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TheFederalJudicialSystem:ApplyingTheLaw

TheFederalJudicialSystem

TheConstitutionprovidestheSupremeCourtoftheUSbutgivesCongressthe
powertodeterminethenumberandtypesoflowerfederalcourts

Allfederaljudgesarenominatedandappointedtoofficebythepresident,subjectto
confirmationbymajorityvoteintheSenate

TheConstitutionplacesnoage,residency,orcitizenshiprequirementsontheoffice
offederaljudge

NotdoestheConstitutionrequirejudgestohavelegaltraining,thoughbytradition
theydo

Theyholdtheirofficeduringgoodbehavior

federaljudgesserveuntiltheydie
orretirevoluntarily

Hamiltonarguedthatthejudicialbranchwouldbetheweakestofthethree
branches

Whereascongressionalpowerrestsonspendingauthority,andpresidentialpower
restsoncontrolofmilitary,judicialpowerrestsonwhatHamiltoncalled
judgmentthereasonablenessandfairnessofitsdecisions

TheSupremeCourtoftheUnitedStates
9membersthechiefjusticeand8associatejustices,buttheyallhavethe
samevotingpower
ArticleIIIgrantstheSupremeCourtbothoriginalandappellatejurisdiction

Acourts
jurisdiction
istisauthoritytohearcasesofaparticulartype

Originaljurisdiction
istheauthoritytobethefirstcourttohearacase

TheSupremeCourtsoriginaljurisdictionincludeslegaldisputes
involvingforeigndiplomatsandcasesinwhichtheopposingparties
arestategovernments

Appellatejurisdiction
istheauthoritytoreviewcasesthathavealready
beenheardinlowercourtsandare
appealedtoahighercourtbythe
losingparty

Thehighercourtsarecalled
appealscourtsorappellate
courts

Appellatecourtsdonotretry
cases;rather,theydetermine
whetheratrialcourtin
hearingacasehasactedin
accordwithapplicablelaw

Itextendstocasesarising
undertheConstitution,federallawandregulations,andtries

ArticleIIIgivesCongressthepowertocreateexceptionstothe
SupremeCourtsappellatejurisdiction,whereasitsoriginal
jurisdictionisunalterablebyCongress

SelectingandDecidingCases
TheSupremeCourtspowerismostapparentwhenitdeclaresanother
institutionsactiontobeunconstitutional
Thispower,called
judicialreview
,wasfirstassertedbytheSupremeCourtin
Marburyv.Madison,whentheCourtrebukedbothCongressandthepresident
Althoughjudicialreviewisitsmostdramaticpower,theSupremeCourts
primaryresponsibilityistoestablishlegalprecedentsthatwillguidethe
decisionoflowercourts

A
precedent
isajudicialdecisionthatservesasaruleforsetlinesubsequent
casesofasimilarnature
Lowercourtsareexpectedtofollowprecedent
Ifatleastfourofthejusticesagreetodoso,theCourtissuesa
writof
certiorari
,whichisarequesttothelowercourttosubmittotheSupreme
Courtarecordofthecase
TheSupremeCourtismostlikelytograntcertiorariwhentheUSgovernment
throughthesolicitorgeneralrequestsit
TheSupremeCourtseldomacceptsaroutinecase
TheCourtsjobisnottocorrecttheerrorsofothercourtsbuttoresolve
substantiallegalissues
Theremustbecompellingreasonsforacceptingacase
WhentheCourtdoesacceptacase,chancesarethatmostofthejustices
disagreewiththelowercourtsruling
About3/4ofSupremeCourtdecisionreversethelowercourtsjudgment
DuringaSupremeCourthearing,eachsidemakesoralargumentsandalso
providestheCourtawritten
brief
,whichcontainsitsfullarguments
Theoralsessionisfollowedbythe
judicialconference
,whichisattendedonly
bythe9justicesandinwhichtheydiscussandvoteonthecase
TheChiefJusticehastheopinionofspeakingfirst
IssuingDecisionsandOpinions
The
decision
indicateswhichpartytheCourtsupportsandbyhowlargea
margin
Themostimportantoftheruling,however,isthe
opinion
,whichexplainsthe
legalbasisforthedecision

Whenamajorityofthejusticesagreeonthelegalbasisofadecision,the
resultisa
majorityopinion
.

Insomecasesthereisnomajority
opinionbecause,althoughthe
majorityofthejusticesagreeonthe
decision,theydisagreeonthelegal
basisofit.Theresultinsuchcasesisa
pluralityopinion
,whichpresentsthe
viewheldbymostofthejusticeswho
votewiththewinningside

Anothertypeofopinionisa
concurringopinion
,aseparateview
writtenbyajusticewhovoteswith
themajoritybutdisagreeswiththe
reasoning

Thefinaltypeisa
dissentingopinion
;init,ajustice(orjustices)onthe
losingsideexplainsthereasonsfordisagreeingwiththemajorityposition
Whenpartofthemajority,thechiefjusticedecideswhichjusticewillwritethe
majorityopinion,otherwisetheseniorjusticeinthemajoritypickstheauthor
Thejusticewhowritesthemajorityopinionhastheresponsibilitytoexpress
accuratelythemajoritysreasoning
Inrareinstances,thewritingstagehasproducedachangeintheCourts
decision(Leev.Weisman)
OtherFederalCourts
USDistrictCourts

Thelowestfederalcourtsarethedistrictcourts

Thefederaldistrictcourtsarethechieftrialcourtsofthefederalsystem
Virtuallyallcriminalandcivilcasesarisingunderfederallawareargued
firstinthedistrictcourts

Theyaretheonlycourtsinthefederalsystemwherethetwosides
presenttheircasetoajuryforaverdict

Casesatthislevelareusuallypresidedoverbyasinglejudge

LowerfederalcourtsrelyonandfollowSupremeCourtdecisionsintheir
ownrulings

DistrictcourtjudgesmightmisunderstandtheSupremeCourtsposition
anddeviatefromitforthatreason

Thefactsofacasebeforeadistrictcourtareseldomidenticaltothoseofa
casesettledbytheSupremeCourt

AmbiguitiesorunaddressedissuesinSupremeCourtrulingsgivelower
courtssomeflexibilityindecidingcases

Mostfederalcasesendwiththedistrictcourtsdecision
USCourtsofAppeals

Casesappealedfromdistrictcourtsgotofederalcourtsofappeals,which
arethesecondlevelofthefederalcourtsystem

Courtsofappealsdonotusejuries

Ordinarily,nonewevidenceissubmittedinanappealedcase;rather,
appellatecourtsbasetheirdecisiononareviewofthelowercourts
records

Appellatejudgesactassupervisors

TheUShas13courtsofappeals

11havejurisdictionoveracircuitmadeupofthedistrictcourtsin
anywherefromthreetoninestates

1hasjurisdictionoverDc

1hasjurisdictionoverappealsinvolvingpatentsandinternational
trade,regardlessofthecircuitinwhichtheyarise

eachcaseusuallyisheardbyapanelofthreejudges

Onrareoccasions,allthejudgesofacourtofappealssitasabodyin
ordertoresolvedifficultcontroversies

Conflictorinconsistencyinhowthedifferentcircuitsareapplyinga
lawcanleadtheSupremeCourttoreviewsuchcases

SpecialUSCourts

USClaimsCourthearscasesinwhichtheUSgovernmentisbeing
suedfordamages

USCourtofInternationalTradehandlescasesinvolvingappealsof
USCustomsOfficerulings

USCourtofMilitaryAppealshearsofmilitarycourtsmartial
TheStateCourts
Likethefederalcourts,statecourtsystemshavetrialcourtsatthebottomlevel
andappellatecourtsatthetop
Eachstatedecidesforitselfthestructureofitscourtsandthemethodof
selectingjudges
Themostcommonforminvolvescompletiveelectionsofeitherapartisanora
nonpartisannature
Otherstatesuseamixedsystemcalledthe
meritplan
(alsocalledtheMissouri
PlanbecauseMissouriwasthefirststatetouseit),underwhichthegovernor
appointsajudgefromashortlistofacceptablecandidatesprovidedbya
judicialselectioncommission

Besidestheuppercourtmyth,thereexistsafederalcourtmyth,whichholds
thatthefederaljudiciaryisthemostsignificantpartofthejudicialsystemand
thatstatecourtsplayasubordinaterole
Mostcasesarisingundercriminallawandmostcasesarisingundercivillaw
aredefinedbystatelawsorbylocalordinances,whicharederivedfromstate
laws
Nearlyallcasesthatoriginateinstateorlocalcourtsalsoendthere
Inmoststatecriminalcases,thereisalsonofederalissue,unlessstate
authoritiesareallegedtohaveviolatedarightprotectedbytheUSConstitution
Insuchinstances,anindividualconvictedinthestatecourtcan,after
exhaustingtheavenuesofappealinthestatesystem,appealtoafederalcourt
Ifthefederalcourtacceptssuchanappeal,itordinarilyconfinesitselftothe
federalaspectsofthematter
Thefederalcourtacceptsthefactsdeterminedbythestatecourtunlesssuch
findingareclearlyinerror
Alsodisinclined,whenaprovisionoffederallawdoesnotclearlyresolvesa
case,tosubstitutetheirowninterpretationofastateslawforthatappliedby
thestatecourt
Issuestraditionallywithinthejurisdictionofthestatescanbecomefederal
issuesthroughtherulingsoffederalcourts
FederalCourtAppointees

AppointmentstotheSupremeCourtandthelowerfederalcourtsarecontrolledby
thepresident,whoselectsthenominees,andtheSenate,whichconfirmsorrejects
them

Inreality,federaljudgesandjusticesbringtheirpoliticalviewswiththemtothe
courtroomandhaveopportunitiestopromotetheirpoliticalbeliefsthroughthe
casestheydecide

SupremeCourtNominees
ASupremeCourtappointmentisasignificantopportunityforapresident
Mostjusticesretaintheirpositionsformanyyears,enablingpresidentsto
influencejudicialpolicythroughtheirappointmentslongaftertheyhaveleft
office
Presidentsusuallyappointjuristswhohaveacompatiblepoliticalphilosophy
AlthoughSupremeCourtjusticesarefreetomaketheirowndecisions,their
legalpositionscanusuallybepredictedfromtheirbackground
Ofcourse,apresidenthasnoguaranteethatanomineewillactuallydoso
Althoughpresidentsseeknomineeswhosharetheirpoliticalphilosophy,they
alsomusttakeintoaccountanomineesacceptabilitytoothers
Everynomineeisscrutinizedcloselybythelegalcommunity

LowerCourtNominees
Thepresidenttypicallydelegatethedeputyattorneygeneralthetaskof
identifyingpotentialnomineesforlowercourtjudgeships,aprocessthat
includesseekingrecommendationsfromUSsenatorsofthepresidentsparty,
andsometimesHousemembersaswell
Senatorialcourtesy,
atraditionthatdatesbacktothe1840s,holdsthata
senatorfromthestateinwhichavacancyhasarisenshouldbeconsultedon
thechoiceofthenomineeifthesenatorisofthesamepartyasthepresident
Althoughpresidentsarenotaspersonallyinvolvedinselectinglowercourt
nomineesasinnamingpotentialSupremeCourtjustices,lowercourt
appointmentsarecollectivelysignificant
Apresidentwhoservestwotermscanshapethefederaljudiciaryforyearsto

come
Presidentstypicallyselectmembersoftheirownpartyforlowercourt
judgeship

PersonalBackgroundsofJudicialAppointees
Inrecentyears,increasingnumbersoffederaljusticesandjudgeshavehad
priorjudicialexperienceontheassumptionthatsuchindividualsarebest
qualifiedforappointmenttothefederalbranch
ElectiveofficewasonceacommonroutetotheSupremeCourt,butrecent
appointeeshavecomefromtheappellatecourts
Whilemalesareoverrepresentedonthefederalbranch,thenumberofwomen
andminoritygroupmembersappointedtofederaljudgeshipshasincreased
significantlyinrecentdecades
TheSupremeCourthasadegreeofdiversity

3women,2minoritygroup
TheNatureofJudicialDecisionMaking

LegalInfluencesonJudicialDecisions
ArticleIIIoftheConstitutionbarsafederalcourtfromissuingadecision
exceptinresponsetoacasepresentedtoit
Itlimitsjudgestoissuesthatarisefromactuallegaldisputes
Thefactsofaparticularcasealsolimitjudicialaction
The
facts
ofacasearetherelevantcircumstancesofalegaldisputeofoffense
Judicialdecisionarealsorestrictedintheirbreadth
Technically,acourtrulingisbindingonlyonthepartiesinvolved
Itsbroaderimpactdependsonthewillingnessofotherstoacceptit
Themajorconstraintonthecourtsisthelawitself
AlthoughapresidentofCongresscanmakealmostanydecisionthatis
politicallyacceptable,thejudiciarymustworkwithintheconfinesofthelaw
Thejudiciaryworkswithinthecontextofthreemainsourcesoflaw:the
Constitution,legislativestatutes,andlegalprecedents
TheConstitutionoftheUSisthenationshighestlaw,andjudgesandjustices
aresworntoupholdit
Thelargemajorityofthecasesthatariseincourtsinvolveissuesofstatutory
andadministrativelawratherthanconstitutionallaw
Statutorylaw
islegislative(statute)law;
Administrativelaw
isbasedon
statutorylawbutissetbygovernmentagenciesratherthanbylegislature
TheUSlegalsystemdevelopedfromtheEnglishcommonlawtradition,which
includestheprinciplethatacourtsdecisiononacaseshouldbeconsistent
withpreviousjudicialrulings
Thisprinciple,knownasprecedent,reflectsthephilosophyofstardiesis
Precedentholdsthatprinciplesoflaw,onceestablished,shouldbeappliedin
subsequentsimilarcases

PoliticalInfluencesonJudicialDecisions
Adherencetothelawinthejudgingofcaseiswhatgivessubstancetotheclaim
thattheUSisgovernedbytheruleoflaw
Thelawisnotalwaysapreciseguidetojudicialdecisions,withtheresultthat
judgeshavesomeleewayintheirrulings
Politicalinfluencesaffecthowjudgesdecidecasesinwhichtheyhaveleeway
InsidetheCourt:JudgesPoliticalBeliefs

ChangesintheSupremeCourtsmembershipcanbringaboutachangein
itsposition

Justicestendtovoteinlinewiththeirpoliticalattitudes

DisputesthatreachtheSupremeCourtareanythingbutclearout
ThefactthatRepublicanappointeestotheSupremeCourtaremorelikely
thanDemocraticappointeestosidewithlawenforcementofficialsthan
withthecriminallyaccuseddoesnotmeanthattheyinvariablydosothat
theyareunmindfuloflegalrestraintsonlawenforcementofficials

SupremeCourtdecisionsareamixoflawandpolitics
OutsidetheCourt:ThePublic,Groups,andElectedOfficials

Thecourtscananddomakeunpopulardecisions

Judicialdecisionsmustbeseenasfairiftheyaretobeobeyed

Thejudiciarycannotroutinelyignoretheexpectationofthegeneral
public,interestgroups,andelectedofficials

Judgesarelessresponsivetopublicopinionthanareelectedofficials

TheSupremeCourtinsomeinstanceshastempereditsrulingsinan
efforttogetpublicsupportorreducepublicresistance

TheSupremeCourtusuallystayscloseenoughtopublicopinionto
reducethelikelihoodofoutrightdefianceofitsdecisions

Interestgroupsalsohaveaninfluenceonthejudiciary

GroupspetitiontheWhiteHouseandCongresstoappointjudgesand
justiceswhosharetheiroutlookonlegaldisputes

Moredirectly,theysubmitamicuscuriaebriefstomaketheir
positionsknownoncourtcasesandfilelawsuitstoadvancetheir
policygoals

Electedofficialsalsohavewaysofinfluencingthecourts

Congresscanrewritelegislationthatitfellsthejudiciaryhas
misinterpreted

Thepresidentisresponsibleforenforcingcourtdecisionsandhas
someinfluenceoverthecasesthatcomebeforethecourts

Thejudicialappointmentprocesshasbecomeincreasingly
contentious
JudicialPowerandDemocraticGovernment

Federaljudgesareunelectedofficialswithlifetimeappointments,whichplaces
thembeyondthereachofthevoters

Thispowerismostdramaticallyevidentwhencourtsdeclarelawsenactedby
Congresstobeunconstitutional

Unelectedjudgessubstitutetheirjudgmentforthatofthepeopleselected
representatives

Thejudiciaryspowerhasbeenasourceofcontroversythroughoutthenations
history,butthedebatehasseldombeenlivelierthanduringrecentdecades

Thesheernumberoflegaldisputesisamongthereasons

FederalcaseshaveincreasedthreefoldoverthepasthalfcenturyasAmericanshave
increasinglyturnedtothecourtstosettletheirdisputes

Thejudiciaryattimeshasactedalmostlegislativelybyaddressingbroadsocial
issues,suchasabortion,busing,affirmativeaction,churchstaterelations,campaign
finance,andprisonreform

Thejudiciaryhasbecomemoreextensivelyinvolvedinpolicymakingformanyof
thesamereasonsthatCongressandthepresidenthavebeenthrustintonewpolicy
areasandbecomemoredeeplyinvolvedinoldones

Socialandeconomicchangeshaverequiredgovernmenttoplayalargerrolein
society,andthisdevelopmenthasgeneratedaseeminglyendlessseriesofnewlegal
controversies

OriginalismTheoryversusLivingConstitutionTheory

Originalismtheory
,aprominentphilosophyofconservatives,holdsthatthe
Constitutionshouldbeinterpretedinthewaythatareasonablepersonwould
haveinterpreteditatthetimeitwaswritten

Originalists
emphasizethe
wordingofthelaw,
arguingthatthe
wordsofthe
framersaretheonly
reliableindicatorof
howthelawshould
beinterpreted
Anopposingtheory,
embracedmoreoftenby
liberals,holdsthatthe
Constitutionisaliving
documentthatshouldbe
interpretedinlightofchangingcircumstances

Proponentsofthe
livingconstitutiontheory
claimthattheframers,
throughtheuseofbroadlanguageandbasicprinciples,intendedthe
Constitutiontobeanadaptableinstrument
Criticsofthelivingconstitutiontheoryarguethat,inpractice,itallowsjudges
topromotetheirpersonalviewsbyenablingthemtodeviseargumentsthat
supporttherulingstheyprefer

Suchjudgesaresaidtoturnthelawintowhattheywanttosay,rather
thanwhatitactuallysays
CriticsofOriginalismtheorysaythattheframersinusingbroadtermssuchas
searchandseizurecouldnotpossiblyhavehadthepracticesoftheirtime
solelyinmind

Ifthatwastheirintention,theywouldhaveprovideddetailedinformation
onhowsuchtermsweretobeinterpreted
JudicialRestraintversusJudicialActivism
Thedoctrineof
judicialrestraint
holdsthatjudgesshouldgenerallydeferto
precedentandtodecisionsmadebylegislatures

Therestraintdoctrineholdsthatinnearlyeveryinstancepolicyissues
shouldbedecidedbyelectedlawmakersandnotbyappointedjudges

Theroleofthejudgeistoapplythelawratherthandetermineit

Advocatesofjudicialrestraintsaythatwhenjudgessubstitutetheirvies
forthoseofelectedrepresentatives,theyunderminethefundamental
principleofselfgovernmenttherightofthemajority,throughits
electedrepresentatives,todeterminehowtheywillbegoverned

Policyistheresultofconflictsbetweencontendinginterestsandthat
electedrepresentatives,becausetheyhavetodealdirectlywiththese
interests,arebetterpositionedthanjudgestodeterminehowthese
conflictsshouldberesolved
Thedoctrineofjudicialactivismholdsthatjudgesshouldactivelyinterpretthe
Constitution,statues,andprecedentsinlightoffundamentalprinciplesand
shouldintervenewhenelectedrepresentativesfailtoactinaccordwiththese
principals
Althoughadvocatesofjudicialactivismacknowledgetheimportanceof
majorityrule,theyclaimthatthecourtsshouldnotblindlydefertothe

decisionsofelectedofficialswhencoreprinciplessuchasliberty,equality,
andselfgovernmentarethreatened
Theyalsocontendthatprecedentshouldberespectedonlyifitsbasedonlegal
reasoningthatisasshouldtodayasitwaswhentheprecedentwasdecided