Judicial Branch

When you think of the judicial branch, you might picture the Supreme Court justices in their traditional black robes.  But there's more to the US judicial branch than that!  Without the lower courts, the American justice system would be in total chaos. This article discusses the structure of the US judicial branch and its role in US government.  We will also look at the judicial branch's powers and its responsibilities to the American people.

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Table of contents

    Definition of the Judicial Branch

    The Judicial branch is defined as the body of government responsible for interpreting laws and applying them to real-life situations in order to resolve disputes.

    The US Judicial Branch was created by Article III of the Constitution, which states that "the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court..." In 1789, Congress set up the federal judiciary of six Supreme Court Justices as well as the lower federal courts. It wasn't until Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1891 that the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals were created. These Circuit Courts of Appeals are intended to take some of the appellate pressure off the Supreme Court.

    Judicial Branch Photo of Supreme Court StudySmarterThe U.S. Supreme Court Building via Wikimedia Commons

    Characteristics of the Judicial Branch

    Members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate. Congress has the power to shape the federal judiciary which means Congress can determine the number of Supreme Court justices. There are currently nine Supreme Court Justices - one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. However, at one point in U.S. history, there were only six Justices.

    Through the Constitution, Congress also had the power to create courts inferior to the Supreme Court. In the U.S., there are federal district courts and circuit courts of appeals.

    Justices serve life terms, which means they can preside over cases until their death or until they decide to retire. To remove a Federal Judge, the judge must be impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate.

    Only one Supreme Court justice has been impeached. In 1804, Justice Samuel Chase was accused of conducting trials in an arbitrary and oppressive manner. He refused to dismiss jurors that were biased and excluded or limited defense witnesses which violated an individual's right to a fair trial. He was also accused of letting his political bias affect his rulings. After the Senate trial, Justice Chase was acquitted. He continued to serve on the Supreme Court until his death in 1811.

    The Judicial Branch Justice Samuel Chase StudySmarterPortrait of Justice Samuel Chase, John Beale Bordley, Wikimedia Commons.

    Because Justices are not elected, they are able to apply the law without worrying about public or political influence.

    Structure of the Judicial Branch

    Supreme Court

    The Supreme Court is the highest and final appellate court in the U.S. It is also the court of first instance, meaning it has original jurisdiction, over cases involving public officials, ambassadors, and disputes between states. It is responsible for interpreting the Constitution, checking the constitutionality of laws, and maintaining checks and balances against the legislative and executive branches.

    Circuit Courts of Appeals

    There are 13 appellate courts in the U.S. The nation is divided into 12 regional circuits and each has its own court of appeals. The 13th Circuit Court of Appeals hears cases from the Federal Circuit. The role of the Circuit Courts of Appeals is to determine whether a law was applied correctly. The Courts of Appeals hear challenges to decisions made in the District Courts as well as decisions made by federal administrative agencies. In the Courts of Appeals, cases are heard by a panel of three judges - there are no juries.

    District Courts

    The U.S. has 94 district courts. These trial courts resolve disputes between individuals by establishing the facts and applying laws, determining who is right, and ordering restitution. One judge and a 12-person jury of an individual's peers hear cases. The district courts have been given original jurisdiction to hear nearly all criminal and civil cases by Congress and the Constitution. There are instances where state and federal law overlap. In that case, individuals have a choice as to whether they will file a case in state court or federal court.

    Restitution is the act of restoring something that has been lost or stolen to its proper owner. In law, restitution can involve paying a fine or damages, community service, or direct service to the individuals harmed.

    Role of the Judicial Branch

    The role of the judicial branch is to interpret the laws made by the legislative branch. It also determines the constitutionality of laws. The judicial branch hears cases regarding the application of laws and treaties made by ambassadors and public ministers. It resolves disputes between states and disputes in territorial waters. It also decides bankruptcy cases.

    Power of the Judicial Branch

    Checks and Balances

    When the Constitution divided the U.S. government into three branches, it gave each branch specific powers to prevent the others from gaining too much power. The judicial branch interprets the law. The judicial branch has the power to declare acts of the legislative and executive branches unconstitutional in whole or in part. This power is known as judicial review.

    Remember that the executive branch checks the judicial branch through its nomination of judges. The legislative branch checks the judicial branch through its confirmation and impeachment of judges.

    Judicial Review

    The Supreme Court's most important power is that of judicial review. The Supreme Court established its power of judicial review through its ruling in Marbury v. Madison in 1803 when it first declared a legislative act unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court determines that laws or actions taken by the government are unconstitutional, the Court has the ability to define public policy. Through this ability, the Supreme Court has also overruled its own decisions. Since 1803, the Supreme Court's power of judicial review has gone unchallenged.

    In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. The Act declared that the federal definition of marriage was a union between a man and a woman. In 2015, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act by ruling that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right.

    Other Judicial Checks

    The judicial branch can check the executive branch through judicial interpretation, the court's ability to validate and justify the regulations of executive organizations. The judicial branch can use written orders to prevent the executive branch from overstepping its authority. Writs of habeas corpus ensure that prisoners are not being held in violation of the law or constitution. Prisoners are brought before the court so a judge can decide if their arrest was legitimate. Writs of mandamus force government officials to perform their duties properly. A writ of prohibition prevents a government official from doing an action that is prohibited by the law.

    Responsibilities of the Judicial Branch

    As mentioned above the Supreme Court is the highest court and the final court of appeal ln the nation. It is also essential in maintaining the checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches through its power of judicial review. The judicial branch is critical in protecting the civil rights of individuals by striking down laws that violate these rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

    The Judicial Branch - Key takeaways

    • The judicial branch was established by Article III of the US Constitution which provided for a Supreme Court and inferior courts.
    • Altogether in the US judicial branch, there are the district courts, circuit courts of appeals, and Supreme Court.
    • Judges in the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
    • The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review which allows it to check the constitutionality of laws created by the legislative and executive branches.
    • The Supreme Court is the highest court and the last resort for appeals.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Judicial Branch

    What does the judicial branch do?

    The judicial branch interprets the laws created by the executive and legislative branches. 

    What is the role of the judicial branch?

    The role of the judicial branch is to interpret and apply laws to cases to determine who is right. The judicial branch also protects civil rights by deeming acts of the executive and legislative branches unconstitutional.

    What are the most important powers of the judicial branch?

    Judicial review is the most important power of the judicial branch. It allows the courts to declare an act of the executive or legislative branch unconstitutional.

    What are the most important facts about the judicial branch?

    The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and District Courts. There are 9 Supreme Court justices who serve life terms. There are 13 courts of appeal and 94 district courts. The court's power of judicial review was established by Marbury v. Madison.

    How does the legislative branch check the judicial branch?

    The legislative branch checks the judicial branch by confirming and impeaching Supreme Court justices.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many district courts are in the US?

    How many courts of appeals are in the US?

    How many Supreme Court justices are there?


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