The Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government

When legal disputes arise that require a settlement, the Judicial Branch of the U.S. government is there to provide a fair hearing to the parties involved. Popularly known as the third branch of the federal government, the Judicial Branch is one of the most frequently discussed aspects of the U.S. system of government today.

Supreme Court Cases regularly make headlines in the news, and decisions on the law offered through the federal judicial system shape the lives of millions of Americans. Intended by the Founding Fathers of the United States to be an equal part of American governance, the Judicial Branch stands alongside the Executive and Legislative branches in upholding the Constitution of the United States.

The Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government

History of the Judicial Branch

Article III of the United States Constitution provides the outline for the Judicial Branch. Remarkably, though, the Constitution lays out very few specifics. It vests final judicial power in the Supreme Court and gives Congress the power to establish lesser courts. Congress fleshed out the Judicial Branch in the very first bill introduced in the U.S. Senate: the Judiciary Act of 1789. This law provided the fundamental operating procedures for the Supreme Court, and it established district courts in each state as the lowest federal courts.

Circuit courts were introduced as a place to hear appeals between federal courts and the Supreme Court. Although these federal courts are important, they hear only a few types of cases. They take up federal question cases, which deal with federal laws or the U.S. government or Constitution, as well as diversity of citizenship cases, which address legal disputes between two people from different states or between a U.S. citizen and a citizen of another country. All other legal issues are settled by the legal systems that exist in each of the 50 states.

Initially, the Judicial Branch occupied a small role in American life. That began to change in 1803 when the famous court case Marbury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review. Judicial review allows a higher federal court to strike down laws or reverse the decisions of a lower court if they violate the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal, but there is a check on its power in that its justices must be nominated by the president and approved by the Senate.

Notable Court Cases

In the history of the United States, several court cases have had a powerful impact on everyday American life. For example, the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857 contributed to the causes of the Civil War by declaring that slaves and their descendants did not have the rights of citizens. Later, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) said that states could mandate separate accommodations for white and black citizens citizens as long as these accommodations were “separate but equal.” Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 reversed this decision. Some of the most significant Supreme Court cases have dealt with civil rights such as the freedom to marry, such as 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, which ruled laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional, and 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed the right to marry for same-sex couples.

Fun Facts

Despite its influence on American life, the Supreme Court did not have a permanent home until 1935. Prior to that, it met in different places in Washington, D.C. William Howard Taft was instrumental in making the Supreme Court building a reality. Interestingly, Taft is the only person in U.S. history to have served both as president and as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. By tradition, the chief justice administers the oath of office to the president, and they also assign the writing of court opinions to a particular justice when they are in the majority.

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