Chapter 10 The Judicial Branch What's Ahead in Chapter 10

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The Judicial Branch

What's Ahead in Chapter 10

In this chapter you will read about the judicial branch of the federal government. Led by the Supreme Court the judicial branch helps protect the rights of American citizens by judging federal laws and interpreting the Constitution.


The Role of the Federal Courts


The Organization of the Federal Courts


The Supreme Court


Context In this chapter you will focus on using context to help you better understand what you read. Context includes using context clues to figure out a word's meaning and interpreting nonliteral meanings in text.

The United States Supreme Court


National Standards for Civics and Government

The following National Standards for Civics and Government are covered in this chapter:

III. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?

A. How are power and responsibility distributed, shared, and limited in the government?

B. What does the national government do?

D. What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?

Civics in the Real World

You are visiting the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. As you sit facing a long bench with nine dark leather chairs behind it, a clerk suddenly pounds a gavel and declares:

The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States!

Everyone in the courtroom stands as the nine justices in black robes enter and take their seats behind the bench. You sit down quietly along with the rest of the audience.

A lawyer steps forward and begins arguing the first case of the day. Her client has been found guilty of first-degree murder by a state court and sentenced to death. When he committed the crime, however, he was under the age of eighteen. The lawyer argues that a law allowing the death penalty for a person who has not yet reached adulthood is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional.

Next, the lawyer for the state presents his argument, justifying the state's law. The justices ask the lawyers many questions. Then they leave the courtroom to discuss their ruling privately. You wonder how the justices will decide this important case.

Citizen's Journal Suppose you are a Supreme Court justice. In one paragraph, describe the beliefs and principles that would guide your decisions. Keep your answer in mind as you read this chapter.



The Role of the Federal Courts

Reading Preview


In this section you will

• Understand the need for laws and courts in our society.

• Learn what courts do.

• Discuss and compare the roles of state courts and federal courts.

Taking Notes

Make a diagram like the one below. As you read this section, complete the diagram with information about the role of the federal courts.

Key Terms





original jurisdiction


appellate jurisdiction

Main Idea

Our legal system provides a framework for resolving conflicts and protecting the rights of citizens. Federal and state courts hear criminal and civil cases. The Supreme Court hears a handful of those cases on appeal.

Target Reading Skill

Use Context Clues Context clues can help you understand words and ideas in the text. When you come across an unfamiliar word in this section, try to figure out its meaning by looking for clues in the surrounding words and sentences.

There are so many laws in our country that law books could fill entire libraries.

The judicial branch of the federal government is made up of the Supreme Court and more than 100 other federal courts. The most important members of the judicial branch are judges. They work quietly, away from the hubbub of politics that surrounds the President and members of Congress. However, the judges of the judicial branch have a very important role in our government.

Laws and Courts

In our society, disputes involving laws are resolved in the legal system. To understand the need for a legal system, consider the following example. A legislative body makes a law prohibiting one person from purposely damaging another's property. If a junior high student is then accused of throwing a baseball through someone else's window, several issues may have to be decided. Was the ball thrown on purpose? Has the law been broken? Is the accused person innocent or guilty? How shall the person who threw the baseball repay the person whose window was broken? These questions may be decided by the people involved in the incident, but if the matter is serious enough, it may have to be decided within the legal system.

Reading Check What is the purpose of a legal system?


What Courts Do

Legal conflicts in our country are resolved by courts of law. All courts perform the same basic function: to apply the law to an actual situation. Courts interpret the law and then determine how to apply the law to the given situation.

Courts in our legal system resolve two kinds of legal conflicts: criminal and civil cases. In a criminal case, a court determines whether a person accused of breaking a law is innocent or guilty. If the person is found guilty, the court also decides what the punishment will be.

In a civil case, a court settles a disagreement. The disagreement can arise over such issues as who broke a contract. Other conflicts may concern divorce or violations of constitutional rights. The federal courts hear both civil and criminal cases. Both kinds of cases can find their way to the Supreme Court.

The Parties in the Conflict All court cases involve two opposing sides, or parties. Who these parties are depends on whether the case is civil or criminal.

The typical civil case is brought to court by a party called the plaintiff, an individual or group of people who bring a complaint against another party. The party who answers the complaint and defends against it is called the defendant. The defendant may be an individual, a group, or a government body.

Suppose that Mabel Edwards brought the Techno Corporation to court, claiming that the company had denied her a job because of her race. She would be the plaintiff in this civil case, and the company would be the defendant. The case would be called Edwards v. Techno Corporation. When referencing a civil case, the name of the plaintiff is listed first. The name of the defendant is listed last. If Ted Burke were suing Mercy Hospital because the hospital had failed to diagnose his illness, the case would be called Burke v. Mercy Hospital.

In contrast, a criminal case is always brought to court by the prosecution, a government body that brings a criminal charge against a defendant who is accused of breaking one of its laws. The prosecution is referred to as "The People" and is represented by a government lawyer known as a prosecutor.

Suppose Arlo Ashley was accused of robbing a convenience store in Lima, Ohio. The state of Ohio would bring him to court on charges of theft. The criminal case would be called People of the State of Ohio v. Ashley. When referencing a criminal case, the prosecution is listed first. The defendant is listed last.

Settling Disagreements

Civil courts settle disagreements, such as who is responsible for an auto accident. Analyze Information Do you think a case involving an auto accident might also end up in criminal court? Why or why not?


Law and the Real World

Violent Video Games and Free Speech

A federal judge can review laws passed by local governments when constitutional issues are at stake. In a case in St. Louis County, Missouri, a federal judge ruled that the county could keep people under the age of 17 from buying, renting, or playing violent video games with out a parent's consent. The Interactive Digital Software Association argued that video games have First Amendment protection, just like movies and books. However, the judge ruled that video games are not a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, however, and overturned this ruling in June 2003.

Applying the Law

1. Analyzing Information What constitutional issue was at stake in the case described above?

2. Support a Point of View Do you think people under the age of 17 should be able to play, rent, and buy violent video games? Why or why not?

The Members of the Court In a court, the job of a judge is to apply the law to the conflict between the plaintiff or prosecution and the defendant. This means determining which side's argument is most in keeping with the law. The judge directs the proceedings but must remain neutral and not take sides in the conflict.

Many legal cases also involve a jury, which decides the facts of a case—such as what happened and who did it. A trial by jury is one of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to a person accused of a crime.

Interpreting the Law In the process of hearing a case, a court may have to decide what the law in question means. For example, does a law banning "motor vehicles" in a park also include radio- controlled model cars? A court may also have to decide if the law is allowed by the Constitution. This process of interpretation is an important job of the courts.

Although the legal system deals with individual cases, a court's decision in a case can have very broad effects. This is because a court's decision can establish a precedent, a guideline for how all similar cases should be handled in the future. A precedent makes the meaning of a law or the Constitution clearer. It also determines how the law should be applied, both inside and outside the legal system. For example, the Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education established a precedent that made any law segregating blacks and whites unconstitutional.

Reading Check Who are the parties in civil and criminal trials?

Trial by Jury.

These jurors are deciding the outcome of a court case.

Draw Conclusions Why do you think the Framers of the Constitution made trial by jury a right of each citizen?


State Courts and Federal Courts

Our legal system is made up of two separate but interconnected court systems—those of the states and those of the federal government. Decisions that establish the broadest precedents are made in the highest federal courts. However, most legal cases begin in a lower court, often at the level of state government. "lb understand the federal court system, it helps to know about the state court system.

Each state has courts at different levels of government and courts for different purposes, such as traffic courts and juvenile courts. Municipal courts operate on the city level and hear cases involving small sums of money or misdemeanors like traffic violations. All of these courts are considered part of the state court system. Most of the laws that govern our everyday actions are state and local laws. Therefore, most legal disputes and violations of the law are decided in state courts.

Jurisdiction The court to which a legal case first goes has original jurisdiction, the authority to hear a case first. A court with original jurisdiction determines the facts in a case. Often this occurs during a trial conducted with a jury. In certain cases, a judge hears the case alone. Because they hold trials to resolve cases, courts with original jurisdiction are also called trial courts.

What happens if the court of original jurisdiction makes a decision that the plaintiff or defendant in the case believes is unjust? Then, he or she has the right to appeal, to ask a higher court to review the decision and determine if justice was done. In each state, there are appeals courts set up to hear cases appealed from lower state courts. These courts have appellate jurisdiction, the authority to hear an appeal.

Analyze Charts

The Federal Court System

The federal courts have jurisdiction over a wide range of cases.

1. Analyze What kinds of federal law cases are heard by federal courts?

2. Apply Why would a case involving an American ship at sea be heard by a federal court?

Cases Heard by Federal Courts

Cases that raise constitutional questions

Cases involving federal laws, such as treason and tax evasion Cases in which the federal government is the defendant

Disagreements between people from different states when more than $75,000 is in dispute

Cases involving treaties signed by the United States

Cases involving American ships at sea

Cases involving ambassadors and other foreign representatives


Target Reading Skill

Use Context Clues Sometimes a sentence will restate the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Look for a statement that provides a definition for the word affirm. What does affirm mean?

An appeals court does not hold a trial, nor does it determine the facts in a case. It reviews the legal issues involved. Then it determines whether the law was applied fairly and whether due process of law was followed.

An appeals court may decide to affirm, or let stand, the lower court's decision. However, if it decides that the trial was unfair, it may reverse the lower court's decision. When that happens, the appeals court may order another trial. The new trial is held in the court of original jurisdiction. When a plaintiff is declared innocent, however, the prosecution may not appeal. The Constitution prohibits double jeopardy—being tried again for the same crime.

The appeals process may go beyond the first appeals court. In most states, the final court of appeals is the state supreme court. Although state court systems differ, most have three levels: trial courts, appeals courts, and a court of final appeals.

Cases Heard by Federal Courts Federal courts hear two kinds of cases. First, they hear cases involving federal laws and issues beyond the authority of individual states. In these cases, the federal courts have original jurisdiction. Second, they hear cases appealed from state supreme courts. These cases must involve a federal law or a constitutional issue. They are heard only by the Supreme Court. This gives the Supreme Court and the federal judicial branch the leadership role in our legal system.

Reading Check How does a case go from a trial court to the Supreme Court?

Section 1 Assessment

Key Terms

Use each of the key terms in a sentence that explains its meaning: plaintiff, defendant, prosecution, precedent, original jurisdiction, appeal, appellate jurisdiction

Target Reading Skill

1. Use Context Clues Find the word reverse on page 270. Use context clues to find out its meaning. What do you think it means? What clues helped you arrive at a meaning?

Comprehension and Critical Thinking


a. Explain What is the purpose of our legal system?

b. Make Predictions What might happen if we didn't have an organized legal system?


a. Recall What two kinds of cases are heard by the federal courts?

b. Draw Inferences Why might the establishment of a new precedent have broad effects?


a. Describe What are the levels of a typical state court system?

b. Sequence How might a case work its way from a state court to the Supreme Court?

Writing Activity

Suppose you are a journalist working for your hometown newspaper. Write an article about a fictional civil trial, describing the conflict and giving details about the parties involved.



The Organization of the Federal Courts

Reading Preview


In this section you will

• Learn what district courts do.

• Discuss the role of the courts of appeals.

• Consider the purpose of the Supreme Court.

• Examine what federal court judges do.

Key Terms

court of appeals

circuit courts

Main Idea

Our federal court system is made up of district courts, courts of appeals, the Supreme Court, and a few specialized courts.

Target Reading Skill

Interpret Nonliteral Meanings Sometimes words mean something other than exactly what they say. In other words, they have nonliteral meanings. As your read, identify nonliteral language, such as images or comparisons, that helps express an idea in the text.

Taking Notes

Make a diagram like the one below. As you read the section, complete the diagram with information about the organization of the federal court system.

The Constitution created the framework for the federal court system in Article Ill. However, the Constitution did not spell out how the inferior, or lower, courts would be set up. One of the first acts passed by the First Congress in 1789 was the Judiciary Act. It created the district courts and courts of appeals. Many of the details of the Judiciary Act have since been changed. However, the federal court system it created is much the same more than 200 years later.

The District Courts

The workhorses of the federal court system are the 94 district courts scattered across the United States. These courts handle some 300,000 cases a year, about 80 percent of the federal caseload. Each state has at least one district court. Some larger states, such as New York, have as many as four. The number of judges in one district court ranges from I to 28, depending on the size of the district and its workload. As courts of original jurisdiction, the district courts are the first to hear cases such as those involving kidnapping or a city's failure to obey federal air pollution standards.

Like a state trial court, witnesses are called. A jury normally decides the facts in the case. One judge directs the proceedings and applies the law.

Reading Check Which courts do the bulk of the work in the federal court system?

The Scales of Justice


The Supreme Court justices in a recent portrait: (standing, left to right) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer; (sitting, left to right) Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy.

Citizen Profiles

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) was an outspoken advocate for poor people and workers during his 22 years as a Supreme Court justice. President Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916. Brandeis became the first Jewish Supreme Court justice in the nation's history. He worked tirelessly for social and economic reform. In his decisions, he often dissented from the majority vote to stand up for what he believed was morally and legally correct. Brandeis supported unions and small business, and he argued for a balance of power between owners and employees.


What contributions did Louis Brandeis make during his service on the Supreme Court?

The Courts of Appeals

At the next highest level of the federal court system are the 12 United States courts of appeals. The courts of appeals handle appeals from the federal district courts. Each court of appeals takes cases from a group of district courts within a particular geographic area. This area is called a circuit. In fact, the courts of appeals are often called circuit courts. A thirteenth court of appeals has appellate jurisdiction over cases appealed from certain special federal courts and agencies of the executive branch. It is called the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Look at the map on the next page to see how the nation is divided into 12 regions.

A court of appeals has no jury, calls no witnesses, and does not examine any evidence. Instead, lawyers for the defendant and the plaintiff or prosecution make arguments in front of a panel of three judges. The judges decide either to affirm the lower court's decision or to reverse it. Like state appeals courts, the courts of appeals are not concerned with guilt or innocence. They are only concerned with whether the original trial was fair and whether the law was interpreted correctly.

Reading Check How does a court of appeals arrive at a verdict?


Analyze Maps

Federal Circuit Courts

The 50 states are divided into 12 regional circuits.

1. Analyze In which circuit is the state of Ohio?

2. Apply What are some of the benefits of dividing the states into regional circuit courts? What are some of the disadvantages?

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system. The major purpose of the Supreme Court is to serve as the final court of appeals for both the state and federal court systems.

The Supreme Court, however, does have original jurisdiction over a few special kinds of cases. These include cases involving representatives of foreign governments and disputes between state governments. The role of the Supreme Court in the legal system and in the federal government is so important that it will be discussed in detail in the next section.

There are also many additional federal courts. These special courts include the Court of Claims, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and the Tax Court. Each of these courts was established by Congress for a special purpose. 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.

Reading Check In what kinds of cases does the Supreme Court have original jurisdiction?


Target Reading Skill

Interpret Nonliteral Meanings Sometimes nonliteral language can communicate an idea more vividly than literal language. Restate the following sentence from this paragraph in your own words: "From time to time, the entire nation waits in anticipation for them to make a decision."

Federal Court Judges

Just as members of Congress do the work of the legislative branch, federal judges do the work of the judicial branch. A judge's role in government, however, is very different from that of a legislator.

A legislator is open to the influence of citizens, interest groups, other legislators, and the President. A judge, in contrast, must be impartial. A judge must not favor one party or the other. A legislator seeks to solve broad problems by making laws, whereas a judge can only settle individual cases. By applying the law to specific cases, however, judges help define and clarify the work of legislators.

In part because judges' jobs are different from those of legislators, judges are selected in a different way. All federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They serve life terms and can he removed from office only by the impeachment process.

Federal judges shoulder great responsibility. They must balance the rights of individuals with the interests of the nation as a whole. Often they are forced to make decisions that seem fair to one side but unfair to the other.

Of all federal judges, the nine Supreme Court justices have the most responsibility. From time to time, the entire nation waits in anticipation for them to make a decision. Although they are only deciding a specific case, perhaps involving just one or two people, their decision may have very important consequences for the nation.

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