Federal Court System

The national judicial system consists of the Federal District Courts, Federal Courts of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. These courts have jurisdiction over cases arising under the Constitution, the laws established by the national government and in cases where parties are from different states.

Establishing the National Judiciary

Article III of the Constitution establishes that "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." The need for a national judiciary had become all too apparent under the Articles of Confederation. In The Federalist No. 22, Hamilton observed:

A circumstance which crowns the defects of the Confederation remains yet to be mentioned, the want of a judiciary power. Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation. . . . If there is in each State a court of final jurisdiction, there may be as many different final determinations on the same point as there are courts. There are endless diversities in the opinions of men. We often see not only different courts but the judges of the same court differing from each other. To avoid the confusion which would unavoidably result from the contradictory decisions of a number of independent judicatories, all nations have found it necessary to establish one court paramount to the rest, possessing a general superintendence, and authorized to settle and declare in the last resort a uniform rule of civil justice.

What would be the extent of the powers of the national judiciary? The Constitution establishes, in Article III Section 2, that "the judicial Power shall extend to:"

The Supreme Court has "original jurisdiction" in "all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party." Because its jurisdiction in these cases is "original," the Supreme Court is the first (and last) court to hear them. In all other cases, the Supreme Court has "appellate jurisdiction," or the authority to review the decisions made by lower courts.

A National, Independent Judiciary

The Framers clearly saw the need for a national court of last appeals, a legal tribunal that had the authority to be the last word in cases and disputes arising under the Constitution. For the Supreme Court's decisions to be respected and obeyed, they also recognized that the Court had to be independent, untainted by politics or ambition. To secure the independence of the judiciary, the Framers established a nomination and appointment process for judges that is insulated from public opinion (see the "Nomination Process"). They also provided that once Supreme Court and other federal court judges were appointed, they would continue to serve "during good behavior." Of this second provision, Hamilton observed:

The standard of good behavior for the continuance in office of the judicial magistracy, is certainly one of the most valuable of the modern improvements in the practice of government. In a monarchy it is an excellent barrier to the despotism of the prince; in a republic it is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body. And it is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws (The Federalist No. 78).

While judges can be impeached and removed from office for "bad behavior," such instances have been rare. In fact, only thirteen federal judges have faced impeachment trials, seven of them being convicted and removed from office. Although the Congress has attempted to impeach and remove judges because of the content of their decisions, it has never succeeded in doing so. Every federal judge removed from office has been impeached and convicted of a criminal offense, not for making a controversial decision.1 The Framers' hopes that the judiciary would remain independent appear to have been realized. (Limits on the Court's decisions are discussed in "The Supreme Court.")

The United States Federal Court System

While the Constitution provides for the establishment of a Supreme Court, it leaves to the Congress the responsibility to create "such inferior Courts as [it] may from time to time ordain and establish." Indeed, one of the most important matters of business taken up by the First Congress was the organization of the federal court system. Among other things, the Congress set the size of the Supreme Court at six Justices and created a federal district court for each state. The Congress has significantly expanded the size of the federal judiciary since that time, but the basic structure of a Supreme Court with federal court districts has remained unchanged.

The American Legal System

In the United States, the disputes before the law are settled by impartial judges and juries. Because opposing sides in legal cases are almost always represented by professional advocates or attorneys, the American system is referred to as "adversarial." The responsibility of the attorneys on each side of a dispute is to present their side of the argument in the best possible light. It is then up to the judge and jury to decide which "adversary" has made the best case.

To prevent miscarriages of justice, the American legal system allows jury trial decisions to be appealed to a higher court. At the appeals level, there are no juries. Instead, a panel of judges review the jury trial record to decide whether the original verdict was appropriate. While the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over a small number of cases, its primary role is to be the "court of last appeal." Once the Supreme Court has decided a case, the decision is final.

1. David M. O'Brien. The Supreme Court in American Politics. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 139-41.