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The Judiciary

The Federal Courts

The Foundations of American Law

The State Courts

There are three layers of authority in the federal court system:

  1. The Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the country.
  2. The twelve Courts of Appeals and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit have moderate jurisdiction.
  3. Several district and specialized courts have the most restricted jurisdiction in the federal court system.
The Structure of the Federal Courts

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Sometimes it hears cases as a trial court, but most of the time the Court functions as an appellate court. The Court has traditionally consisted of nine justices: one chief justice and eight associate justices. Although Congress has the power to change the number of justices, the number has held steady at nine justices since 1869. Supreme Court justices serve for life.

Selecting Cases

The Supreme Court receives thousands of appeals every year but hears only a small percentage of them. The Court meets in closed session to decide which cases to hear. The Court generally follows the rule of four in choosing cases: If four justices want to hear a case, the Court will accept it. When the Court decides to hear a case, it issues a writ of certiorari, a legal document ordering a lower court to send a case to the Supreme Court for review. The writ of certiorari signals that the Supreme Court will hear the case. The Court tends to hear only cases of great importance, such as cases involving a constitutional matter or a possible overturning of precedent.

The Court is more likely to grant a writ of certiorari if one of the appellants is the U.S. government. The solicitor general, a high-ranking official in the Justice Department, submits the requests for certiorari and argues cases in front of the Court as the lawyer for the federal government.

Briefs and Oral Arguments

Both parties in a case must submit briefs to the Court, documents that present the party’s position and argument. Sometimes, other groups submit amicus curiae briefs (friend of the court briefs), which present further arguments in favor of one party or the other. The justices read the briefs and then may hear oral arguments, in which both parties have thirty minutes to make their case before the full Court. During oral arguments, the justices frequently interrupt the attorneys to ask questions.

Deciding Cases

After oral arguments, the justices meet in judicial conference to discuss the case. Sometimes the Court issues a per curiam rejection, an unsigned decision that reaffirms lower court’s ruling. This rejection means that the Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case. Only the justices and their clerks attend the conference, and the proceedings are kept secret. After debating the case, the justices vote. The Court then issues a decision, which states the Court’s ruling, and an opinion, which explains the Court’s legal reasoning behind its decision.

There are several types of opinions:

  • Majority opinions are issued when at least five justices agree with the legal reasoning behind the decision. These opinions form new precedents that lower courts must follow.
  • Plurality opinions are issued when several justices agree with the decision but not the legal reasoning behind it. A plurality opinion represents the views of a majority of the justices on the winning side.
  • Concurring opinions are issued by justices who agree with the winning side but disagrees with the legal reasoning.
  • Dissenting opinions are issued by justices who opposed the ruling decision and favored the losing party in a case. Dissenting opinions explain why the dissenting justices find the ruling decision wrong.

The decision can affirm the lower court’s ruling, in which case that ruling stands. If the Supreme Court finds error in the lower court’s ruling, it can reverse the ruling. Sometimes when a case is reversed, it gets remanded, or sent back to a lower court for a new trial or proceeding.

The following table summarizes some of the most important court cases in American history.





Marbury v. Madison 1803 Courts assumed the power of judicial review (the power to declare laws unconstitutional)
McCulloch v. Maryland 1819 Granted the federal government broad powers through the necessary and proper clause
Dred Scott v. Sanford 1857 Forcibly returned a slave to his owner in the South and thus increased tensions over slavery
Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 Ruled that “separate but equal” was constitutional; legalized segregation and Jim Crow laws
Brown v. Board of Education 1954 Overturned Plessy; declared segregation unconstitutional
Mapp v. Ohio 1961 Expanded the exclusionary rule to cover state courts
Gideon v. Wainwright 1963 Ruled that the government must supply a lawyer to those who cannot afford one
Miranda v. Arizona 1966 Ruled that police must inform people they are about to question of their right against self-incrimination
Roe v. Wade 1973 Legalized abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy
Bush v. Gore 2000 Decided the 2000 presidential election by ruling that the Florida Supreme Court was wrong in ordering a recount

Courts of Appeals

The U.S. Courts of Appeals hear cases from federal district courts that have been appealed. The United States has twelve Courts of Appeals, each of which covers a circuit, a geographic area containing several district courts. For this reason, the Courts of Appeals are also known as circuit courts. When a party appeals a decision made in a district court, a circuit court reviews the details of the case. The Courts of Appeals do not hold trials; if a new trial is warranted, the Courts of Appeals send the case back to the district court. Courts of Appeals will not review all cases that have been appealed. Cases only get reviewed for a good reason, such as if the ruling discarded precedent.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

The U.S. court system also has a thirteenth Court of Appeals, called the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This court has national jurisdiction over certain cases, such as those in which the U.S. government is a defendant.

Specialized Federal Courts

The federal court system includes a number of specialty courts that fall outside the primary system that have similar authority to the district courts. These courts include the U.S. Claims Court (which covers cases in which the federal government is being sued for damages), the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Tax Court, and the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. These courts are all inferior to the Supreme Court, and the losing party in a case heard in one of these courts can appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

District Courts

The lowest level of the federal judicial system is the U.S. District Courts, which hear most federal trials. Each district court hears cases within a particular district, or geographical area. There are more than ninety districts. Every state has at least one district court, but some have as many as four. District courts are courts of original jurisdiction. Because they are the lowest federal courts, district courts must follow Supreme Court precedent as much as possible. Most federal cases begin and end at the district court level.

Selection of Federal Judges

All federal judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Senatorial courtesy, a tradition since the 1840s, allows senators of the president’s party to have a say in the appointment of judges to their states. Once on the bench, a federal judge keeps the position for a term of “good behavior,” which is tantamount to life, barring criminal acts. As Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist Papers No. 78 (1787), keeping judges in office for life gives them the independence they need to serve as a proper check on the executive and legislative branches.


The Constitution does not list any specific requirements an individual must meet in order to become a federal judge. A person does not, in theory, even have to be a lawyer in order to be a judge, although the vast majority of judges are lawyers. In recent years, more nominees have had prior experience as judges (either on a lower court or on a state court). The American Bar Association (ABA), the professional association of lawyers, issues ratings of nominees based on their qualifications.

Supreme Court Nominees

The president nominates someone to be a Supreme Court justice only when there is a vacancy on the Court. Most presidents choose nominees based on judicial philosophy, hoping to appoint someone who will most likely decide cases in accordance with the political views of the president and members of his political party. Other factors that influence the president’s choice include the nominee’s qualifications, input from any outside groups, and the likelihood that the Senate will confirm the nominee.

Senate confirmation is often brutal process. Because federal justices serve for life, senators take great care to thoroughly question and investigate nominees. A failed nomination can be devastating to an administration and can make the president look foolish and politically weak.

Example: In July 2005, President George W. Bush nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Republicans and conservatives of all stripes immediately criticized the choice, partly because they felt that Miers lacked the experience to be an effective justice. The media portrayed the president as out of touch with the Republican Party, and many critics argued that Bush had placed loyalty above experience in choosing Miers. Miers consequently withdrew her nomination.

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