Chapter Study Outline

The Legal System

  1. Courts decide cases by hearing the facts on both sides of a dispute and applying the relevant law or principle to the facts. Courts have been given the authority to settle disputes not only between citizens but also between citizens and the government. The essence of the “rule of law” is that “the state” and its officials must be judged by the same laws as the citizenry.
  2. Court cases in the United States proceed under two broad categories of law: criminal and civil.
  3. In the area of criminal law, either a state government or the federal government is the plaintiff that alleges that someone has committed a crime against society.
  4. In deciding cases, courts apply statutes and legal precedent (prior decisions).
  5. Civil cases are those between individuals or between individuals and the government in which no criminal violation is charged.
  6. Jurisdiction is the sphere of authority of a court. By far, most cases are heard by state courts.
  7. Cases are heard in federal courts if the U.S. government is a party in the case or if the case involves federal statutes, treaties with other nations, or the U.S. Constitution.
  8. Although the federal courts hear only a fraction of all the cases decided every year in the United States, federal court decisions are extremely important.

Federal Jurisdiction

  1. There are eighty-nine district courts in the fifty states, plus one in the District of Columbia and one in Puerto Rico, and three territorial courts. These courts are trial courts of original jurisdiction, and their cases are, in form, indistinguishable from cases in the state trial courts.
  2. The twelve U.S. courts of appeals review and render decisions in approximately 20 percent of all lower-court and agency cases.
  3. The Constitution does not specify the number of justices who should sit on the Supreme Court; Congress has the power to change the Court’s size. Since 1869 there have been nine justices—one chief justice and eight associate justices.
  4. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and has the power and the obligation to review any lower-court decision involving a substantial issue of public law, state legislation, or act of Congress.
  5. Federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by a majority vote of the full Senate.

The Power of the Supreme Court: Judicial Review

  1. The Supreme Court’s power to review acts of Congress, although accepted as natural and rarely challenged, is not specifically granted by the Constitution. The power of judicial review was asserted in the important early case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).
  2. The Supreme Court’s power to review state action or legislation derives from the Constitution’s supremacy clause, although it is neither granted specifically by the Constitution nor inherent in the federal system.
  3. Over the years, courts have developed specific rules that govern which cases within their jurisdiction they hear. These rules of access can be broken down into three categories: case or controversy, standing, and mootness.
  4. Appeals of lower-court decisions can reach the Supreme Court in one of two ways: through a writ of certiorari, or, in the case of convicted state prisoners, through a writ of habeas corpus.
  5. The solicitor general can influence the Court by screening cases before they reach the Supreme Court, submitting amicus briefs, and shaping the arguments used before the Court.
  6. Groups and forces in society attempt to influence justices’ rulings on particular issues.
  7. After filing written arguments, or briefs, attorneys present oral argument to the Supreme Court. After oral argument, the justices discuss the case and vote on a final decision.
  8. The Supreme Court always explains its decisions in terms of law and precedent.
  9. Despite the rule of precedent, the Court often reshapes law. Such changes in the interpretation of law can be explained, in part, by changes in the judicial philosophy of activism versus restraint and by changes in political ideology.

Judicial Power and Politics

  1. For much of American history, the power of the federal courts was subject to several limitations: standing, the limited relief courts could provide, the lack of enforcement powers, political appointment, the power of Congress to change the size and jurisdiction of federal courts, and the fact that courts are reactive—they cannot exercise power on their own initiative.
  2. The role of the federal judiciary has been strengthened since World War II by two judicial revolutions. The first revolution was a substantive revolution in several policy areas, including school desegregation, legislative apportionment, and criminal procedure, as well as obscenity, abortion, and voting rights.
  3. The second revolution involved changes in judicial procedures that decreased traditional limitations on the courts by liberalizing the concept of standing, broadening the scope of relief through the use of class-action suits, and employing structural remedies that allow courts to maintain supervision over a case until the court is satisfied that its ruling has been met.

Thinking Critically about the Judiciary, Liberty, and Democracy

  1. In the original conception of the framers of the Constitution, the judiciary was to be the institution that would protect individual liberty from the government. The framers hoped that the courts would protect individual liberty from the potential excesses of majoritarian democracy. The courts’ most important decisions were those that protected the freedoms—to speak, worship, publish, vote, and attend school—of groups and individuals whose political views, religious beliefs, or racial or ethnic backgrounds made them unpopular.
  2. Today, Americans of all political persuasions seem to view the courts as useful instruments through which to pursue their goals rather than protectors of individual rights. Liberals and conservatives alike hope to use the courts as instruments of social policy. This raises the concern that if the courts function primarily as policy-making institutions, no institution will have as its primary concerns the protection of individual liberties.