Who's over the Supreme Court


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Chapter 5
The Judiciary: Interpretation of the Constitution


"... the judiciary is the constitutional protection mechanism
for our freedom and our property. "

- Charles Evans Hughes, President of the Supreme Court, in Elmira, New York, in 1907

The third power in the state, the judiciary, consists of a system of courts distributed across the country. The Supreme Court is the United States Supreme Court.

The states had a system of courts before the constitution was drafted. There was considerable controversy among constituent delegates as to whether a system of federal courts was necessary and whether it should replace the courts in the states. As with other issues, the delegates found a compromise: the state courts retained their jurisdiction and the constitution created federal courts with limited powers. Article III of the Constitution lays the foundation for the system of federal courts: "The judicial power of the United States shall be entrusted to a Supreme Court and such subordinate courts as Congress will from time to time direct and establish."


Using this guidance, the First Congress divided the country into districts and set up federal courts for each district. From these beginnings the current structure developed: the Supreme Federal Court of Justice, 13 courts of appeal, 94 district courts and two courts with special jurisdiction. It is still up to Congress to establish and abolish federal courts and to determine the number of judges in the federal courts. However, it cannot abolish the Supreme Federal Court of Justice.

Judicial power extends to all cases within the purview of the Constitution, laws passed by Congress, or the treaties of the United States; all cases involving ambassadors, ministers or consuls of other countries in the United States, disputes in which the United States is a party, disputes between states (or their citizens) and foreign countries (or their nationals), and bankruptcy cases . The 11th Amendment stipulated that the federal courts would no longer have jurisdiction over cases where a citizen of one state is a plaintiff and the government of another state is a defendant. However, you still have jurisdiction over cases where the government of one state is the plaintiff and a citizen of another state is the defendant.

The powers of the federal courts extend to civil actions for damages and other forms of compensation as well as to criminal matters under federal law. Article III created a complex network of relationships between the state courts and the federal courts. Ordinarily, under state law, cases are not tried in federal court. However, some cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal courts can also be heard and ruled in the state courts. At both levels, the courts have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and competing jurisdiction in others.

The constitution protects judicial independence by stipulating that federal judges should continue to exercise their office as long as they "conduct their duties properly" - in practice this means until they die, retire or resign. However, a judge who commits a criminal offense, like the president or other federal officials, can be removed from office by filing a lawsuit. The judges in the United States are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Congress also determines the salaries of judges.


The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States and the only one expressly established by the Constitution. No appeal can be lodged with any other court against a decision by the Supreme Court. Congress has the power to determine the number of justices at the Supreme Court and - with certain restrictions - to decide what types of cases are heard there, but it cannot change the powers conferred on the Supreme Court by the Constitution itself.

The Constitution does not say anything about the qualifications required to be a judge. There is no requirement that judges be lawyers, but in fact all judges, including those at the Supreme Court, are members of the bar association.

There have been just over 100 judges since the Supreme Court was founded 200 years ago. The original court had a president and five federal judges. In the following 80 years the number of judges varied until it was set in 1869 to a president and eight federal judges. The President is the presiding judge of the Court of Justice, but like federal judges, he has only one vote in decisive cases.

The Supreme Court has first instance jurisdiction in two cases: in cases involving foreign dignitaries and in cases in which a state is a party. In all other cases the Court of Justice is the court of appeal.

Usually only 150 of the several thousand cases filed with the Supreme Court are heard there. Most cases are about the interpretation of the law or the intent of Congress in passing a law. However, a significant part of the work of the Supreme Court is determining whether a law or government action is constitutional. This constitutional control function is not expressly mentioned in the constitution. Rather, it is a doctrine of the Court's interpretation of the Constitution that was emphatically stated in the landmark 1803 Marbury v Madison case. In its ruling in this case, the Supreme Court stated that "a law that violates the Constitution is not a law" and further stated that "it is the express duty and duty of the courts to say what is law". The doctrine now extends to the actions of state and local governments.

The decisions of the court do not have to be made unanimously, a simple majority is sufficient, provided that at least six judges - the legal quorum - take part in the vote. In the event of differing opinions, the court usually publishes a majority opinion and a minority opinion, also known as a dissenting vote, both of which can serve as a basis for future decisions of the court. Often judges write different dissenting opinions if they agree with the decision, but for reasons other than those cited by the majority.


The second highest tier of federal justice consists of the appellate courts, created in 1891 to facilitate the decision-making of cases and reduce the workload of the Supreme Court. Congress created 12 appeals courts for the regional judicial districts and the federal appeals court for the federal judicial district. The number of judges serving in these courts ranges from 6 to 28, but in most jurisdictions there are between 10 and 15 judges.

The appellate courts review the decisions of the district courts (courts with federal jurisdiction) in their area of ​​jurisdiction. You also have the right to review administrative acts of the independent regulatory authorities in cases where the authorities' internal review mechanisms have been exhausted and significant legal disagreements persist. The Federal Court of Appeal for the federal judicial district is also responsible nationwide for hearing special cases, for example patent law cases, as well as for cases that are heard by the courts with special jurisdiction such as the court for foreign trade and the court for compensation claims against the federal government.

At the level below the appellate courts, there are the district courts. The 50 states and the American territories are divided into 94 districts, so that the courts are easily accessible for all parties to the proceedings. Each district court has at least two judges, many have some judges, and the most populous districts have more than two dozen. Depending on the workload, a judge in one district can temporarily help out in another district. Congress determines the boundaries of the districts based on population, size, and workload. Some of the smaller states correspond to one district, while the larger states like New York, California, and Texas are made up of four districts each.

Except for the District of Columbia, judges must be residents of the district in which they serve on a permanent basis. District courts hold their sessions at regular intervals in different cities in the district.

Most of the cases and controversies pending in these courts concern violations of federal law such as misuse of postal services, theft of federal property, and violations of the Food Act, banking law, and laws against counterfeiting of money and documents. They are the only federal courts where prosecution juries indict those accused of crimes and where juries decide the cases.

Each judicial district also has a bankruptcy court, as Congress has determined that bankruptcy matters should be dealt with by federal courts, not state courts. As part of bankruptcy proceedings, individuals or companies who can no longer pay their creditors can either request a court-supervised liquidation of their assets or reorganize their financial affairs and devise a plan to pay off their debts.


In addition to federal courts with general jurisdiction, it has from time to time been necessary to establish special purpose courts. These courts are called "legislative" courts because they were set up by Congress. The judges in these courts, like their colleagues in other federal courts, are appointed by the President for life with the approval of the Senate.

There are currently two special courts with national jurisdiction over certain types of cases. The Foreign Trade Court handles cases related to international customs and trade issues. The federal compensation court has jurisdiction over all claims for damages against the United States, disputes over federal treaties, illegal possession of private property by the federal government, and a variety of other claims against the United States.