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The judicial branch of the United States government is responsible for interpreting and explaining the Constitution through a series of court hearings and rulings. The judiciary consists of three levels of courts: U.S. District Courts located throughout each state, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which has oversight over a number of U.S. Circuit Courts, and the Supreme Court, which may rule on appeals from cases decided in the lower courts.
The Purposes of The United States Judicial Branch
The judicial branch’s main objective is to interpret and apply the law. It also provides the tools to resolve any disputes among US citizens. The three branches of government were designed to separate power within the government so that no one branch would have more power than any other branch. The executive branch acts as the enforcer of law, the legislative branch works to write new laws and the judicial branch then applies those laws into their real-world applications.
Simply, the judiciary branch can be represented as the court systems throughout the country. When someone has a run-in with the law, they are subject to the judiciary system and judged for their crimes in court. Thus, this branch is tasked with ensuring equal justice for everyone under US law.
The judiciary branch also has the power to change the law through the process of judicial review. This means that the branch has the power to repeal a law when it does not abide by the laws set forth by the constitution, international law or primary legislation. Most commonly, the highest court in the country, known as the supreme court, is renowned for historical rulings in cases where a law is deemed unconstitutional, such as laws for segregation, abortion and gay marriage.
Furthermore, the supreme court is the only court that was set forth by the constitution. Because the constitution is a complex document to interpret, the supreme courts is tasked to study and examine the document very carefully. Thus, the supreme court is responsible for explaining the contents of the constitution for the citizens of the United States.
Every other court in the United States must follow rulings made in the supreme court. The supreme court has the power to judge whether the governments of individual states, regions and the entire country are abiding by the constitution. So, the supreme court even has the power to judge whether the President himself is acting constitutionally.
Decisions in lower courts have the possibility of being appealed or overturned, but rulings made by the supreme court are final. Out of the thousands of cases that are requested to be judged in the supreme court, only about 150 cases ever make it to the supreme court justices each year. This is due to the fact that the supreme court takes time making their rulings to consider every factor in the case. Only issues of the utmost importance make it to the supreme court.
The supreme court is comprised of a chief justice, or the leading judge, and eight other associate judges. Each judge is appointed by the president in office, but they must first win the majority vote of the senate before they can serve. Once they are chosen for the position, justices can serve for life, unless they decide to retire.
Functions of the Judiciary
The primary functions of the judicial branch are to interpret federal laws, resolve legal disputes, punish those who violate the law, make decisions in civil cases, and assess the innocence or guilt of a person based on criminal laws. Another function of the federal judiciary is serving as a check on the power of the executive and legislative branches of government.
The Justices Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court, the leader of the judicial branch, consists of nine justices. Eight of the justices are called Associate Justices and one is called the Chief Justice. Each of the justices must first be nominated for office by the president and then approved by the Senate. The process of the Senate approving justices is often referred to as a confirmation. The Constitution requires this confirmation with the words “with the advice and consent” of the Senate.
Impeachment Required to Remove Members of the Judiciary
Unlike the president or members of the legislative branch, Supreme Court Justices and federal judges do not have term limits. These members of the judiciary may be removed after being impeached by the House of Representatives and upon conviction in an impeachment trial in the Senate. The purpose of having an unlimited term is so that these arbiters of justice are insulated from political pressure which could influence their decisions.
SCOTUS Established by the Constitution
The Supreme Court is the only court established by the Constitution. Unlike lesser courts, the Supreme Court Justices decide if a law or ruling is constitutional or unconstitutional or if the lower courts applied the law appropriately. The United States District Courts and the thirteen Courts of Appeals were established by Congress.
Supreme Court decisions are of national importance because they are the final authority on what is and is not constitutional. The motto of the Supreme Court is “Equal Justice Under Law.” This court is given power by the Constitution to decide whether or not local, state, and federal governments are acting in accordance with the laws and the Constitution.
SCOTUS Has Final Authority
The Supreme Court is the final court with the power to declare an act of the president as unconstitutional. Federal Courts and Federal Courts of Appeals hear cases involving POTUS before SCOTUS gets it. Only in rate circumstances does SCOTUS have “original jurisdiction,” meaning the process begins and ends there. Since SCOTUS is the final authority, its findings cannot be questioned by another court.
The Legislative and Executive Branches Check the Powers of SCOTUS
Although the rulings of SCOTUS are final, SCOTUS is subject to checks and balances by the other two branches. If Congress believes that SCOTUS did not apply the law the way it was intended when written, Congress may rewrite the law to remove any doubt, or to correct any constitutional deficiencies identified. The president may then sign the new acts into law. This is very different from lower courts where the judgments and decisions can be appealed multiple times. Although the Supreme Court hears and rules upon less than one hundred and fifty cases annually, they receive thousands of requests for rulings each year. Unlike other courts SCOTUS does not hear witnesses, rather attorneys representing the interests of all involved parties address the court and answer questions of the justices. Each attorney’s time is strictly limited. While litigants in civil cases may attend SCOTUS hearings, criminal cases do not include the appellant because there are no witnesses to face.
Appointing Federal Judges
Judges for all federal courts also receive their appointment from the president and undergo confirmation with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Federal judges, like justices receive lifetime appointments.
Some Federal Courts Not Part of the Judicial Branch
There is another type of court within the federal government that is not part of the judicial branch, administrative courts such as immigration court, Social Security courts of appeals, and others with quasi-judicial functions. These administrative courts attempt to provide an avenue of due process as the participants appeal the application of administrative rules and policies. These courts have Administrative Law Judges who hear cases. Their goal is to reach a decision that fits within the framework of the executive branch agency for whom they hear cases. In most instances, this is the final level if appeal for an individual with a case before an agency, before filing an appeal of an unfavorable decision to the U.S. District Court. Once the case moves to the U.S. District Court, the judicial branch of the government makes a final decision.