in friezes inside the Supreme Court building EXCEPT:

a. Moses

b. Muhammad

c. Hammurabi

d. Jesus

6. The average age of the current justices is:

a. 60

b. 65

c. 70

d. 110

7. How many cases do the justices decide each year?

8. What is the salary of a Supreme Court justice?

The Answers

1. True or False: The number of Supreme Court justices is set in the Constitution.

Answer: False. Congress gets to decide how many souls sit on the bench. The original number set in 1789 was six, but Congress added seats, one by one, until it reached 10 in 1863. The court was then pared to seven justices and expanded to nine, where it has remained since 1869.   

2. Which one of the following people was NOT a Supreme Court justice?

a. John Marshall

b. Preston Funkybottom

c. John Marshall Harlan

d. John Marshall Harlan II

Answer: (b). All those John Marshalls did in fact serve on the court. John Marshall Harlan II, who served from 1955-1971, a conservative on the liberal Warren court, was the grandson of the first, who sat on the bench from 1877-1911. Neither is any relation to the fourth chief justice, John Marshall, who served from 1801–1835 and authored the famous Marbury v. Madison ruling establishing the power of judicial review. Sir Funkybottom has yet to join the court. 

3. True or False: Supreme Court justices must have law degrees.

Answer: False.The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law. Many of the 18th and 19th century Justices studied law under a mentor because there were few law schools in the country” (from the Supreme Court website)

4. The motto etched above the entrance to the Supreme Court’s building in Washington, D.C. is:

a. “All men are created equal”

b. “Equal justice under law”

c. “Clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose”

Answer: (b). 

5. The following figures are all depicted in friezes inside the Supreme Court building EXCEPT:

a. Moses

b. Muhammad

c. Hammurabi

d. Jesus

Answer: (d). Some may find it surprising that the founder of Islam is represented while the founder Christianity is not. Why not? The figures represented were all lawgivers, and Jesus doesn’t fit the bill.

6. The average age of the current justices is:

a. 60

b. 65

c. 70

d. 110

Answer: (d). Just kidding: (c). Justices on the left and right are getting up there: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 82, while Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy are both 79. Stephen Breyer is close behind them at 77. John Roberts, the chief justice who just celebrated his first decade at the helm, is a youthful 60. The youngest justice is also the most recent addition: Elena Kagan, at 55.

7. How many cases do the justices decide each year?

Answer: In recent terms, between 70-80 cases. Last year they issued written opinions in only 66. Some people wonder why the Supreme Court docket has shrunk so precipitously from a height of 215 in 1940. It’s not from a lack of appeals: each year about 10,000 petitions for review are filed, of which the justices accept less than 1 percent.

 8. What is the salary of a Supreme Court justice?

Answer: $244,400, though the chief justice makes $255,500. By comparison, the president’s salary is $400,000 and members of Congress make $174,000.

*    *    *

No matter how you did on the quiz, you might find something of interest in American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court. As the Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist magazine, I was fortunate to attend the historic hearings in the same-sex marriage case, among many others, and my book recaps the year by explaining the arguments and implications of cases involving the freedom of speech, religious discrimination, racial equality, the separation of powers, and Obamacare. It also highlights big cases to watch out for in the Supreme Court’s new term. I hope you will have a look.

--

Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan.

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

Keep reading Show less