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Judicial Branch & Supreme Court Introduction

In a Nutshell

  • Judicial branch of government interprets the law and settles disputes among states
  • Constitution created the Supreme Court; Congress later created all lower courts
  • Judicary's most important power, judicial review, was not named in Constitution but rather established in 1803 case Marbury v. Madison

The framers of the Constitution drafted Article III in order to establish a federal judiciary—a branch of government that would serve not only as a device to check the power of the executive and the legislature, but also as a national institution that could settle disputes among states and unify the country under a central judicial body.

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Why Should I Care?

When you think of the government, what first comes to mind? If you're like most folks, you're probably picturing either the president, leading the free world from the Oval Office, or the dozens of powerful legislators holding the floor in Congress. Chances are, the judicial branch is but a mere afterthought, if you've thought of it at all.

But don't feel too bad about forgetting about the judicial branch; you're actually following in the hallowed footsteps of the Founding Fathers themselves. The Articles of Confederation, which organized America's first national government just after the Revolutionary War, made no mention of any kind of a federal court system or judicial power. And when the young nation's leaders got together in 1787 to overhaul the Articles of Confederation (which weren't working out too well), they created a new Constitution that, once again, treated the judiciary as a bit of an afterthought. (Yes, the Constitution's Framers created the judicial branch and made it one of three equal branches of government—but they also deliberately listed the judiciary as the third of the three branches and gave the judiciary only a tiny fraction of the attention they devoted to creating the legislative and executive branches.) The right of judicial review, arguably the branch's most important power and most important check on the other two branches of government, isn't actually mentioned in the Constitution at all; it had to be "created" in an 1803 Supreme Court decision.

So, then, we have a long tradition of treating the judicial branch like a side of sauce on a dinner plate: a bit superfluous and easily forgettable, compared to the legislative/executive main course. But, really, this governmental meal is a slow-cooked stew; when we take a closer look, we find that the federal judiciary is far tastier—more substantial, complex, and intriguing—than we ever imagined.

We know, we know: too many food references. We'll go grab a snack. But first, let's establish a few basics.

Number one: the Supreme Court is only one, albeit the most powerful, element of the judicial branch. Although the nine black-robed justices of the highest court in the land are the most recognizable officials of the federal court system, they represent only a small fraction of the many judges who serve the federal government in dozens of different courts from coast to coast.

Number two: the makeup and organization of the judiciary has changed many times since its inception. Article III of the Constitution is remarkably vague—remember that it was an afterthought at the Constitutional Convention—which means that politicians and judges have spent the past 200 years tinkering with the judicial branch's structure over and over again.

Number three: the road to a hearing before the US Supreme Court is a long one for most cases. Before you jump into any of our Controversies of Interpretation, you'll want to wrap your head around the elaborate organization of appellate courts, constitutional courts, and special courts that make up the body of the federal judiciary.

Now, onto the story of our national umpires!

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