The Judicial Branch

The Judicial Branch Symbol

The judicial branch decides the meaning of laws, applies them to real-life situations and checks whether a law breaks the Constitution. It’s a vital part of our country’s system of checks and balances.

The Constitution doesn’t elaborate much on how the judicial branch should be structured, leaving Congress discretion to determine its shape and structure. This includes the number of Supreme Court Justices, which has varied from six to nine since 1869.

The judicial branch

The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the law and ensuring that it’s applied fairly across the nation. As part of the system of checks and balances, the judicial branch acts as an independent check on the powers of the executive and legislative branches, guarding the rights and freedoms of the people. Judges are appointed rather than elected, and federal judges serve until their death, retirement, or removal by the House of Representatives and Senate.

Our symbol for the judicial branch is Lady Justice, based on both the Greek goddess Themis (honored as clear-sighted) and the Roman goddess Justicia (honored as fair). She holds scales to represent the impartiality of the courts’ decisions, and a sword to symbolize the power of law. Judges are expected to follow legal precedent and avoid political or other outside influences when making decisions. This ensures that their rulings are consistent and fair, and maintain public trust in the judicial branch.

The U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final appeals court of the nation and the ultimate expositor of the Constitution. Its best-known power, judicial review, allows the Supreme Court to declare that either the executive or legislative branch of government has violated the Constitution.

Justices are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, and they serve for life. They are paid a salary set by Congress, which has varied over the years.

The Supreme Court hears cases on appeal from federal courts of appeal and occasionally from state supreme courts. It only takes cases that have a significant constitutional impact or that answer important legal questions. Its nine justices work together in private conferences to decide cases. If more than half of the Justices agree on the outcome, it becomes a majority opinion (or decision). If the Justices disagree, one writes a dissenting opinion. The Justices also write their own individual opinions, as well.

The U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals

The Supreme Court is the top level of the federal courts but there are 13 other courts that act as intermediate appellate levels. These are known as the United States Courts of Appeals. Each of the 94 judicial districts is organized into one of 12 regional circuits and each of these has a United States Court of Appeals.

These courts will hear appeals from district court cases as well as appeals from decisions of certain federal administrative agencies. Their rulings can also be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Judges on the Court of Appeals are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They are sworn to “do justice” and they must follow the law no matter their political party or personal beliefs. These judges are involved in the biggest cases that affect every American. Their rulings can change how the government does business or protect our civil rights. They decide whether a person has committed a crime and they are often the final word on how our laws are applied.

The U.S. District Courts

The federal judicial system comprises 94 district level trial courts, 13 circuit courts of appeals, and one Supreme Court. The Constitution states that the judicial power of the United States “shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” District courts are the general trial level for both civil and criminal cases. Judges at the district level may either empanel a jury or conduct what’s called a bench trial.

If a party loses at the district court level, they may petition to the higher levels of appeal for review. The Courts of Appeals are organized into 12 regional circuits and the Federal Circuit. Judges at the circuit and appellate levels are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and enjoy lifetime tenure in accordance with Article III of the Constitution. They also owe allegiance to the United States and must recuse themselves from cases involving their spouses or children.

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