The Federal Court System

Summary

The structure of today’s three-tiered federal court system, largely established by Congress, is quite clear-cut. The system’s reliance on precedent ensures a consistent and stable institution that is still capable of slowly evolving over the years—such as by increasingly reflecting the diverse population it serves. Presidents hope their judicial nominees will make rulings consistent with the chief executive’s own ideological leanings. But the lifetime tenure of federal court members gives them the flexibility to act in ways that may or may not reflect what their nominating president intended. Perfect alignment between nominating president and justice is not expected; a judge might be liberal on most issues but conservative on others, or vice versa. However, presidents have sometimes been surprised by the decisions made by their nominees, such as President Eisenhower was by Justice Earl Warren and President Reagan by Justice Anthony Kennedy.