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Politics of the United States
unit 2: the judicial branch
Terms in this set (31)
The Judicial Branch and the Constitution
The third article of the US Constitution outlines the judicial branch of the federal government. Article III is quite short compared with the articles that establish the legislative and executive branches.
Article III vests judicial power in "one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may . . . ordain and establish.
The Constitution gives the federal courts jurisdiction over cases that involve the following:
-the laws, treaties, and Constitution of the United States
-diplomatic representatives from other countries
-laws related to the sea or shipping two or more state governments
-citizens of different states
-a state and a citizen of a different state or foreign nation
-citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states
The Judiciary Act of 1789
Because it was left to Congress to define the nature of the federal court system, the first congressional session devoted a large portion of its time to this subject. The result of that session was the Judiciary Act of 1789. In this act, Congress created a three-tier federal court system that included district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court.
District courts were established as the lowest level in the federal court system, and each state was expected to have a district court within its boundaries. Any issue could be appealed to the second level, known as the circuit, or appeals, court, whose jurisdiction would encompass a particular region. The third and highest level of the system was the Supreme Court.
In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress also set the number of justices who would sit on the Supreme Court at one chief justice and five associate justices. In 1869, to acknowledge the growth of the nation, Congress raised the number of total justices on the court to nine, which remains the number of justices on the court today.
Separation of powers stands as one of the defining characteristics of the US system of government. Each of the three branches of government maintains its own powers and roles, and each branch also retains the capacity to check the actions of the other two.
The judicial branch of the federal government interprets the statutes, regulations, and traditions that constitute the body of US law.
The judiciary's most important power in the system of checks and balances is its power of judicial review. Judicial review is the judiciary's authority to declare congressional legislation and executive actions unconstitutional. If a law is declared unconstitutional, it is void and cannot be enforced.
Marbury v. Madison
Although judicial review is the most important judicial power, the framers did not include it in the constitutional powers of the judicial branch. In fact, it was not even clear that the judiciary had this power until 1803, when the Supreme Court decided the tremendously influential case Marbury v. Madison.
When Marbury v. Madison came before the Supreme Court, John Marshall sat as chief justice. Marshall strongly believed that the Supreme Court should be the final judge of whether or not a law was constitutional. The difficulty Marshall faced was that the courts had no way of enforcing their own decisions. If the Supreme Court did assert the right of judicial review and declare a law unconstitutional, there was a real possibility that the legislative and executive branches would simply ignore the Court's decision.
In Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice Marshall saw his chance to exercise the power of judicial review without provoking the opposition of the other two branches of government. The case involved a dispute between William Marbury and Secretary of State James Madison.
Marbury had been appointed to a federal judgeship by President John Adams shortly before Adams was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. Upon becoming president, Jefferson ordered Madison, the new secretary of state, not to finalize paperwork on Marbury's appointment because Jefferson considered Marbury a political opponent.
In a lawsuit against Secretary of State Madison, Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus forcing Madison to finalize Marbury's judicial appointment. A writ of mandamus is a judicial order that commands a public official to do something the court regards as an absolute duty, not a choice. The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court the authority to issue writs of mandamus, a power not granted to the court by the Constitution.
Chief Justice Marshall devised a way to expand the Supreme Court's power while still coming to a decision that the Jefferson administration would accept. In his opinion, which was approved unanimously by the rest of the court, Marshall ruled that the Judiciary Act's expansion of the court's authority to include writs of mandamus was equivalent to changing the Constitution. Marshall declared that any law that was "repugnant" (contradictory) to the Constitution was illegal and therefore could not be enforced. On the basis of this reasoning, Marshall concluded that although Secretary of State Madison had acted improperly, the Supreme Court did not have the authority to issue Madison a writ of mandamus, meaning Marbury would not receive his judgeship. The executive branch accepted and enforced the decision because it suited the political purposes of President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison.
Through its successful exercise of judicial review, the Supreme Court's decision greatly increased the authority of the judicial branch. Marbury v. Madison—the first time in US history that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional—set a powerful precedent for the future. The case definitively established the Supreme Court's power of judicial review, giving the judicial branch the exclusive right to interpret the Constitution and evaluate the constitutionality of legislative and executive actions.
-declares laws unconstitutional
-interpret the constitution
The Supreme Court Building
Across First Street from the US Capitol in Washington, DC, rises another impressive marble building. This three-story building is the home of the preeminent court in the United States: the Supreme Court.
Before this building was built in the 1930s, the Supreme Court held sessions in the US Capitol. Receiving its own impressive structure helped reinforce the independence of this important part of the US government.
The US Legal System
The US legal system is a complex institution that serves the nation. At its heart, the legal system is a dual system of federal and state courts that is tasked with interpreting laws and establishing a sense of justice in society.
The court systems at the federal, state, and local levels often work separately, but they can also work together to make a cohesive legal system. Interestingly, a single case could begin at any one of the levels of the court system. That single case could also get moved to or affect other levels of the system.
As a result of these overlapping responsibilities, jurisdiction and precedent play crucial roles in forming a complete understanding of the legal system.
Jurisdiction (from the Latin words for "saying the law") is a court's authority to interpret and apply the law in a given situation. All courts have rules about what types of cases they can and cannot decide. A court must determine that it has jurisdiction over a case before agreeing to hear it.
Two varieties of jurisdiction are original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. The court that tries a case for the first time holds original jurisdiction over the case.
The losing party in the case may then ask a higher court to review the decision of the original court. The higher court maintains appellate jurisdiction over the case.
The federal judiciary holds exclusive jurisdiction over certain areas of the law, which means that cases in those areas must be heard in federal court. Cases related to interpreting the US Constitution, for example, may be heard only in federal court.
The federal courts also hold exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving a federal or foreign official, an act of Congress, or a violation of federal criminal law. Moreover, only the Supreme Court may decide disputes between two states.
The federal and state court systems exercise concurrent jurisdiction, or shared authority, over certain matters. Some crimes, such as robbing a federally insured bank, violate both federal and state law. Sometimes, a state and the federal government (or two states) will both prosecute a person for the same crime if the crime falls under their concurrent jurisdiction.
When a case is presented to a court for the first time, what role is that court said to have?
Original jurisdiction refers to the first court to hear a case.
Federal and state courts hear cases that involve three types of law: criminal, civil, and constitutional.
Criminal law is probably what first comes to mind when people think about law. Criminal law involves crimes against society, from felonies (such as murder) to misdemeanors (vandalism, for example).
Criminal cases usually begin with the police arresting a suspect accused of breaking an established law. For a more serious crime, the arrest is followed by a criminal trial, where a government prosecutor brings charges against the suspect, who is now known as the defendant.
Trial by jury remains a common feature of criminal trials, as individual rights mentioned under the Bill of Rights cover aspects of criminal law. If the defendant is found guilty and is convicted of the charges, the defendant may be punished with a fine, prison, or even execution.
Most federal court cases involve civil law, which regulates the relationships between private individuals. Citizens often use civil law to solve disputes involving accidents or contracts.
In a civil case, one individual or organization (the plaintiff) sues another (the defendant), accusing the defendant of violating the plaintiff's rights. If the plaintiff wins the case, he is entitled to monetary damages from the defendant.
Deciding questions of constitutional law is perhaps the weightiest responsibility of the judiciary. The judiciary maintains sole responsibility over interpreting the Constitution, and only it can decide whether a law is constitutional. As noted earlier, experts refer to this authority as judicial review.
Written law consists primarily of statutory law: legislation enacted by Congress and other legislative bodies as well as initiatives and referenda passed directly by the people. Written law also includes administrative law, which consists of orders and regulations issued by executive officials at the federal, state, and local levels.
The body of law derived from the Constitution is known as constitutional law. Constitutional law serves as the highest law in the nation. If statutory or administrative law conflicts with constitutional law, the Constitution takes precedence.
The principle of the rule of law requires that judicial decisions be consistent across time and location. To address the fact that written law cannot detail every possible situation, judges developed the principle of stare decisis, which is Latin for "let the decision stand."
Stare decisis dictates that judges follow precedent, or earlier judgments, when deciding cases. This practice originated in England, where it eventually developed into something called the common law. The common law exists as a vast unwritten body of precedent that regulates almost every aspect of human conduct.
The Court System
The federal court system comprises two types of courts: constitutional courts and legislative courts.
The federal district courts, the courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court are all constitutional courts because Article III of the Constitution either established them specifically (as is the case for the Supreme Court) or authorized Congress to establish them.
Legislative courts are also set up by Congress, but they are established under implied congressional powers. These courts are created as part of the normal legislative process, and the court usually has some special purpose or a narrow jurisdiction.
There are 94 district courts in the United States, each covering a different area of the country. Approximately 80 percent of federal trials originate in district courts, which hear both criminal and civil cases.
Unlike other federal courts, district courts use juries to try cases. District court trials have two phases. In the first phase, a grand jury consisting of 16 to 23 people hears the charges against a defendant. If the grand jury thinks that the defendant is probably guilty, it issues an indictment against the defendant.
The court then dismisses the grand jury and the second phase of the trial begins. In this phase, a petit jury of 6 to 12 people listens to a more extended presentation of the evidence against the defendant. This jury delivers a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
Courts of Appeals
If a party is dissatisfied with the outcome of a case, the party may choose to appeal the decision. An appeal is a request for a higher court to examine the judgment of a lower court.
There are 13 courts of appeals that handle over 40,000 cases a year. Each court of appeals handles cases from a particular circuit, or region, of the country. The country is divided into 12 circuits: 11 multistate circuits and one for the District of Columbia. The final district court, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, handles appeals from legislative courts and certain specialized cases from district courts.
The federal courts of appeals never hold original jurisdiction in a case. To reach a court of appeals, a case must be appealed from the district court level. Cases are decided by a majority vote of the judges on the case.
Court of appeals judges do not examine evidence or hear testimony. They must decide whether any errors of procedure or legal interpretation occurred in the original case. The decisions of an appeals court may still be appealed to the Supreme Court, but since the Supreme Court hears only about 150 cases a year, the court of appeals usually has the last word.
Congress created the legislative courts to help it exercise the powers granted to it by the Constitution. These courts do not hear cases about legislation: their name comes from the fact that they were created by legislation instead of by the Constitution. Therefore, legislative courts are not governed by Article III of the Constitution. And unlike other federal judges, legislative court judges serve fixed, limited terms.
Each legislative court holds a narrowly defined jurisdiction. The Court of Military Appeals, for instance, hears appeals from members of the armed services who have been convicted of violating military law. Disputes over taxes are heard by the US Tax Court, and the US Court of Federal Claims handles suits seeking monetary damages from the federal government.
Congress has created separate court systems to govern areas of the United States that are not states. The District of Columbia Courts, for example, act as the court system for Washington, DC. The territorial courts serve a similar purpose for US territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.
constitutional courts v.s. legislative courts
-courts of appeal
-US district courts
-US supreme courts
-US court of military appeals
-US tax court
-US court of federal claims
The United States exists as a federalist republic. The US federalist system divides power between the state and national governments.
As part of the federal system, individual states have established systems that mirror the federal system, with lower courts (such as local trial courts), intermediate appellate courts, and then the highest court (usually a state supreme court). These state courts hear cases that relate to either local or state matters.
State courts are also involved in the appeals process. In fact, state supreme courts hear most appeals. The US Supreme Court can then choose to take on cases that originated in the states if the ruling in the case will affect the whole nation.
The Constitution gives the president the authority to appoint federal judges with the advice and consent of the Senate. Because federal judges serve lifetime terms, presidents have the power to shape the composition of the judiciary for many years after they leave office. Although the president's judicial nominees are almost always confirmed, the Senate still exercises substantial influence over judicial appointments.
At the state and local levels, judges are often elected, though this varies from state to state. Most judicial elections in the states are nonpartisan, although some states select their supreme court justices through a party nomination process.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Constitution stipulates that one member of the Supreme Court be designated the chief justice. The remaining justices are known as associate justices.
The chief justice presides over the Court's public and private meetings and oversees the operation of the entire federal court system. The chief justice also presides over impeachment proceedings and usually administers the oath of office to incoming presidents.
The chief justice exerts so much influence over the character of the court that periods in the court's history are often named after the chief justice. For example, the years 1836 to 1864 are referred to as the Taney Court after Roger Taney, who was chief justice during that time.
Notable Justices of the Supreme Court
President William Howard Taft was appointed chief justice in 1921, eight years after he left the presidency.
Another justice, Charles Evans Hughes, resigned from the Supreme Court in 1916 to be the Republican nominee for president. Hughes was reappointed to the court in 1930 and served as chief justice.
President Johnson appointed the first African American justice, Thurgood Marshall, to the court in 1967. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman justice, joined Marshall in 1981.
Landmark Cases: Judicial Activism and Restraint
With Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court claimed great powers for itself. These powers made the judicial branch the true equal of the other two branches. Yet the Supreme Court waited half a century after Marbury before it again exercised its power of judicial review and declared another law unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has often been reluctant to overturn the decisions of the elected branches of the government. This reluctance is known as the policy of judicial restraint.
Advocates of judicial restraint believe that government policy should be the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches. In their minds, courts should refrain from interfering except in clear cases where an issue of constitutionality is involved.
During certain periods of US history, the Supreme Court has favored judicial activism over judicial restraint. Judicial activism describes Supreme Court decisions that have the effect of formulating policy instead of merely interpreting the Constitution.
Some observers consider many of the most famous and controversial Supreme Court decisions—such as Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade—to have been animated by a spirit of judicial activism.
The most famous period of judicial activism occurred under the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Warren, who served from 1953 to 1969, presided over a number of important decisions, especially in the realm of civil rights. During this era, the Supreme Court led the rest of the government in recognizing and protecting the rights of racial minorities.
The Warren Court
In 1954, the Warren Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, that court's most famous decision. Reversing long-established legal precedent and government policy, the Supreme Court decreed that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional. The Court ordered public schools across the country to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."
Because of decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, judicial activism is often associated with political liberalism and the expansion of civil rights. Liberalism and conservatism, however, do not necessarily correlate with judicial activism and judicial restraint. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, for instance, the Supreme Court struck down a number of liberal measures, including the income tax and the minimum wage. In this case, the judicial activism of the court favored political conservatives.
How does judicial activism compare to judicial restraint?
Judicial activism is essentially the opposite of judicial restraint.
If a court is exercising judicial activism, it means the court is actively making rulings that will change the laws that have been established by other branches of government, and even sometimes by other courts. The use of the word activism refers to the belief that the judges who behave in this manner are serving as activists who are pushing forward personal or political agendas.
Judicial restraint, on the other hand, means that the members of the judicial branch are restraining themselves from making decisions that could end up changing policies or laws.
Supreme Court Cases
The Supreme Court hears between 80 and 150 cases a year, out of approximately 7,000 petitions for review. Very few cases fall under original jurisdiction. In the vast majority of the cases it hears, the Supreme Court holds appellate jurisdiction; that is, the Court has agreed to review the decision of a lower court.
Most Supreme Court cases come from the state supreme courts and the federal courts of appeals. Some are drawn from federal district courts. Cases from the Court of Military Appeals remain rare. The Supreme Court carries the final word on any question involving the Constitution, acts of the executive or legislative branches, and US treaties.
William Rehnquist, who was appointed chief justice in 1986, observed that three factors make it more likely for the court to hear a case:
-Two lower courts have come to different decisions about the case.
-A lower court's decision conflicts with an existing Supreme Court ruling.
-The decision has significance beyond the parties in the case.
A minimum of four justices must agree to consider a case for the Supreme Court to hear it. If the Court declines to hear a case, then the decision of the lower court stands.
The Court also maintains the option of remanding a case, or sending it back to a lower court with instructions to review the judgment in light of new decisions or other developments.
If the court declines to hear a case, it does not necessarily mean that it agrees with the decision of the lower court. The Court will not hear hypothetical objections to laws; rather, it will hear only cases in which the person suing has suffered real harm from the law. The court is also very reluctant to involve itself in controversial subjects unless it has good reason, especially if that means overruling the elected branches of the government.
While in session, the Supreme Court hears arguments for two or three cases a day, three days a week. During oral arguments, which are open to the public, lawyers from each side present their arguments and answer questions from the justices.
About a third of the time, the court stands unanimous in its opinion of how the case should be decided. In the remainder of cases, the court splits into two (or sometimes more) factions.
The most senior justice in the majority assigns the task of writing the majority opinion. The majority opinion becomes the official, legally binding decision of the court.
The justices who disagree with the majority produce a second, dissenting opinion. The senior member of the minority decides which justice will write the dissenting opinion. Although dissenting opinions have no legal weight, they can be influential. The Supreme Court's position on issues can change over time, and the dissenting opinion of today may well form the basis for the majority opinion of tomorrow.
Implementing Supreme Court Decisions
After a Supreme Court decision is released, it has the force and authority of law. Nevertheless, because the court has no independent power of enforcement, it may take years for a decision to be implemented. Resistance from other sectors of the government can significantly delay implementation of a decision.
The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated the integration of public schools, suffered delays in implementation for many years because of the obstructionism of Southern senators and states. Southern governors, including Orville Faubus of Arkansas and George Wallace of Alabama, refused to comply with the court's orders. Integration didn't truly come to the South until the president and Congress began to enforce the decision with strict laws and federal troops.
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