Judiciary of the United States



Through the power of judicial review, the judiciary determines, when given a case, whether the actions of the executive and legislative branches meet constitutional and legal standards. Thus, the judiciary is a key force in balancing governmental power. In the United States, both federal and state courts make up the judiciary, with different courts having varying authority on which cases they hear and decide. Both levels have trial courts, where civil and criminal cases are decided, and appellate courts that have the power to review trial court decisions on appeal. The Supreme Court is the "court of last resort" for cases involving questions of constitutionality unless the Constitution is amended. While appeals courts, including the Supreme Court, do handle cases involving constitutional issues, most cases concern whether proper legal standards were followed or the law was properly applied in a lower court decision. Federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Because judicial appointments are for life—barring impeachment—they have come under increasing scrutiny, particularly since the late 20th century. The judicial philosophies of the federal judges—particularly those of the Supreme Court—have an enormous influence on exactly how cases are decided and how those decisions impact the nation.

At A Glance

  • In the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall established the power of the federal judiciary to review and interpret the actions of the other two branches of government and to interpret the U.S. Constitution. This power is part of the system of checks and balances that is one of the principles of the Constitution.
  • The United States has a system of both federal and state courts. The jurisdiction over cases varies according to the type of court, with trial courts generally having original jurisdiction and appellate courts hearing cases on appeal.
  • The federal court system is made up of the Supreme Court, courts of appeals, and district, or trial, courts. Most federal cases begin in the district courts. Results can be appealed upward to a court of appeals and then to the Supreme Court. District courts and courts of appeals are organized geographically.
  • The state courts are organized similarly to the federal courts but deal with state laws and constitutions. When the jurisdictions of state and federal courts overlap, the plaintiff can choose which court system to bring suit.
  • Federal judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Once confirmed by a simple majority vote, they hold office for life, but the Constitution provides a mechanism for removing from office federal judges found guilty of committing "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."
  • When nominating a judge, the president takes into account the person's professional and personal background, political ideology, and demographics.
  • Since the late 1980s, the confirmation of judicial nominees has become more politically charged and highly partisan.
  • After four justices of the Supreme Court agree to hear a case, the case is granted a writ of certiorari, meaning that it will enter the court's agenda. Lawyers for both sides present written arguments laying out their case and are questioned by the justices in a brief oral argument.
  • After considering the specifics of the case and relevant prior law, the justices vote to decide the case, with the majority determining the result. A member of the majority writes a majority opinion stating the decision and legal rationale. Other justices may write opinions agreeing with the decision for different reasons or dissenting from the decision.
  • Judges who practice judicial restraint are generally reluctant to interfere with the decisions of other branches. Judicial activists are more likely to exercise judicial power. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court issued a number of activist decisions in many different areas of the law.