supreme court building

Understanding the judicial branch is key to understanding how our government implements laws and policies. The Judicial branch is nationwide, and includes:

  • The United States Supreme Court
  • Federal District Courts
  • Appellate Courts
  • Circuit Courts
  • Courts of Appeals
  • Trial Courts
  • State Supreme Courts

The History of the Judicial Branch

The Judiciary Act of 1789, passed by the first US Congress, established the judicial branch. This Act created the Supreme Court as well as the national system of district and circuit courts. The first Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the power of the judicial branch with the Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803. 

Marbury v. Madison established judicial review. Judicial review is the power of the courts to determine the constitutionality of laws or government actions. It allows courts to review whether a law or government action is in line with the Constitution.

If the court finds that a law or action violates the Constitution, it can declare it unconstitutional, thus invalidating it. Many lower district and appellate courts operate according to this interpretation of judicial review.

The Structure of the Federal Judicial Branch

The federal judicial branch consists of three main entities: the US Supreme Court, 13 Courts of Appeals and 94 Federal District Courts.

District courts are the trial courts of the federal judiciary. They handle both civil and criminal cases and are where most federal cases will begin. District judges are appointed for life by the President, with confirmation by the Senate.

Following the decision of a Federal District Court, each party to the lawsuit may appeal the decision. To appeal means to request a higher court, in this instance the Court of Appeals, to review and potentially overturn a decision made by a lower court.

Parties may attempt the appeal process one more time to the United States Supreme Court. To do so, the party must file a petition for a “Writ of Certiorari.” The Supreme Court makes the final decision whether to review a case once again or deny the petition. If a petition is granted, the case is heard before the Supreme Court. If the petition is denied, the decision from the Court of Appeals stands as the final decision.

The Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. The Chief Justice is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. There is no requirement that the Chief Justice first serves as an Associate Justice. Current Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. was appointed to the Supreme Court Bench as Chief Justice in September of 2005.

There are five main points that are important to know about the Supreme Court of the United States:

  • The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land
  • There are nine Justices on the Supreme Court, who serve lifetime appointments
  • Their main responsibility is to interpret the Constitution of the United States
  • They take on a limited number of cases every year, focusing on topics that are relevant to the entire nation
  • They publish highly regarded written opinions explaining their decisions, often used to determine future cases

The Power of the Judicial Branch

The Judicial Branch holds several important powers, including:

  • Interpreting the Constitution: The courts are responsible for determining the meaning and application of the Constitution. This is especially true for the Supreme Court. Through their interpretations, courts establish legal precedents. Precedents guide future court decisions by determining the constitutionality of laws and policies. They also shape the development of constitutional law.
  • Judicial Review: If a court determines that a law or action conflicts with the Constitution, it can declare it unconstitutional. This decision then becomes precedent. Precedents provide consistency and predictability in the legal system. They ensure that comparable cases are treated similarly, and that the law is applied consistently over time. However, precedents are never set in stone.
  • Resolving Legal Disputes: The courts interpret and apply the law to determine the rights and responsibilities of the parties involved. This is done, ideally, through fair and impartial proceedings.
  • Enforcing the Rule of Law: The courts ensure that laws are applied in a fair and consistent manner. By doing so, they hold individuals and entities accountable for their actions and help maintain order in society.

Checks and Balances

Checks and balances exist between the three branches of the United States government. While the judicial system holds many responsibilities and powers, it also has limitations. These limitations include a reliance on the legislative and executive branches for enforcement. Essential checks and balances include congressional oversight, impeachment and removal processes. Additionally, the courts are held to public opinion.

Through judicial independence, the judiciary acts as an independent branch of government. Judicial independence ensures that judges make fair decisions without political pressure or interference.

Congressional oversight ensures that the judiciary adheres to ethical standards and acts within its constitutional authority. Should the courts and justices not meet these standards, justices can be removed from office.

While judges are not elected officials and refrain from politics, they are still held to public opinion. Should the courts routinely go against the will of the people, they may undermine public approval and trust in the justice system as a whole. Without respect for the courts and their ability to impartially review the law, their decisions lose power. 

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