Judicial Branch & Supreme Court Terms
Get down with the lingo.
AffirmThe action taken by an appeals court when it agrees with and confirms a lower court's decision.
AppealA request made to a higher court for another review of a case decided by a trial court; the losing party in a case has the right to file a notice of appeal to an appellate court, and that court may affirm the original ruling, reverse the decision, modify it, or send the case back to the trial court. If the appellate court upholds the lower court's decision, the losing party may take its appeal to a higher court, but only if that higher court agrees to hear the case.
Appellate JurisdictionThe power held by a court to review cases decided by lower courts and to reverse, affirm, or modify those decisions.
Appointment Of JudgesThe process by which Supreme Court justices and federal inferior court judges are chosen. Candidates are nominated by the president of the United States, and the Senate Judiciary Committee then conducts confirmation hearings for each nominee. If the Senate chooses to confirm the nomination, the judge is appointed for a specified term; Supreme Court justices, US District Courts judges, US Court of Appeals judges, US Court of International Trade judges, and judges for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit are appointed for life; each judge in the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the US Tax Court, the US Court of Federal Claims, and the US Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims is appointed for a 15-year term; judges who sit on the District Court of Appeals are chosen for eight-year terms; those in the Courts of the District of Columbia serve for four years.
Amicus CuriaeA Latin phrase meaning "friend of the court"; a person or organization that is not a litigant in a case but is interested in presenting arguments on behalf of one party. Usually, both this party and the court must agree to invite the amicus curiae to participate. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. has served as an amicus curiae throughout the last century, filing legal briefs and litigating on behalf of plaintiffs who have claimed that their civil rights have been violated.
Article IIIThis is the portion of the US Constitution that establishes the judicial branch of government, although it provides only a rough outline of its organization. Section 1 vests judicial power in one Supreme Court and an unstated number of lower courts, and it authorizes justices and judges to be fairly compensated though does not specify details about pay or proposed length of service. Section 2 outlines the subject matter over which federal courts can have jurisdiction, including cases involving questions of constitutionality, cases dealing with federal laws, disputes between states, and disputes involving a foreign government, but gives Congress ultimate authority in deciding which cases can be heard by the Court. Section 3 defines treason and offers a brief directive for the method by which suspects can be tried and convicted.
BriefA written legal document that argues in favor of one party.
CertificateIn the federal judiciary, the method by which a lower court asks the Supreme Court to hear a case; this type of request is placed when the lower court is unsure how to apply the law in a particular case and turns to the Supreme Court for clarification.
Circuit Court (aka Circuit Court Of Appeals)One of twelve federal courts of appeals based in various regions of the country. The judge of this type of court holds sessions at various times and locations throughout his or her circuit.
Civil CaseA case dealing with civil matters, such as family relations and accidents, rather than with criminal law. In the federal court system, civil cases originate under bankruptcy, copyright, tax, civil rights, and other federal statues.
Civilian TribunalA court that operates independently of the military establishment. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which reviews court-martial convictions, is a civilian tribunal.
Concurrent JurisdictionThe power held by federal and state courts to try a single case simultaneously. For example, a case involving a crime in which stolen goods were transported across state lines may be prosecuted concurrently by the state(s) involved and by a federal court.
Concurring OpinionThe opinion of a judge or justice in support of the court's majority opinion, but offering a different set of reasons for reaching that decision.
Constitutional Courts (aka Regular Courts Or Article III Courts)Inferior courts of the federal judiciary established under Article III, Section 1 of the United States Constitution to wield broad judicial power. They include twelve geographically-based Courts of Appeals, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, 94 District Courts, and the Court of International Trade.
ConstitutionalityThe accordance of an act, law, or procedure with the provisions of a constitution. In the US, only the Supreme Court has the right of judicial review; that is, the authority to review and take action against any legislation—local, state, or federal—it deems to be unconstitutional.
Court-MartialA military court in which military officers serve as both judge and jury in cases involving violations of US Armed Services rules and regulations.
Criminal CaseAny case dealing with crimes against an individual or the public; those convicted in such cases are sentenced and can be imprisoned. In the federal court system, a criminal case is defined as one in which the defendant is tried for something that Congress has designated as a federal crime, such as mail fraud, counterfeiting, or bank robbery.
DefendantIn a legal case, the party against whom a complaint is brought or charges are filed.
Dissenting OpinionThe opinion of a judge or justice that disagrees with the decision reached by the majority of the court.
District CourtsThe principal trial courts in the federal court system. District courts, which have original jurisdiction over most federal cases, were originally created by Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789. Currently, there are 94 District Courts in the US.
DocketA court's agenda; that is, a schedule of cases to be tried.
Due ProcessLegal procedures deemed fair under the Fifth and Fourth Amendments, which guarantee that no individual can be denied the right to life, liberty, or property.
Guarantees fair treatment in the judicial system. It's the government's promise that all groups, from Nickelback to Beatles fans, will have the same legal privileges. In fact, due process is so important that it got a shout-out in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Exclusive JurisdictionThe exclusive right of a particular court to review and take action in a case; for example, the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over disputes between states.
Inferior CourtsIn the federal judiciary, inferior courts are all those beneath the Supreme Court and created by Congress under Articles I and III of the Constitution. They are divided into two distinct types of judicial bodies: the Constitutional Courts (12 US Courts of Appeals, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, 94 District Courts, and the US Court of International Trade) and the Special Courts (the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the Courts of the District of Columbia, the US Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims, the US Court of Federal Claims, the US Tax Court, and the Territorial Courts located in Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands).
All the courts below the Supreme Court are known as "inferior courts." It's not a flattering name, but unless you're the Supreme Court, everything's inferior.
Judicial ActivismCourt actions that appear to violate traditional or reasonable interpretations of the law. Judicial activism often refers to incidents in which judges allow their own political opinions and biases to influence their decisions in a case. Proponents of judicial activism believe it is important for judges to consider ongoing changes in social conditions and values when interpreting and applying the law.
This is a tricky concept, and usually used as an insult. Justices are sometimes accused of making legal decisions based on their own political beliefs, rather than focusing solely on whether the law is constitutional or not—another way of saying this is that they're accused of judicial activism. In practice, it's pretty much impossible to parse out exactly why a Justice made the decision they did.
Judicial RestraintProponents of judicial restraint believe it is important for judges to act on the basis of the original intent of the framers of the Constitution and the authors of legislation and with respect to previous decisions in similar cases.
When justices limit the exercise of their own power, and try to avoid stepping on the toes of the legislative branch, they're said to practice judicial restraint. The idea here is that the Court doesn't have the right to decide what's "best" for society; they should stick to what the Constitution says.
Judicial ReviewThe right of the Supreme Court to review and take action against any legislation—local, state, or federal—it deems to be unconstitutional.
Judicial review is the idea that the judicial branch of government (in the United States, the Supreme Court) has the right and responsibility to invalidate actions by the other branches of government if they are judged to be unconstitutional. If Congress passes a law or the President undertakes an executive action that a majority of the Supreme Court believes to run afoul of the Constitution, the Court can overturn that law or executive action. Judicial review is a critical part of the American system of checks and balances, giving the judicial branch its most powerful tool to limit the executive andlegislative branches. Interestingly, the power of judicial review is not explicitly named in the Constitution; the Supreme Court itself declared that it had the power of judicial review for the first time in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison.
The authority of the courts to rule on the constitutionality of legislative actions. This power was not expressly granted in the Constitution and thus was not universally acknowledged with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist #78 that it was implied by Article III of the Constitution. But others argued that this claim placed the judiciary above the legislative branch and contradicted the democratic premises of America's political system. In Marbury v. Madison (1803) the Supreme Court asserted this power for the first time; Chief Justice John Marshall's Court would assert the same power in fifteen additional cases. Some continued to challenge the court's authority to do so, but the principle of judicial review was widely established by Marshall's death in 1835.
The power of federal judges to strike down Congressional laws that violate the Constitution
This is the power exercised by the Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of laws. This right was not specifically provided by the Constitution but was exercised in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison and has been the precedent followed since.
When the Supreme Court decides whether a legislative or executive action is constitutional, it's practicing judicial review. It's the most important check the judicial branch has over the other branches.
JurisdictionAuthority to implement and enforce the laws of a region; also, a region or zone where certain laws apply
MagistrateA judicial officer with limited power. A magistrate presides over preliminary court hearings, issues warrants, determines bail, and issues protection orders.
In The Stranger, the magistrate refers to the judge. It can also be an officer of the state.
Majority OpinionThe explanation of the ruling provided by the majority of justices or judges of the court; it can be accompanied by a dissenting opinion, which disagrees with the majority, and a concurring opinion, which agrees with the majority but applies different reasoning for the decision.
Military Commissions (aka Military Tribunals)A type of military court in which military officers have the power to charge, prosecute, convict, and sentence enemy forces during wartime. Because Military Commissions operates outside the scope of conventional judicial rules and its decisions can only be appealed with the approval of the president, critics charge that its trials violate protections guaranteed by the US Bill of Rights.
OpinionThe explanation of the ruling of a judge, justice, or court.
Personal belief, attitude, point of view
Oral ArgumentsSpoken presentation by one party in a case or a lawyer representing that party, explaining its side in a legal dispute. Each side delivers its arguments before the judge or judges and, if present, the jury.
Original JurisdictionThe power to review a case before any other court. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, as defined by Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, in disputes between states or between a state and the federal government.
This is the right to hear a case before any other court. For example, the Supreme Court sometimes uses this for cases that involve ambassadors and diplomats.
OverturnTo reverse the ruling of a lower court; occurs in an appellate court.
PlaintiffThe party who brings a charge or a suit against another party.
PrecedentAn appellate court judgment from one case that establishes the rule for deciding similar cases.
The idea that a ruling in a previous legal case can still apply or be influential in a current case. Every case probably has some similarities with a past case, so judges use them as examples for how to proceed. For example, the "separate but equal" decision of Plessy v. Ferguson was a precedent that justified later discriminatory laws.
RedressCompensation for loss or injury.
Remedy; put right
Rule Of FourA Supreme Court policy that allows four of the nine justices to grant a writ of certiorari; in other words, only four justices must agree to hear an appeal from a lower court.
Separation Of PowersThe separation of powers seeks to prevent tyrannical abuses of authority by dividing the most important powers of the state among different branches of government. The Framers of the US Constitution, following models first developed in Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, gave the legislative branch the sole power to make the law, the executive branch the sole power to implement the law, and the judicial the sole power to judge the law.
Also known as "checks and balances," the political doctrine that divides power amongst the three branches of government. The legislative branch makes laws; the executive branch carries out laws; the judicial branch decides the outcome of disputes under the law.
The idea that political authority should be divided into different branches of government, instead of concentrating power in one branch. In the U.S., that means the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches all have different, but equally significant, powers. The President can't randomly decide to make every Monday free ice-cream day (sadly)—he or she has to get Congress and the Supreme Court's approval.
Special Courts (aka Legislative Courts Or Article I Courts)Inferior courts in the federal judiciary created by Congress under Article I of the US Constitution "to constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court." Their power is more limited than that of Constitutional Courts. Special Courts include the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the Courts of the District of Columbia, the US Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims, the US Court of Federal Claims, the US Tax Court, and the Territorial Courts located in Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
State CourtsCourts that have jurisdiction over cases involving state law and disputes involving parties living in the state or those that conduct business, own property, or use roads within its borders; they do not have the power to decide cases involving federal law. State courts are often divided into various types of judicial bodies, including criminal courts, family courts, and probate courts.
Supreme CourtThe highest court in the United States and the head of the federal judiciary. Its nine justices—the Chief Justice and eight associate justices—are appointed by the president, confirmed by Congress, and serve life terms. The Court functions primarily as an appellate court, but has original jurisdiction over disputes between states and between a state and the federal government.
The big kahuna of the judicial system—the highest law in the land. The Supreme Court has the final say on whether or not a law is constitutional. It's made up of nine justices who serve for life.