The Courts: Our Rule of Law
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Identify and explain the differences between criminal and civil
- Describe the variety of court systems in America.
- Discuss the vital role that courts play in the American system.
- Explain the origins of judicial power and describe the controversy
over its use.
- Explain how judges are selected in the various American court
This unit explores the unique role that courts play in American
society. The unit explores the variety of courts and assesses their
role in the governmental system, questioning, for instance, the
source of judicial power. The unit also examines how we select judges
and raises questions about how this should be done.
The U.S. Judiciary is made up of 51 separate court systems: 50 state
courts and the U.S. court system, also known as the federal
court. While there are significant variations among these 51
courts, all are divided between trial courts and appellate courts.
Trial courts concentrate their activities on ascertaining
facts, largely through the testimony of witnesses and the examination
of physical evidence. A single judge presides over the trial and
either the judge or a jury of citizens renders the decision. Appellate
courts review the decisions of lower courts. These courts hear
arguments that deal with the application of the law to the facts
that have already been ascertained by trial courts. In appellate
courts, decisions are rendered by groups of judges.
Judicial federalism is the term used to describe the relationships
between these independent court systems at the state and national
levels, and the various ways individual cases can move between different
court systems. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state maintained
its own courts, and there was no federal court system. The U.S.
Constitution also allows for states to maintain their own individual
court systems that derive their authority from state constitutions
and state laws. But if a case originally heard in state courts raises
a federal question, which involves the meaning and application
of federal laws and the U.S. Constitution, parties to the case can
try to appeal their case to the federal appeals court, or directly
to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Constitution in Article III vests judicial power
"in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as Congress
may from time to time ordain and establish." With the Judiciary
Act of 1789, Congress created a system of lower federal
courts under its authority granted in Article III. These courts,
also known as constitutional courts, include the 13 district
courts, which are the trial courts of the federal system. Congress
also created courts of appeals, known as appellate courts, which
can hear appeals of district court decisions, or from state appellate
courts. Today, excluding separate special courts (specialized courts
created by Congress, including the U.S. Court of Military Appeals,
U.S. Tax Court, and bankruptcy courts) there are 94 U.S. District
Courts, 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, and one U.S. Supreme Court,
which is the highest court in the United States.
For most federal cases, the U.S. District Court is the first and
last court of hearing. The adversarial process dominates
in District Court, where two sides to a dispute argue their cases
before either a judge or a jury. At the appellate level, a panel
of judges (usually three) decides cases based on briefs filed by
attorneys representing both sides in a dispute. Appellate judges
generally decide narrow questions of constitutional law or procedure.
Their decisions either affirm a lower court's decision, or overturn
it. If a case is overturned, the decision of the lower court is
overruled and the higher court's decision prevails.
The U.S. Supreme Court can choose to hear cases on appeal from lower
state or federal courts. Under its Article III powers, the Supreme
Court must hear some cases first, under original jurisdiction.
This small number of cases includes disputes between two or more
states, or cases involving actions brought against the U.S. by ambassadors
of foreign countries. The bulk of cases heard by the Supreme Court
are accepted under its appellate jurisdiction, which allows
it to choose cases it will hear on appeal from lower state or federal
courts. Ever since the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison
(1802), the Supreme Court has exercised judicial review,
or the power to nullify acts of state or federal governments based
on what the words and phrases in the U.S. Constitution actually
mean in specific cases.
The exercise of judicial review by federal courts remains a controversial
issue. Some people who advocate judicial restraint argue
that judicial review should only be used sparingly, while those
who advocate judicial activism believe that courts should
exercise judicial review whenever governments act in ways that violate
an expansive view of constitutional rights and liberties.
A Supreme Court's ruling in a given case is final. However, its
opinion on central and related constitutional questions can be used
as precedent to help future courts decide similar issues.
Sometimes a Supreme Court might overrule or reverse a past Supreme
Court decision, and replace the previous precedent with a new interpretation
An important element of judicial power in the United States is the
assumption that courts are independent of politics. But the realities
associated with the way judges are selected and the procedures they
use to decide cases often inject politics into the judicial process.
Most state judges must face the voters, either for election or retention.
No doubt some judges are more swayed by public opinion in rendering
judicial decisions than others. The debate over what constitutes
an independent judiciary in American government continues.