justice hammer

The Judicial Branch

If the branches of government were a posse, then the judicial branch would be the “silent” type. Donned in all black, he doesn’t make his living being a people person as he rarely engages others.

However, for those times that he chooses to speak, people damn sure listen.

The Judicial branch may not be as sexy as the Executive Branch or action packed as the Legislative Branch, but its role in American society is essential. Their decisions have not only gone on to shape court cases, but American history itself. They have decided elections, weigh in on issues that affect your everyday life and, oh, they tend to change America’s rulebook from time to time.

How could such profound measures come from a black abyss of the unknown? Let’s take a closer look.

History Behind the Supreme Court

As mentioned previously, pre-Constitutional American was a three-ring circus, only the elephants and rings of fire were just replaced with farmers with pitchforks marching on federal arsenals.

Where was all the order? Didn’t these unruly farmers have parental supervision or a chaperone? Well, they had state courts which, back then, were like the drunken step-dad who lets his 4-year old stick things in the electrical socket. Not only were they unorganized, they were never consistent with other states. Walking across the border to another state was akin to walking into a new country with a whole new set of laws.

The Founding Fathers, never short of innovative genius, knew something had to change. They decided to set up a central court that would rule as the law of the land. In 1789, they established what would be known as the Supreme Court. The court would have five associate justices and one chief justice. Today, the court has the same structure, but now there are eight associate justices.

Since the late 18th Century, just over a 100 justices have served in the highest court in the land. They are appointed by the Executive Branch and ratified by the Congress. While the President can be overridden and Congressional legislation chopped down by executive veto, the decision of the Judicial Branch can only be overturned by the Judicial Branch. What they say is the law.

Here are the current justices that currently sit on the Supreme Court. Justices are appointed for life or until they decide to retire:

Chief Justice John Roberts (2006)

Justice John Paul Stevens (1975)

Justice Antonin Scalia (1986)

Justice Anthony Kennedy (1988)

Justice Clarence Thomas (1991)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993)

Justice Steven Breyer (1994)

Justice Samuel Alito (2006)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor (2009)

To get an audience with the Supreme Court isn’t like appearing on Judge Joe Brown. Out of roughly 7,500 requests for the Supreme Court to hear a case, less than 150 are accepted. When the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it’s because it has raised controversy and could legitimately affect how future cases across the country are handled.

After every decision made by lower courts, unsatisfied parties have the right to petition or appeal to a higher court. Cases are usually heard in district courts then appealed to federal appellate and state courts. Should the slighted party choose to take his/her case further, they end up at the Supreme Court.

However, as stated above, the Supreme Court decides to only here select cases. The ones not selected are left with the last decision made by the previous court. To petition the court, a writ of certiorari, must be filed. The Court goes by a “rule of four,” which means that four justices must want to review the case. The cases that they review either involve a new and pressing legal principle or when two lower courts interpret the law in different fashions.

Arguments are presented before the Court from both sides. Afterwards, the Justices break and weigh in on the case. Afterward, the Chief Justice will summon both parties back into chambers and read the Court’s ruling. Decision only have to be by majority vote. The court’s official opinion will be read and put on public record. In cases where there isn’t full agreement among the judges, a “dissenting opinion,” will be read, which will provide arguments in favor of the side that hasn’t won.

Milestone Supreme Court Decisions

Marbury v Madison (1803)—Courts decide that they can review acts of Congress and decide whether they are constitutional or not.

McCullough v Maryland (1819) –Congress may exercise powers that, although not explicitly stated in Constitution, are “implied.”

Gibbons v Ogden (1824)—Congress can oversee commerce, which in effect allows a national law to supersede state law.

Dred Scott v Sanford (1857)—Slaves are not considered citizens of the United States (nullified by the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery.)

Plessy v Ferguson (1896) Segregation is ok so long as its “separate and equal.”

Schneck v United States (1919)—Freedom of speech isn’t protected in cases of “clear and present danger”

Brown v Board of Education (1954)—“separate is not equal;” overturns Plessy v Ferguson.

Roe v Wade (1973)—Abortion is legalized

Judicial Jargon

Appellate Court
Any court that is allowed to hear a case that was previously decided by a lower court
Concurring Opinion
An opinion given by a judge that affirms the majority decision.
District Court
The first step in the legal process; this is the court where cases are initially heard.
Dissenting Opinion
An opinion given by a judge that does not go along with the majority decision.
Majority Decision
When five or more judges make a ruling on particular case
Rule of Four
The rule that states that four justices must agree to hear a case before it is heard by the whole court
Stare Decisis
“Let the Decision Stand.” A fancy Latin term for courts sticking to what previous courts have ruled in decisions relating to the case.
Writ of Certiorari
A Document that a losing party from a preceding case files in order to have a higher court hear the case