American Government Chapter 13: The Courts
Background • Sources of American judicial law • Constitutions: federal and state constitutions set forth the general organization, powers and limits of government including judicial matters and constitutionality • Statutes and administrative regulations: laws enacted by legislatures that define the rights and responsibilities of individuals • Case law: judicial interpretation on common law principles and doctrines as well as interpretations of constitutional, statutory, and administrative law (decisions made by the courts form a larger body of judicial law that sets precedent anywhere in the nation)
The Federal Court System • It’s important to know that the US has two systems: the federal court system and the state courts plus the D.C. system for a total of 52 • Before any case can heard, two requirements must be made: • Jurisdiction: the authority of a court to decide certain cases (i.e. residency within a particular state) (a federal question is one that handles the Constitution, acts of Congress or treaties) • Standing to Sue: the party bringing a lawsuit must have suffered a harm, or been threatened with harm
Types of Federal Courts • 1. U.S. District Courts- trial courts (courts in which trials are held and testimony is taken • These are courts of general jurisdiction, meaning they can hear cases involving a broad array of issues (as opposed to limited jurisdiction) • There is at least one federal court in every state • Depends on population and number of cases • Currently there are 94 federal judicial districts (13-2 on p 447) • A party who is dissatisfied with the decision of a district court can appeal in an appellate court
Types of Federal Courts • 2. U.S. Courts of Appeals (13 in number, hear appeals from within their geographic areas of jurisdiction, note that a new trial is not held, only that a panel of judges reviews a case and determines whether an error was made in the trial court- not errors of fact or guilt, but errors of the process of the law) • 3. U.S. Supreme Court-highest court in the land, 9 justices of the Court, only considers cases if a federal question is involved
Terms to Know • Plaintiff- person initiating a lawsuit • Defendant- person against whom the lawsuit is brought • Litigate- to engage in a legal proceeding or seek relief in a court of law • Class-action suit- a lawsuit filed by an individual seeking damages for ‘all persons similarly situated’ i.e. if a factory poisons the water in a town, a class-action suit can be filed against that company
More about the Supreme Court • Work from first Monday in Oct to late June of the following year • Cases reviewed by the Supreme Court are less than one in four thousand • Does make decisions on significant issues: assisted suicide, affirmative action, abortion, etc. • The Supreme Court chooses which cases it wants to hear (you have no guarantee that just because you want your case heard by the Court that it actually will be) • Rule of four- at least four justices have to approve of a case being head before the Supreme Court • The court does not hear evidence, since technically it is a court of appeals only • Rather, it hears oral arguments (verbal arguments presented by attorneys as to why the court should rule in their client’s favor)
When the Court has reached a decision, its opinion is written (contains the ruling of the Court, its reasons for its decision, and any rules of law that apply) • In many cases, the ruling of the lower court is affirmed (upheld) • If there was a judicial error originally, then the Court may reverse the decision of the lower court or even remand the case (send it back to the court that originally heard the case for a new trial)the
Types of Opinions • When all the judges agree unanimously, it is a unanimous opinion • When there is division, a majority opinion is written, outlining the views of the majority of the justices. A concurring opinion makes a point not made in the majority opinion but still agrees with the majority decision. One of the justices who disagreed with the ruling will write a dissenting opinion The justices announce their decision and publish their opinions (now available online)
Selection of Judges • All federal judges are appointed- the Senate and the president jointly decide who shall fill every vacant judicial position, regardless of the level • There are more than 850 positions available- once appointed, that person serves as a judge for life or until they resign, retire, or die (can be impeached if involved in illegal activities) • Candidates are suggested by the president, senators, other judges, candidates themselves, and interest groups to the Department of Justice • Supreme Court nominations are the ones you hear about (i.e. Sotomoyer) • Presidents view such appointments as a way to institutionalize their own political views long after they personally have left office • This ideology is often a major reason why Senators refuse to confirm an appointment (20% are rejected or ignored by the Senate)
Policymaking • Judicial review- power to determine whether or not a law is constitutional (part of the check and balance system) • Not actually discussed in the Constitution- some people think this power gives the judicial branch too much power…what do you think? • Because the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is national, it has great power. For example, when one amendment limiting the terms of congresspersons was declared unconstitutional, similar laws in 23 other states were instantly invalidated
Judicial activism- the federal judiciary should take an active role by using its powers to check the activity of government bodies when those bodies exceed their authority (i.e. in the 50s and 60s when the Court fought for civil rights) • Judicial restraint- the courts should defer to the decisions made by the legislative branch and the executive branch (because the courts do not have the same expertise as the originators of the law do so the courts should stay out of it unless the law is clearly unconstitutional) • These are two schools of though: which one do you agree with?
2 ways a judge can make their decision: • Strict construction: ‘the letter of the law”, a more objective way to look at what the law says and does • Broad construction: looks at the context and purpose of the law rather than just what it says The current court is pretty divided- a lot of cases end up being 5 against 4, with the conservatives winning most of the time when there is division
Checks on the power of the Courts • Presidents rarely try to act against the courts though it has happened on occasion • Rather, through their power of appointment, they can setup a court amenable to them • Executives at the state level can also refuse to cooperate but are often overruled i.e. Arkansas governor refused to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School and the National Guard had to be brought in to enforce the decision of the Supreme Court. • Courts’ rulings can be overturned by Congress if they pass a Constitutional Amendment- many of these efforts fail, however • Congress can also rewrite a law that has been declared unconstitutional or overturn rulings that seem to misinterpret the intentions of Congress • This results in a major tug-of-war between the Supreme Court and the other branches of government: i.e. the Congress will pass a law making it illegal to burn the American flag and the Court will declare that law unconstitutional
Other Matters • Public opinion- the rulings of the Courts may just be completely ignored, i.e. officially sponsored school prayer was banned back in 1962 yet it still occurs nowadays • Unless someone initiates a lawsuit, the Courts are powerless to stop these abuses • Lower and higher courts also have a power struggle- the higher courts can overturn decisions of the lower ones but the lower courts can simply ignore the higher courts and declare that the precedent set by the Supreme Court does not apply in a particular case- the lower courts can interpret the decisions of the higher ones
Assignment: Find a partner and research one Supreme Court Justice as assigned to you by me. Who are they? Where are they from? What issues do they fight for? What kind of judicial philosophy do they have?