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Introduction to Federal Courts

The federal courts are the third branch of the government of the United States of America, and may be the least understood of the three branches. Most Americans are familiar with the White House and the Congress, but are less familiar with the Supreme Court and the many lower federal courts nationwide. While courts occasionally make news with landmark rulings or through decisions in interesting cases, they tend to be less visible than other government entities.

Most Americans have heard the President make a speech on television or watched the Congress debate on C-SPAN. In contrast, the proceedings of federal courts are not televised, and most people have not heard an oral argument or testimony before a federal court, at least outside of jury duty. Although the federal courts do not get the publicity that the other two branches of government do, their decisions have a profound impact on the lives of all Americans.

The federal court system is created in the U.S. Constitution. This segment will discuss the Constitutional basis for the federal courts. It will also discuss how the federal courts operate in the Constitutional system of "checks and balances" with the executive and legislative branches of government.

Constitutional Issues

The federal courts are authorized by Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Article III provides that:

  • The judical power of the United States is vested in the federal court system.

  • The highest court in the federal court system is the Supreme Court.

  • Congress may create other "inferior" courts that are below the Supreme Court.

  • Supreme Court Justices and other federal judges hold lifetime appointments, unless removed from office.

  • Congress may not decrease the pay of federal judges or Supreme Court justices while they are in office.

The Courts and the Executive Branch

The main check that the Executive Branch has on the federal courts is the power of appointment. Article II of the U.S. Constitution provides that federal judges are appointed by the President, with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Presidents generally appoint federal judges who share their political beliefs and philosophy. Because federal judges are appointed for life, the power of appointment gives a President some influence over the direction of the court system even after his term of office ends.

Portrait of President Roosevelt On at least one occasion, a President has sought to place a check on the federal courts by widening his appointment authority. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed new legislation that would allow the President to appoint an additional Justice to the Supreme Court when a Justice passed the age of seventy without retiring. If passed, this legislation would have allowed the President to appoint six new Justices to the Court. Roosevelt's proposal was widely derided as "court packing" and was never implemented.

The main Constitutional check that the federal courts have on the executive branch is through the process of impeachment glossary for 'impeachment', which provides for the removal of office for an elected or appointed official. Article I of the Constitution provides that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the Senate when the President is impeached. Chief Justice Salmon Chase presided over the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided over the impeachment of President of Bill Clinton in 1999.

The Supreme Court has also heard many landmark cases involving the Presidency. In the 1974 case of United States v. Nixon, the Court found that Presidential claims of privilege do not bar the release of information under a subpoena issued by a special prosecutor in a criminal case. In the 1997 case of Clinton v. Jones, the Court found that the President was not immune from a civil case brought against him in his private capacity. In the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore, the Court settled the disputed 2000 Presidential election by overturning a Florida Supreme Court decision calling for a partial recount.

The Courts and the Legislative Branch

U.S. CapitolThe main check that the federal courts have over the legislative branch is the process of judicial review glossary for 'judicial review'. In the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall authored an opinion ruling that a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional. The Marbury ruling was the first time that the Supreme Court declared that a statute passed by Congress was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has used its power of judicial review in a variety of situations. After the Marbury decision, the next time the Court found a law unconstitutional was in the controversial Dred Scott decision, where the Court found that the Missouri Compromise legislation was unconstitutional. The Court can also rule that a federal law is constitutional. For example, in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that discrimination against African-American hotel guests affected interstate commerce.

Congress can also pass legislation that acts to overturn specific Supreme Court decisions. For example, in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Department of Transportation v. Paralyzed Veterans of America that a federal civil rights law protecting the rights of people with disabilities did not apply to the airline industry. In response to this decision, Congress passed a new law, the Air Carrier Access Act. The new law was designed to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in air travel, thereby overturning the Court's decision.

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