The Judicial Branch

The nature of the judiciary branch, its key processes, and their jurisdiction

review decisions made by lower courts and agencies
Stare decisis
State supreme courts

Judicial Branch: Structure and Independence

The Judicial Branch of the United States government is responsible for interpreting federal laws, applying them to specific cases, and ensuring that they are enforced appropriately.

The federal judiciary is composed of three tiers: the district courts, circuit courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. This hierarchical structure provides a clear path for appeals and ensures that cases are heard by courts with the appropriate level of jurisdiction and expertise.

The judicial branch is designed to be independent from the other branches of government. Judges are appointed for life, which helps to ensure they are not subject to political pressures or elections.

Federal Courts: Tiers and Functions

The district courts are the first and lowest tier of the Judicial Branch of the federal government. District courts have original jurisdiction over most federal cases, meaning that they are the first court to hear the case. They are located in 94 judicial districts, hearing both civil and criminal cases.

The circuit courts of appeal are the second and intermediate judicial tier, also known as appellate courts or just “the circuits.” There are 13 circuit courts of appeal, each with jurisdiction over a specific geographic region of the country.

The circuit courts of appeal hear appeals from the district courts and some specialized courts, as well as certain administrative agencies. They do not hear trials or accept new evidence; instead, they review decisions made by lower courts and agencies to determine if any errors were made in applying the law.


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Supreme Court: Authority, Jurisdiction, Precedents

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system and has ultimate authority over all other courts in the country. It consists of nine justices appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress for life terms.

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over certain types of cases such as disputes between states or foreign governments, but it primarily hears appeals from lower court rulings on constitutional issues or other legal questions. Each year it receives typically over 8,000 of petitions for certiorari a year—a request to review a case—but only grants about 80-100 requests due to limited resources and time constraints.

In addition to deciding individual cases, this body also sets precedents which guide future interpretations of law throughout America’s judicial system; these are known as ‘stare decisis’ (Latin for “to stand by things decided”). This means that once a ruling has been made on an issue, any similar case will be judged according to that precedent unless there is new evidence or compelling argument presented against it.

Landmark Supreme Court Decisions

‘Stare decisis’ cases in the Supreme Court are often related to matters of the Constitution, which the Supreme Court has the ultimate authority to interpret, with far-reaching implications for the law and society as a whole.

For example, Brown v Board of Education (1954) declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—a landmark decision that helped end Jim Crow era segregation and discrimination against African Americans rife in the Southern states.

More recently, Obergefell v Hodges (2015) ruled that same-sex couples had a fundamental right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause—a landmark decision which legalized gay marriage across all states in America.

Judicial Activism vs Restraint in Rulings


The Supreme Court has the power to shape public policy through its rulings, but it must decide whether to exercise judicial activism or restraint. Judicial activism involves taking a more active role in interpreting laws and making decisions that go beyond what is written in the Constitution, particularly in adopting more modern, liberal principles. Some would argue that Obergefell v Hodges (2015) falls into this category.

On the other hand, judicial restraint involves deferring to Congress or state legislatures when deciding on constitutional issues. In recent years, there has been an increasing trend towards judgestaking a more proactive role in protecting civil rights and liberties from government interference.

However, others argue that judges should remain impartial arbiters of law rather than activists seeking social change through their rulings. Ultimately, how much influence courts have over public policy depends largely on how they choose between these two approaches when ruling on important cases.

Judicial Appointments: Process and Criteria

Unlike the legislative and executive branches leaders, who are elected by the people of America, Judges are appointed directly by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The President nominates a candidate, and the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing to evaluate the candidate’s qualifications and fitness for the position. If the candidate is approved by the Judiciary Committee, the nomination is sent to the full Senate for a vote. If a majority of the Senate approves the nomination, the candidate is appointed to the federal bench.

In addition to this, there are certain criteria that nominees have traditionally been expected to meet in order to be considered for the position. These include having an extensive legal background and experience as well as demonstrating judicial restraint—the ability to interpret laws without imposing personal beliefs on them.

Furthermore, candidates must also demonstrate their commitment to upholding constitutional principles such as equal protection under the law and freedom of speech.

The Nomination Process

Despite the intended independence of the judiciary, the nomination of Supreme Court judges has become increasingly politicized in recent years.

For example,despite the role of the judiciary being nominally non-partisan, in 2016, Senate Republicans refused to consider President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, which had left a vacancy on the court.

Senate Republicans’ justified this block on the basis that it was too close to the presidential election to consider a new Supreme Court nominee, and that the American people should have a say in the selection through their votes.

Many Democrats saw this as an unprecedented and political move to prevent Obama from appointing a justice who might tip the balance of the court away from conservative ideals.

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 also sparked intense political controversy, with Democrats arguing that Kavanaugh’s conservative ideology and past actions made him unfit for the position. Republicans, on the other hand, argued that Kavanaugh was the victim of a political smear campaign.

State Courts: Jurisdiction and Responsibilities

State courts are the primary judicial authority in most states, and they have jurisdiction over a wide range of civil and criminal cases. This includes cases involving family law, probate, property disputes, personal injury, and criminal law. Unlike the federal court system, which is based on a limited jurisdiction model, state courts have broad jurisdiction to hear and decide cases.

State supreme courts are the highest appellate courts in each state, and they are responsible for reviewing decisions made by lower state courts. In addition, state supreme courts may also review decisions made by federal district courts within their respective states, but only on issues of state law.


State supreme courts have the power to interpret state law and state constitutions, and their decisions can have a significant impact on legal precedent within their state.

Principle of Accountability

The principle of accountability is crucial to maintaining public trust in the judiciary, and there are several mechanisms in place to ensure this. One important aspect is transparency, which requires that court proceedings be conducted openly and with accessibility to the public in order to prevent misconduct or corruption.

While there is no universal right to broadcast court proceedings in the United States, some jurisdictions allow cameras in courtrooms – a famous case of which being the murder trial of footballer O J Spimpson in 1995, which drew a massive audience and sparked a national conversation about the role of media in the courtroom.

In addition, the Supreme Court has its own code of conduct that serves as a set of ethical guidelines for justices. The code requires justices to recuse themselves from cases where they may have a conflict of interest or where their impartiality may be compromised. This ensures that judges do not participate in decisions that could be seen as biased or that might damage public trust in the court’s impartiality.

Diversity Progress in Judiciary

The US judicial system has made strides in recent years to ensure that all citizens are represented equitably. The Supreme Court now includes three female justices, the most ever at one time, as well as two African American justices and one Hispanic justice.


Many have argued that the diversity of backgrounds in the judiciary is inevitably reflected in the decisions they make, with great diversity allowing for a variety of perspectives on any given issue.

There is still work to be done in order to achieve representative diversity within the judiciary. According to a 2022 report from The Brennan Center for Justice, across state high courts, only 18% of all justices belong to minority groups (Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, or multiracial). By contrast, these minority groups make up 40% of the population in the nation.

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