The Supreme Court was back Tuesday after a break for the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. The justices heard arguments in two cases from their January session. The Supreme Court is a place of tradition — it does not allow cameras, no tweeting; reporters are only allowed to use pens and note pads to cover the oral arguments. But we’ll unpack the pomp and somewhat confusing functioning of the high court by using Tuesday’s second case, Dalmazzi v. United States, to highlight the processes of the court.

Dalmazzi v. United States (consolidated case)

Heard on Jan. 16, 2018. Consolidates Dalmazzi v. United States, Cox. v. United States and Ortiz v. United States.

What’s the case about?

There’s a dual-officeholder ban on military judges.

President Barack Obama nominated and the Senate confirmed five military officers to judgeships on both the military Court of Criminal Appeals judges and the civil Court of Military Commission Review, which review appeals from military commissions, tin April 2016. Members of the military  members that were convicted by this court took issue — they argue that the judges who held two offices were violating the dual-office ban and want the verdicts made against them thrown out.

The question: Can a military officer serve on a Military Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Military Commission Review at the same time? (And if not, are the decisions made by the double-booked judges illegitimate?)

Who’s involved?

Dalmazzi v. United States consolidated three cases: Air Force Lt/ Nicole A. Dalmazzi was convicted of using a controlled substance; six Army and Air Force officers, convicted for various offenses;  and Airman Keanu D.W. Oritz, convicted of handling and viewing child pornography.

Usually, only lawyers for the two sides are allowed to present oral arguments to the justices. But in this case, University of Virginia Law Professor Aditya Bamzai also was allowed to speak, arguing  t that the Supreme Court does not have “appellate jurisdiction” to hear the cases under Article III as outlined by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison. According to a Bloomberg report, this is the first permission to argue by a law professor since at least the 1940s.

What issues will the Court settle?

These cases involve four major issues:

  • Whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction in the Dalmazzi and Cox cases.
  • Whether the appeals in Dalmazzi and Cox are “moot” (no longers a relevant issue).
  • The justices will deal with dual appointments. Does simultaneous judgeships on two military courts violate the federal ban on military officers holding a civil office?
  • Does the Appointments Clause or the Commander-in-Chief Clause of the Constitution prohibit the dual appointments of these judges?

What could the decision mean?

This case will answer an important question: When, and under what conditions, can a military officer serve simultaneously in another office of the United States? 

But don’t expect to be citing this case as a benchmark decision. fThe justices are unlikely to make broad rulings about the Appointments Clause, the Commander-in-Chief Clause or the court’s jurisdiction: they’ll stick to the specific military governance at hand.

Cases heard each year

The Supreme Court is sent between 7,000 and 8,000 cases each year, of which it typically hears 80.


In 1789, the chief justice’s salary was $4,000. By 2014, the payout had risen to $255,500, with associate justices receiving $244,400. Their salary may not be diminished during their time in office. Justices are appointed for life.


Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Of all one-term presidents, William Howard Taft appointed the most Supreme Court justices (six).

The Term

The term of the court begins, by law, on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October of the next year.

How a case gets to the Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and thus used as a “court of last resort” in many cases. Cases must pass through lower courts before being considered for the Supreme Court.

How a case is handled in the Supreme Court:

Once a case reaches the court, it follows a certain procedure before the justices announce the decision.


Petition for a writ of certiorari

Those wishing to submit a case to the Supreme Court must send a writ of certiorai of the records of a case from a lower court for the consideration of a higher court.


Case Selection

Of the 7,000 to 8,000 cases submitted for one term, the justices will typically hear 80. In most cases, the court has appellate jurisdiction, which means it either reaffirms or reverses a decision made in a lower court.


Oral arguments

Each side is allotted 30 minutes for oral arguments, with proceedings typically lasting an hour. Attorneys present their side of the case and answer any questions justices may have; often, the questions take most of the attorneys’ time. In order to bring a case to the Supreme Court, an attorney must be a member of the Bar of the Court.



Justices meet in private at the end of the week to discuss the cases they have heard over the past few days . They state their opinions on a case and hold a preliminary vote.


Drafting opinions

Once they have made a decision, justices draft majority opinions based on two rules: if the chief justice is in the majority, he may elect to write the opinion or delegate it to another justice; if he is in the minority, the most senior justice in the majority writes the opinion. Other justices may write concurring or dissenting opinions.


Announcement of the ruling

Decisions are announced in May or June before the court breaks for the summer; the court then releases the written opinions pertaining to the case. Court decisions set precedent for the interpretation of the Constitution and federal law across the country.