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Picture a chilly, bustling post-holiday season in Washington D.C, 1801. A Federalist Congress is desperately trying to establish some scope of power, after their defeat in the Presidential election. President John Adams softens the blow of his loss by appointing Federalist judiciary positions. William Marbury, promised a commission for Justice o
f the Peace,  is excited and awaiting his official commission from the President. But after the Oval Office changes hands, Thomas Jefferson’s administration refuses to finalize Marbury’s position. Marbury then sues James Madison, the current Secretary of State, and asks the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus. Such a writ would force Madison, by court order, to hand over Marbury’s commission. The case blew up into something much bigger, ending in a decision that established the Court’s ability to review and nullify acts of Congress. Jefferson, although leery of the decision, did not challenge it until much later, after it was well-established. This was the first time the Supreme Court established itself as an independent federal body. It was also one of the most influential politically-motivated cases in history.

Politics and the federal court system are no stranger to each other. Not only have elections actually spawned federal court cases (glares at George W. Bush and Al Gore), each Presidential election hums with the promise of new Supreme Court Appointments. The 2016 election, as Part One of this series reflected, is so far no exception. Candidates care deeply about the function of the federal courts. While we’re gearing up for this season’s TP resolution and next November’s elections, we’re going to continue briefing you on our complex judiciary and its interaction with surrounding politics.


 Overview of the Federal Court System

Nota bene: I’ve heard grumblings of  “this resolution is just like the criminal justice resolution.” Let me dispel that sentiment with some definitions, in common terms:

Federal court system: Courts that handle cases of federal law, appeals, and sometimes state cases sent to federal level via the diversity jurisdiction (only if plaintiffs live in different states).

Criminal justice system: Courts that handle cases of punishing/exonerating people accused of crimes. Giving people their due.

From here on out, it’s established that this resolution will be nothing like the criminal justice resolution. In fact, this resolution has a magnanimous scope. Federal courts are comprised of four different levels of judiciaries:

  1. Courts of Special Jurisdiction (bankruptcy courts, tax courts, divorce courts)
  2. Trial Courts: generally where your typical federal case begins. 
  3. Appellate Courts: for when either party believes there to be a mistake in the decision. Here, they can appeal to the next level of courts.
  4. Supreme Court: law of the land. Final.

There are only a few ways that cases can actually reach the Supreme Court.  The first is Original Jurisdiction. Although it rarely happens, this is when the Court hears a case directly without being heard by lesser courts first. Certain cases, if filed on distinctly federal terms (i.e, if the case deals with Constitutional interpretation or is a case against a state), will be heard directly by the Supreme Court. The second method is the most common, and it is an Appeal from Circuit Court (Appellate Court). When the Supreme Court decides to hear a case from an Appellate Court, it is referred to as Writ of Certiorari. (Fun fact? That’s Latin for, roughly, “to be informed”. It refers to the process of the Circuit Court sending all case-related information and evidence to the Supreme Court.) Although the Court receives thousands of petitions for writ of certiorari, not many are granted. It will only hear a case if four out of nine justices agree to it. If the certiorari is denied, the decision from the lower court is final. Finally, the last way a case ends up in the Supreme Court is an appeal from a State Supreme Court. Federal courts generally do not challenge state rulings, but will occasionally grant certiorari if the case deals with constitutional issues.

Even though the Supreme Court is the highest level of review in the land, it does not go unchecked. In fact, it justly interacts with the other branches of government. Each branch, according to a system of checks and balances, is able to influence or stop each other in extreme cases. For example:

  1. Executive branch has the power of appointment. The President appoints Supreme Court Justices. 
  2. Legislative branch aids in this decision. The Senate offers “advice and consent”.
  3. Legislative branch can pass legislation “negating” or “overriding” a Supreme Court ruling, even though they can’t directly reverse it.
  4. Judicial branch has the power of impeachment. It can oust Presidents, Judges, Federal Secretaries, and Senators.
  5. Judicial branch helps out Congress in the event of impeachment. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over Senate.
  6. Judicial branch has the power to interpret the constitutionality of legislation from either branch. This is known as judicial review.


The Court System and Elections

Candidates have long-since sought to use appointment and even structure of the federal courts to benefit their office. Roosevelt sought to widen his appointment authority. In 1937, he proposed legislation that allowed Presidents to appoint an additional Justice to the Supreme Court each time a Justice reached seventy-five and didn’t retire. His motivation for this was to keep fresh, healthy minds on tap. However, if passed, the legislation would have allowed him to appoint six new Justices to the Court. Basically, Roosevelt’s proposal was made fun of and dubbed “court packing”. 

It makes sense, however, that presidential candidates care about federal courts. Not only can Justices impeach a President, they can greatly influence his effectiveness. Presidents typically appoint federal judges who share their political stance and overall philosophy. And since federal judges are appointed for life, the power of appointment gives a President lots of sway over the direction of federal courts – even after his term ends. Appointing a like-minded judge undoubtedly pushes a President’s agenda. When a Justice expresses his/her personal views in a decision, however, many call it judicial activism. We know judicial activism to be when a justice creatively (re)interprets the Constitution to fit his/her perceived needs of a changing society. Sometimes citizens find this agreeable, but it is almost always controversial. Examples of cases that were marked “judicial activism” at the time are the Dred Scott, Roe v. Wade, Baker v. Carr, and Obergefell v. Hodges decisions. People take offense at judicial activism because it usually implies that Congress and the President are failing to meet the needs of contemporary society. When people accuse the court of “legislating from the bench”, they usually just mean judicial activism.


The Constitution and Court System

People tend to accuse federal courts of abusing their power. But what power does the Constitution actually grant to federal courts? Article III explicitly states the following about the power of federal courts. It’s self-explanatory, and helpful to know. 

  1. The judicial power of the United States is vested in the federal court system.
  2. The highest court in the federal court system is the Supreme Court.
  3. Congress may create other “inferior” courts that are below the Supreme Court.
  4. Supreme Court Justices and other federal judges hold lifetime appointments, unless removed from office.
  5. Congress may not decrease the pay of federal judges or Supreme Court justices while they are in office.

You may have heard the court’s abuse of Constitutional power labeled “judicial tyranny”.  Jefferson had a vicious, raging, insurmountable fear of the Court’s power abuse.

“The great object of my fear is the Federal Judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting with noiseless foot and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step and holding what it gains, is engulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of that which feeds them.” (to friend Judge Spencer Roane.)

He also said in a letter to friend and prominent journalist Thomas Ritchie that the Supreme Court was “constantly working underground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric.” In modern time,  judicial tyranny is well-summarized by a 2003 Washington Times article: “The notion of judicial supremacy, that the court has the final say on the meaning of the law and Constitution, is nowhere to be found in the thoughts of the Framers or the text of the Founding document.” 

True: the Constitution does not explicitly spell out that the Supreme Court has finality on the law of the land. In actuality, there are checks and balances to water down their influence, if not stop it, as with all of the other branches of the federal government. However, Marbury v. Madison established the Supreme Court as an independent federal body, with power to interpret or “review” the Constitution and congressional legislation. Congress never challenged this ruling, and it has since been exercised as the Court sees fit.

To wrap up, this has been a briefing of the Court System, its purpose, function, and how it relates to its sister-branches of government. Get excited for engaging and complex debates about this system, and be prepared for politics and upcoming campaigns to impact it as they have in the past.

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