Chapter 15–The Federal Courts–Summary
The federal courts, the third branch of government found in Article III of the Constitution, are probably the least known but an equally important part of American government. It is the courts–especially the highest court, the United States Supreme Court–that determines what the Constitution and the laws of the land (Acts of Congress) mean. This power of judicial review is not explicitly fond in the Constitution; however, it is clearly established since Chief Justice John Marshall so declared in the 1803 case, Marbury v. Madison. In June, 2012, for example, the United States Supreme Court decided a number of important cases including the Arizona immigration law and the Affordable Care Act (the health care law).
The Chapter begins with a review of the concepts of criminal and civil law beginning on page 601 and then describes types of courts including both trial and appeals courts, something worthy of understanding. Then there is more detail on the federal trial and appellate (appeals) courts and then the highest Court, the United States Supreme Court.
Beginning on page 609, the chapter explains how federal court judges are appointed (nominated by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate).
The concept of judicial review is critically important and is explored beginning on page 612 and should be reviewed carefully. There is also a section beginning on page 620 on the manner by which the Supreme Court operates in deciding which cases to take and how decisions are made on these cases. There is specific detail on how the Supreme Court proceeds with a case beginning on page 625,
Please review the section, “Judicial Power and Politics” beginning on page 631 as this should be helpful in preparing your essay.
One additional point: Each state has its own court system. California’s is organized much as is the federal system; however, it is separate from the federal courts and functions under its own jurisdiction. (The word jurisdiction–very important–is defined on page 604).
There has been an ongoing debate for years about the role of courts in American life, especially the highest court, the United States Supreme Court. Some argue that courts, that is the judges on courts, should only make decision on strict constitutional grounds while others argue that judges should be more “active” and are just as much policy makers as the president, Congress or state and local government officials.
These two judicial philosophies also have deep political roots as Republicans in general argue for a “strict constructionist” or the judicial restraint view of judicial decision making and Democrats a more “activist” approach. Those who support judicial restraint believe that the politically elected branches of government–the president, Congress, governors, state legislatures and local governments–should make policy, not judges. The activist believes that judges must be creative in order to acknowledge the evolving nature of American society.
Offer a summary of both positions and then advocate for one or the other or some other approach to judicial decision making. What decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court–or other courts–in both historical terms as well as in recent years illustrate either restraint or activism and what have been the consequences of these decisions?
HINT: The material on pages 628 through 634 should be very helpful.