Unlike the Legislative and Executive branches of the federal government, members of the Judicial Branch of the federal government are not elected by the people, but appointed by the President. These appointments must be confirmed by the Senate. State judiciaries follow various systems of appointment or direct election. On the federal level, Congress has significant power to structure the judiciary system and create systems of federal courts.
Federal courts are divided into a number of district courts, and thirteen United States Courts of Appeals. Federal judges in these courts are appointed for life (or until they retire) and can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. The same conditions are true for the nine Justices of the United States Supreme Court. The aim of this system is to ensure the impartiality of the jurists, placing them above the usual political considerations of removal or reelection. Federal courts only hear cases dealing with federal questions, disputes between states, for example, cases involving interstate commerce, or cases involving constitutional protections.
The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Its function is to interpret the Constitution. As such, it agrees to hear cases of only the highest importance (approximately 150 out of an average of 7500 submitted annually). It may review cases that have gone through the federal court system or those of major impact that have gone through individual state systems. Most cases the Court hears are appeals, but it does have “original jurisdiction” to hear cases involving diplomats as well as disputes between states.
The Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices vote on each case, with the Chief Justice presiding. Rulings usually contain extensive opinion statements justifying the result on a constitutional basis. Justices on the losing side of the issue commonly publish their own “dissenting” opinions. Both these types of opinions can have their effect on the later progression of the law, and on the political and social debate that surrounds national issues.
When a seat on the Supreme Court becomes vacant, the President goes through a careful process of trying to appoint a new Justice the Senate will confirm without too much political fallout. The President does not always succeed in this attempt. A new Supreme Court appointment will usually lead to much national controversy, and bitter debate in the Senate. The unsuccessful nomination by then President Ronald Reagan of Robert Bork in 1987 generated so much controversy that a new verb came into the American language: “to bork,” meaning to defeat a judicial nomination in a way particularly embarrassing to a president by questioning the nominee’s character, background and philosophy.
Judicial Review. The function of the Supreme Court is to interpret the constitution. For example, in the 1973 decision of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that set guidelines for legal abortions. The issue is controversial, since many legal scholars believe the decision was tantamount to making law, while the Court may only review the law created by the Legislative Branch. The Supreme Court has often had occasion to review constitutionality of certain state laws and procedures regarding capital punishment. Not every case generates national controversy. Cases may involve patent law, taxation, regulation of commerce, procedures for government-subsidized student loans, and a host of other federal issues. In some instances, the Court’s decision has far-reaching ramifications, while in others the decision may affect only the parties to the case.
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