The writers of the US Constitution were determined to separate the powers of the federal government in to three branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The prime function of the judicial branch is to interpret the law in such a way that rules made in the past can be applied reasonably in the present. This function gives the courts a role in policymaking. The Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States and grants Congress the authority to establish lower federal courts. The United States has two different courts systems-the federal courts and the state courts.
Federal courts make judgments in cases having to do with the U.S. Constitution or other federal law. They hear cases in which the U.S. is suing or prosecuting someone. They handle disputes between citizens of two different states and disputes involving foreign countries and U.S. citizens. Crimes that happen on ships at sea are called admiralty cases and are also held in federal court. Federal courts are set up on three levels. The lowest federal courts are the district courts, where most federal cases are heard first. The United States has 90 district courts. The Court of Appeals is the next highest in the federal court system. The Court of Appeals is divided into 11 circuits that cover all the states, territories, and possessions of the U.S. Defendants who are not satisfied with the decision of a district court can appeal to the court.
The highest federal court is the Supreme Court. It consists of eight associate justices and one chief justice, appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate. Justices are appointed for life and their salaries cannot be lowered while they serve. These rules were established so that justices would be free from political pressures that might influence their decision. The court has two kinds of jurisdiction. In cases affecting ambassadors and other public ministers and in cases in which a state is one of the parties, the court has original jurisdiction. That is, the Supreme Court is the first and only court to hear these cases. The court also has the power called appellate jurisdiction in which it can hear appeals in other cases that are affected by federal law. Appellate jurisdiction accounts for most of the cases that come before the court. The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over both state courts and lower federal courts. The Supreme Courts ability to set legal precedent, or that principles of law once established, should be accepted as authoritative in all subsequent similar cases, is strengthened by its nearly complete discretion in choosing cases it will hear. Precedent reflects the philosophy of stare decisis, Latin for to stand by things once established. Four out of nine justices must agree to accept a case before it is given a writ of certiorari or permission granted by a higher court to allowing a losing party in a legal case to bring it before it for a ruling. When five or more justices agree on a decision, a ruling is made. One of the justices writes the majority opinion, a statement of the courts decision and its reasons. A justice who agrees with the decision but for different reasons can write a concurring opinion. A justice who disagrees with the majority opinion may write a dissenting opinion.
The state courts system handles all cases relating to state laws. The court system of each state is organized differently. In small towns, officials called justices of the peace usually run the lower courts. In larger towns or cities, the lowest courts are usually police courts or magistrates courts. These courts have no juries. Above these are trial courts with judges and juries. Cases from these courts can be taken to a state appeals court and then, if necessary, to the states supreme court. States also have special courts for certain types of cases. Juvenile courts hear cases involving people under 18. Probate courts deal with inheritance cases.
The courts have less discretionary authority then elected institutions. The judiciary positions are constrained by the facts of cases and by the laws defined through the Constitution. Yet existing guidelines are seldom so precise that judges have no choice in their decisions. As a result, political influences have a strong impact. They need to respond to national conditions, public opinion, and interest groups. Personal beliefs of judges who have individual preferences that are evident in the way they decide on issues that come before the court. The court as crossed into areas traditionally left to that of the lawmaking majorities, so the legitimacy of the courts have been questioned. The courts were established as an independent branch and should not hesitate to promote new principles when they see a need, even if this action puts them into conflict with elected officials.
Patterson, Thomas E., The American Democracy, Thomas E. Patterson, United States of America, 1996.
Young Students Learning Library, Volume 6, pgs. 712-714, 1995
Young Students Learning Library, Volume 20, pgs. 2535-2536, 1995