Mr. Valenzuela

Civics – Judicial Branch


Today in class, students investigated and explained the role of the Judicial Branch in our government. To see what we worked on today, click on the links below:

microsoft_word_logo  The Judicial Branch or click here for the HTML version

microsoft_word_logo Judicial Branch Cornell Notes

 link Judicial Branch Overview Video Clip

Homework - p. 24 - Complete the Judicial Branch reflection - 10 sentences!

The Judicial Branch!

The Supreme Court and other federal courts make up the judicial branch of the federal government. Judges are the most important members of this branch.

Laws and Courts

The legal system in our society helps to solve disagreements that involve laws. A legal system is needed to answer questions in serious conflicts.

What Courts Do

Courts of law solve legal conflicts. The two kinds of legal conflicts are criminal cases and civil cases. In a criminal case, a court decides if a person is innocent or guilty of breaking the law. The court also decides what the punishment will be if the person is guilty. In a civil case, a court settles a disagreement.

In a civil case, one side, the plaintiff, usually brings the case to court. The other party is called the defendant. In a criminal case, the prosecution brings the case to court. The prosecution is called “The People.” The other side in a criminal case is called the defendant.

The judge decides which side’s argument is most in keeping with the law. The judge does not take a side. A jury also takes part in many cases. The jury decides the facts of a case. The Constitution says that a person accused of a crime has the right to a trial by jury.

Courts have the important job of deciding what the law means. Courts also may have to decide if the Constitution allows a law. A court’s decision can set a precedent. A precedent makes the meaning of a law or the Constitution clearer. It also tells how the law should be applied.

Qualifications for becoming a Judge

The Constitution sets forth no requirements for federal judges, not even minimum age, citizenship, or residency requirements. The Department of Justice, which reviews nominees' qualifications, has developed its own informal criteria. But the results of the Dept. of Justice review are just recommendations.

State Courts and Federal Courts

Our legal system has both state courts and federal courts. Most cases begin in a lower court, often at the state level. State courts decide most legal arguments and violations of the law.

Most state court systems have three levels. These are trial courts, appeals courts, and a court of final appeals. The court to which a legal case goes first has original jurisdiction. This court determines the facts in a case. This often happens during a trial with a jury.

The plaintiff or defendant may believe that the decision made by a trial court is unfair. Then he or she has the right toappeal. Each state has appeals courts to

hear cases from lower state courts. These courts have appellate jurisdiction. An appeals court reviews the legal issues in a case.

An appeals court may agree with the lower court’s decision. Or it may decide that the trial was unfair. It also may overturn the lower court’s decision. Then the appeals court may order another trial. The Constitution does not allow double jeopardy. This means that you cannot be tried for the same crime after being found innocent.

The Supreme Court hears cases appealed from the state courts. It makes sure that all 50 state court systems interpret the Constitution in the same way. It also makes sure that the rights of all Americans are protected.

Article III of the Constitution contains the framework for the federal court system. It does not set up lower courts. Congress created district courts and courts of appeals in 1789 through the Judiciary Act.

The District Courts

The district courts do most of the work in the federal court system. There are 94 district courts. Each state has at least one. Some larger states have four. District courts are courts of original jurisdiction. That makes them the first to hear cases involving federal issues. A judge directs what goes on in a district court. The court may call witnesses. A jury usually decides the facts in a case.

The Courts of Appeals

The courts of appeals are the next highest level of the federal court system. There are 12 appellate courts. Each takes cases from a group of district courts within an area. This area is called a circuit. The courts of appeals often are calledcircuit courts.

A court of appeals has no jury. It calls no witnesses. It does not look at any evidence. Lawyers make arguments in front of a panel of three judges. The judges can agree with the lower court’s decision. Or they may disagree and reverse it. The courts of appeals decide whether the original trial was fair.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system. Its main job is to be the final court of appeals for both the state and federal court systems. It has original jurisdiction over a few special kinds of cases. These include cases involving foreign governments and arguments between state governments.

There are many other federal courts. These include the Court of Claims, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and the Tax Court. Congress set up these special courts. Appeals from some of these courts are sent directly to the Supreme Court. Others must first pass through a court of appeals or a higher special court.

Federal Court Judges

Federal judges do the work of the judicial branch. A judge settles individual cases. He or she must not favor one party. Judges help define and clarify the work of lawmakers by applying the law to specific cases.

The President chooses all federal judges for the district courts, courts of appeals, and Supreme Court. The Senate must approve the choices. The judges serve life terms. They can be removed only by being impeached.

Federal judges shoulder great responsibility. They must balance the rights of individuals with the interests of the whole nation. Often they have to make decisions that seem unfair to one side.

The nine Supreme Court justices have the most responsibility. They decide specific cases, often involving just one or two people. Their decisions may have important consequences for the nation.

The Supreme Court has the final say about what the Constitution means and what laws are allowed. A Supreme Court decision sets the broadest and longest- lasting precedent in our legal system.

Judicial Review

Judicial review is one of the most important powers of the Supreme Court. It gives the judicial branch the final say over whether a law is allowed by the

Constitution. The Court took the power during the case of Marbury v. Madison.

Marbury sued Secretary of State Madison because he did not get a government job. Marbury took his case directly to the Supreme Court. The Court looked at the law that allowed Marbury to bring his case before the Court. This law was the Judiciary Act of 1789. Part of the Judiciary Act gave the Court original jurisdiction. The Court decided that this was unconstitutional. This decision gave the Supreme Court the power of judicial review.

The Justices

The President chooses Supreme Court justices from among the most respected judges, lawyers, and legal scholars in the country. The Senate must then approve the President’s choices. The Supreme Court is made up of a Chief Justice and eight associate justices.

The Work of the Supreme Court

The Court chooses which cases to hear. It usually chooses cases about important constitutional issues. Each side gives briefs, or written arguments. Lawyers present oral arguments before the Court. Then the justices meet to discuss the case. The Chief Justice summarizes the case and offers an opinion. Each justice has a chance to comment. Finally, the Chief Justice calls for a vote. A majority decides the case.

Most Supreme Court decisions come with an opinion. The opinion shows how the law must be applied or how the Constitution must be interpreted.

Influences on Judicial Decisions

Various factors affect how the justices vote in a court case. The justices consider precedent, or past court decisions. They try to understand what lawmakers were thinking when they made laws.

A Changing Court

The Supreme Court has had three “personalities” since the 1950s. The “Warren Court” was known for defending the rights of people accused of crimes. Its decisions are examples of judicial activism. Many “Burger Court” decisions are examples of judicial restraint. The Court today is the “Rehnquist Court.” It has made decisions that limit the government’s authority.

The Court and Other Branches of Government

Judicial review gives the Supreme Court an important check on the power of the legislative and executive branches. The President’s power to choose justices is one check on the Supreme Court. The Senate can check the power of the President and the Supreme Court. It can refuse to approve justices chosen for the Court.

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