The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 10: The Federal Judiciary

Read or download the textbook here.


by Brian M. Murphy

The seal of the United States Supreme Court [No restrictions], via Wikimedia CommonsThe judicial system in the United States is based on the doctrine of federalism. Two court systems exist side-by-side, national and state, and each has a distinct set of powers. State courts, for the most part, are responsible for handling the legal issues that arise under their own laws. It is primarily when a federal question is presented that the federal judicial system can become involved in a state court. Otherwise, state judiciaries are autonomous even from one another. The Constitution precisely outlines the types of cases that can be heard by federal courts. Yet it is almost impossible to force a federal court to hear a case that falls under its jurisdiction if the judge(s) wants to avoid it. The authority of the U.S. Supreme Court has slowly grown over time, largely through the power of judicial review. Nonetheless, federalism has managed to remain a significant barrier against federal courts becoming too powerful. The judicial system designed by the Founding Fathers continues to survive after over 230 years.

The Evolution of the Supreme Court of the United States

The Fuller Court:

The Fuller Court [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court Justices in 1925:

The 1925 Supreme Court Group Picture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court Justices in 1973:

The 1973 Supreme Court Group Picture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court Justices in 2005:

The 2005 Supreme Court Group Picture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court Justices in 2009:

The 2009 Supreme Court Group Picture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court Justices in 2010:

The 2010 Supreme Court Group Picture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Chapter 10: The Federal Judiciary

I. Introduction
A. The judicial branch is outlined in Article 3.
B. The framers thought judiciary would be the weakest of the three branches.
C. Alexander Hamilton wrote, it "has no influence over either the sword or the purse".
D. The role of the courts has changed greatly over time.
E. The judiciary interprets the U.S. Constitution and it has been said that the U.S. Supreme Court can revise the Constitution by how it interprets the wording
II. State Courts
A. State courts handle most of the legal action in the United States.
B. Decisions on matters of strictly state law are resolved by state courts, and no federal court, not even the U.S. Supreme Court, can overrule.
C. The principal way a case from state court can end up in the federal judiciary is when a federal question is involved in a dispute.
D. Appeals from a state’s judicial system are submitted from the state’s highest court directly to the U.S. Supreme court but only the parts of the case that concern federal questions.
III. Legal constraints when deciding cases with state and federal issues
A. Full Faith and Credit
1. A decision issued in one state is respected by all states.
B. Supremacy Clause – State court judges must enforce federal law when a state law is in conflict.
IV. Criminal vs. Civil Cases
A. Criminal case outcomes: jail time or fines; Civil case outcomes: monetary awards or declaration of rights
B. Criminal cases: the government is always a party; Civil cases: two private parties (although the government can be one of the parties if sued or suing)
C. Burden of proof:
1. Criminal cases: "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt"
2. Civil cases: "preponderance of evidence"
D. There is no constitutional mandate for juries in a civil case at the state level.
E. Example: O.J. Simpson case
V. Right to Appeal
A. Appeals can only be based on questions of law.
B. No juries exist in appellate cases.
C. In a criminal case, only a convicted defendant may appeal.
D. In a civil case, either party may appeal.
E. Misconception: A person can be found 'innocent' on appeal.
VI. Three Level of Courts
A. Trial courts
B. Intermediate appellate courts
C. State supreme courts
D. Habeas Corpus
E. Diversity suit
VII. Should the Case Proceed?
A. Justiciable: A dispute is a matter appropriate for a court to resolve
B. Factors for a federal court to consider:
1. Case or Controversy
2. Finality
3. Standing
4. Political Questions
5. Timeliness
VIII. The Structure of Federal Courts
A. Two types of federal courts
1. Constitutional courts created under Article III: U.S. District Courts, U.S. Supreme Court, etc...
a. Additional Courts: U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, etc...
2. Article I or Legislative Courts
B. United States District Courts
1. 94 total
2. Each state has at least one district court
3. States may be allocated more as needed based on population
4. Heavy caseload: almost 400,000 annually
5. District courts must issue an opinion explaining their decisions when no jury is involved.
C. United States Courts of Appeal
1. 12 total
2. Each court has a defined geographic region called a circuit
3. These courts can hear appeals from federal agencies.
4. The thirteenth appellate court is for Washington, D.C.
5. Courts of Appeals typically hear cases in three judge panels
6. En banc hearing

PDF by the US Government, of the Geographic Boundaries of the United States Court of Appeals. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the United States Court Districts.

D. US Supreme Court
1. Top court in the United States
2. Congress determines the number of justices on the Supreme Court
3. Historically, the size of the Court has ranged from 6 to 10 members, with the current number of 9 set in 1869
4. At least six justices are needed to decide a case
5. If a tie vote occurs (3-3 or 4-4), the ruling of the last court to decide the case—usually a U.S. Court of Appeals or a state’s highest court—is allowed to stand.
6. The US Supreme Court mostly hears appeals but does have Original Jurisdiction over the following:
a. Cases between two or more states
b. Cases between a state and the United States
c. Cases involving ambassadors and foreign counsels
d. Cases in which a state is suing a citizen of another state or a foreign nation.
E. Appellate Jurisdiction of Supreme Court
1. Writ of Appeal
a. Writ of Certification
2. Writ of certiorari
F. Opinions and Judgments
1. Majority opinion
2. Dissenting opinion
3. Concurring opinion
4. Judgments
5. Stare decisis
IX. Structure of the Courts
A. All federal judges on constitutional courts are nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate.
B. Per Article 3 of the Constitution, judges ‘‘hold their Offices during good Behavior,’’ and can only be removed if:
1. Death of the judge
2. Resignation of the judge
3. Impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate
X. Powers of the Federal Judiciary
A. John Marshall (1803) “It is emphatically the province of the judicial department to say what the law is.”
1. Marbury vs. Madison (1803)
2. Constitution is superior to ALL statutes and laws
3. Power of judicial review created
B. Judicial Review
1. Power possessed by all courts, federal and state
2. It enables acts of Congress or any public authority to be challenged
3. If found to be in violation of the Constitution, the law or action is null and void
C. Why is judicial review controversial?
1. The power is not mentioned in the Constitution itself.
2. Marshall found the power a logical extension of the judiciary’s authority to interpret laws
3. If the framers wanted the courts to utilize judicial review, critics contend the power would have been written into the Constitution since the issue was discussed at the Constitutional Convention
4. Courts are accused of making law rather than interpreting it.
D. Judicial activism v. Judicial restraint
1. Judicial activists consider the proper role of courts to clarify the Constitution’s vague language while advocates of judicial restraint contend that judges should decide cases on the basis of precedent and overturn laws only when a conflict with the Constitution is unmistakable.


Test Your Knowledge

Think you are an expert on the Supreme Court of the United States? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

Appellate jurisdiction


For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 10 References on pages 298-299 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

The Unfortunate Politicization of Judicial Confirmation Hearings by John M. Walker, Jr.
While the confirmation process of judiciary candidates becomes partisan and trivial, the administration of justice goes unattended.