Guardians of the Constitution and Individual Rights

Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no national judiciary. The U.S. Constitution changed that, but its Article III, which addresses “the judicial power of the United States,” is the shortest and least detailed of the three articles that created the branches of government. It calls for the creation of “one supreme Court” and establishes the Court’s jurisdiction, or its authority to hear cases and make decisions about them, and the types of cases the Court may hear. It distinguishes which are matters of original jurisdiction and which are for appellate jurisdiction. Under original jurisdiction, a case is heard for the first time, whereas under appellate jurisdiction, a court hears a case on appeal from a lower court and may change the lower court’s decision. The Constitution also limits the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction to those rare cases of disputes between states, or between the United States and foreign ambassadors or ministers. So, for the most part, the Supreme Court is an appeals court, operating under appellate jurisdiction and hearing appeals from the lower courts. The rest of the development of the judicial system and the creation of the lower courts were left in the hands of Congress.

To add further explanation to Article III, Alexander Hamilton wrote details about the federal judiciary in Federalist No. 78. In explaining the importance of an independent judiciary separated from the other branches of government, he said “interpretation” was a key role of the courts as they seek to protect people from unjust laws. But he also believed “the Judiciary Department” would “always be the least dangerous” because “with no influence over either the sword or the purse,” it had “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.” The courts would only make decisions, not take action. With no control over how those decisions would be implemented and no power to enforce their choices, they could exercise only judgment, and their power would begin and end there. Hamilton would no doubt be surprised by what the judiciary has become: a key component of the nation’s constitutional democracy, finding its place as the chief interpreter of the Constitution and the equal of the other two branches, though still checked and balanced by them.

The first session of the first U.S. Congress laid the framework for today’s federal judicial system, established in the Judiciary Act of 1789. Although legislative changes over the years have altered it, the basic structure of the judicial branch remains as it was set early on: At the lowest level are the district courts, where federal cases are tried, witnesses testify, and evidence and arguments are presented. A losing party who is unhappy with a district court decision may appeal to the circuit courts, or U.S. courts of appeals, where the decision of the lower court is reviewed. Still further, appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, but of the thousands of petitions for appeal, the Supreme Court will typically hear fewer than one hundred a year.“The U.S. Supreme Court.” The Judicial Learning Center. (March 1, 2016).

Link to learning graphic

This public site maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts provides detailed information from and about the judicial branch.

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