The Judicial Branch

Creation and Structure of the Judicial System

The Supreme Court was the only court created by the Constitution. Congress created all other federal courts. These include district courts and courts of appeals (sometimes called appellate courts). There are also special courts such as bankruptcy, tax courts, international trade, a court of appeals for the armed forces and others.

The district courts and appellate courts, along with the Supreme Court form a three-rung ladder.  Cases heard in district court can be appealed and reviewed by the appellate courts. Some of these appealed cases are reviewed and possibly overturned by the Supreme Court.

Beyond this, the 50 state court systems are entirely separate and are created through their constitutions and legislatures.

Kinds of cases heard by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court hears five kinds of cases:

– Between two or more states

– Between the United States and a state

– Concerning foreign ambassadors and diplomats

– Between a state and a citizen of a different state

– Cases from the appellate courts and cases from the highest state level that involve a federal or constitutional matter.

This last category is one of the Supreme Court’s most important responsibilities. The Court decides if a law or government action violates the Constitution. This is known as judicial review and enables the Court to invalidate both federal and state laws when they conflict with the Constitution. Since the Supreme Court stands as the ultimate authority in constitutional interpretation, its decisions can be changed only by another Supreme Court decision or by a constitutional amendment.

Judicial review puts the Supreme Court in a pivotal role in the American political system, making it the referee in disputes among various branches of the Federal, as well as state governments, and as the ultimate authority for many of the most important issues in the country. For example, in 1954, the Court banned racial segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. That ruling started a long process of desegregating schools and other institutions.

The Judicial Branch: Powers and limits to power

The Supreme Court exercises complete authority over the federal courts, but it only has  imited power over state courts. The Court has the final word on cases heard by federal courts, and it writes procedures that these courts must follow. All federal courts must abide by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal laws and the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court’s interpretations of federal law and the Constitution also apply to the state courts, but the Court cannot interpret state law or issues arising under state constitutions, and it does not supervise state court operations.

Below the Supreme Court are 13 Courts of Appeals, and below those are over 90 District Courts. Certain courts with special jurisdiction also are part of the Federal Court System, such as the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. bankruptcy courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (which handles cases involving patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc.)

The President has two checks on the Supreme Court: First, the President (with the approval of the Senate) can appoint new Justices when vacancies appear. Second, since the Supreme Court has no powers of enforcement, the President can decide not to enforce decisions that require enforcement. This rarely happens. Instead, the President or Congress interprets the decision through their decisions about how to enforce the new decision.

Although they normally serve for life, Supreme Court justices can be impeached and removed by Congress. This is another of the checks and balances. Sixteen Supreme Court justices have been impeached and removed from office. Even the threat of impeachment is a powerful check. Another check is that Supreme Court decisions can be overturned by future decisions (when the court’s make-up changes) and by amendments to the Constitution. In fact the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the Court affirmed that slaves were property, was overturned by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution.

Congress has other checks on the Supreme Court and lower courts. It has the constitutional authority to change the number of judges. It has budgetary powers and so can decide whether to allocate funds to enforce decisions. It also can decide the jurisdiction of the lower courts, meaning the kinds of cases they can hear.

Pivotal Supreme Court Cases

We are asking you to study ten major Supreme Court Cases that have had a major impact on American life. Here are the summaries:

1803
Marbury v. Madison was the first instance in which a law passed by Congress was declared unconstitutional. The decision established the Court’s right to overturn acts of Congress, a power not explicitly granted by the Constitution. 
1819
McCulloch v. Maryland upheld the right of Congress to create a Bank of the United States, even though the bank was not mentioned in the Constitution.  The real significance of the ruling is the branches of the federal government have implied powers, powers not enumerated by the Constitution. Implied powers must be in the “spirit” of the Constitution.
1824
Gibbons v. Ogden defined broadly Congress’s right to regulate commerce.  In the 20th century, the broad definition of commerce was actually used to uphold civil rights.
1857
Dred Scott v. Sandford was a case that intensified the nation’s debate over slavery. Dred Scott, a slave, was taken from a slave state to a free territory. Scott filed a lawsuit claiming that because he had lived on free soil he was entitled to his freedom. The Court ruled that blacks were not citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court. This case was decided only four years before the start of the Civil War (1861-1865).
1896
Plessy v. Ferguson was another case supporting racial discrimination. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that “equal but separate accommodations” for blacks on railroad cars did not violate the “equal protection under the laws” clause of the 14th Amendment. Thus, the Court defended the constitutionality of racial segregation, and paved the way for the repressive Jim Crow laws of the South. 
1954
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka forbid racial segregation in schools and led to the unraveling of legalized segregation in all areas of public life. The Court declared that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” and stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” 
 
1962
Engel vs. Vitale upheld the wall of separation between church and state. The Court found that prayer established by a public agency (a school in New York) represented an unconstitutional action—in effect, the establishment of a religious code. 
1963
Gideon v. Wainwright  The Court held that the state’s failure to provide counsel for a defendant charged with a felony violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. 
1966
Miranda v. Arizona was another case that helped define the due process clause in the 14th Amendment. Criminal suspects must be reminded about their rights before they are questioned by police. These rights are: the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present, and, if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, to have one appointed by the state. The police must also remind suspects that any statements they make can be used against them in court. 
1973
Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. The Court ruled that a woman has the right to an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.  The basis was a woman’s “right to privacy.” The Court maintained that right to privacy is not absolute, however, and granted states the right to intervene in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
2010
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission The Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot restrict the spending of corporations on political campaigns. The Court maintained that corporations have First Amendment right to support candidates.

 

Other Listings of Landmark Cases

InfoPlease.Com    20 Milestone Cases

Wikipedia    Over 175 cases!

USCourts.Gov    Top Ten Cases

Constitution Facts     25 Landmark Cases

 

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