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9. The Courts: Our Rule of Law, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources




Topic Overview Unit 9

The Courts: Our Rule of Law

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Identify and explain the differences between criminal and civil courts.

  • 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 systems.

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 of law.

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.


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