With far-reaching decisions about controversial issues such as voting rights, same-sex marriage, and healthcare, the Supreme Court of the United States had a busy year. We asked attorney and Walden School of Public Policy and Administration faculty member Jason Lum, JD, who served as an assistant to a member of the United States Congress and a law clerk at the U.S. Department of Justice, to explain the purpose, process, and power of this important aspect of American government.

What purpose does the Supreme Court serve?

Virtually all legal scholars recognize the U.S. Supreme Court as the most powerful judicial body in the world. In many countries, the Supreme Court holds less power or weight; it may be an appendage of the prime minister or president. Here, it operates very differently from our other two branches of government. The justices value their autonomy and independence—and when they make a ruling on a case, it’s the final word.

When does the Supreme Court get involved in cases?

The Supreme Court is the public policy organ of our government. Any controversial law that is passed will likely be challenged in the Supreme Court. The U.S. is broken into judicial districts called circuits. For example, California is in the 9th circuit. If that circuit rules in favor of same-sex marriage but Virginia’s 4th circuit doesn’t, we have a problem. The Supreme Court takes cases like this because lower courts are sending mixed messages. These cases tend to be either cases of profound societal importance where federal courts disagree or cases that could have significant effects on public policy. The justices get thousands of appeals every year but take only a handful of them, and they don’t have to give any reason why they choose or decline a case.

How do the Supreme Court justices reach their decisions?

They meet in conference and talk about the decisions. Although the justices themselves write lengthy opinions and do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of research, they are supported by their law clerks, who provide legal support for their arguments. Once they’ve arrived at a majority, the justices in the majority select one person to write an opinion. The process is unusual in some ways: There are no TV cameras in the court chamber and the justices don’t frequently allow audio recordings.

This has been a busy year for the Supreme Court. How do its decisions impact Americans?

In 2015, even someone who doesn’t read a newspaper or watch the news will have seen dramatic changes in society. This year alone, the Supreme Court made decisions of monumental importance. One major decision was the same-sex marriage ruling, which guaranteed gay couples the right to marry and overrides state laws. Regardless of if you’re in Wyoming, Massachusetts, or Texas, it’s now a legal right.

Another major decision involves healthcare. This is the second year in a row where the Supreme Court upheld “Obamacare” by a 5–4 decision. If you don’t work for a company that offers healthcare, you may continue to purchase it through your state because the justices determined that healthcare subsidies will continue to flow to state exchanges.

Two facets of our experience, which are fundamental to who we are, changed dramatically in one year. The Supreme Court may not be in the forefront of everyone’s mind, but the effects of its rulings can be seen on a daily basis and in fundamental parts of people’s lives. —As told to Jessica Cerretani

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