Study Guide

Judicial Branch & Supreme Court Introduction

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Judicial Branch & Supreme Court Introduction


  • 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.


What is Judicial Branch & Supreme Court About and 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!

Judicial Branch & Supreme Court Trivia

The Tenth Circuit Court of 1863 created a tenth Supreme Court justiceship, making the Court the largest it had ever been since its creation. Still, from 1863 to 1866, the complete group of ten justices sat together for just one week in December 1863. War, illness, and travel kept attendance below ten until 1866, when Congress reduced the size of the Court to nine seats.

The Tenth Circuit Court of 1863 created a tenth Supreme Court justiceship, making the Court the largest it had ever been since its creation. Still, from 1863 to 1866, the complete group of ten justices sat together for just one week in December 1863. War, illness, and travel kept attendance below ten until 1866, when Congress reduced the size of the Court to nine seats.

Judicial Branch & Supreme Court Resources


Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (2008)
Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker, explores much, much more than constitutional law and judicial power; through his investigative reporting he is able to offer an intimate account of the Supreme Court justices—their personalities, prejudices, and principles—from the Reagan administration through President George W. Bush's second term.

Michael G. Trachtman, The Supremes' Greatest Hits: The 34 Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life(2006)
This collection of key Supreme Court cases from the last two centuries is clear and concise—an easily digestible sampling of those decisions that have most impacted this nation and the people within it.

Kermit L. Hall and Kevin T. McGuire, Institutions of American Democracy: The Judicial Branch (2006)
A hefty 600-page compilation of essays, this book appears much more intimidating than it actually is. Find solace in the fact that you can pick and choose from over a dozen compelling and clearly written discussions of the judicial branch of government, each answering a different question about the impact of the Supreme Court on our lives.

Peter Irons, A People's History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution(2006)
In the tradition of Howard Zinn's People's History series, author Peter Irons offers this bottom-up account of the Supreme Court, its most significant decisions, and the men and women involved in these landmark cases.


Supreme Court, Yell It Out (2005)
Cramming for your Advanced Placement exam in American Government? Need some tunes to keep you awake and alert? Try the Supreme Court's bass-thumping adventure in electronica music. How appropriate! Now, we know what you're thinking: "It's not that Supreme Court…is it? Justice Scalia on synth?" No (but wouldn't that be excellent?).


The Courthouse
The Supreme Court Building.

Chief Justice John Jay
John Jay, the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Marshall
John Marshall, one of the longest serving and most influential chief justices in Supreme Court history.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
Roger B. Taney, chief justice in the years leading up to the Civil War who presided over the controversial Dred Scott v. Sandford case, 1857.

The Chase Court
The Chase Court, which served during the first years of Radical Reconstruction.

Chief Justice Edward D. White
Edward D. White, the son of a slaveholder who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War; his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1894 was a big surprise to Republicans and Democrats alike.

Chief Justice William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft, to date the only former American president to serve on the Supreme Court.

Justice Hugo Black
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 and one of the most controversial appointees to the Court.

Chief Justice Earl Warren
Earl Warren, chief justice of the Court during one of the most tumultuous periods in 20th century American history.

Justice Thurgood Marshall
Appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve on the Court.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to serve on the Court.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist
William Rehnquist, a conservative Republican nominated to the Court by President Nixon, surprised many by voting with liberals to protect gay rights and freedom of speech.

Movies & TV

Sex & Justice (1993)
Feminist author Gloria Steinem narrates this dramatic documentary about the sex scandal that marred the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall: Justice For All (2005)
A&E Biography presents this marvelous portrait of the young civil rights lawyer who became the first African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court (2007)
This four-part television series, which first aired on PBS in 2007, covers many of the most influential decisions made by the Court since its creation in the late eighteenth century. It's a terrifically detailed introduction to the history of constitutional law.

Just the Facts: Understanding Government—The Judicial Branch (2000)
If you'd prefer to skip the judicial branch documentaries and simply cut to the chase, check out this interactive study guide, which includes key word lists, multiple-choice quizzes, and printable documents.

A Few Good Men (1992)
This Rob Reiner film starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Kiefer Sutherland, and Demi Moore, is a fictional account of a court-martial in which to United States Marines are charged with the murder of a fellow marine. Yes, the movie's depiction of official court-martial proceedings isn't entirely accurate, but we think you'll appreciate the drama. It's a must see—unless, of course, "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH."


Supreme Court of the United States
The United States government's official website for the highest court in the land, featuring justice biographies, a calendar of upcoming cases, and information on touring the courthouse.

The Supreme Court Historical Society
An easy-to-use website dedicated to the history of the Supreme Court, including resources for teachers, students, and researchers.

Cornell Law Library—Supreme Court Collection
Access a wealth of Supreme Court materials, including online databases and lists of resources available through Cornell University.

Oyez: US Supreme Court Case Summaries, Oral Arguments & Multimedia
You could easily spend hours browsing through this website dedicated to just about everything related to federal court system. It includes the latest news headlines, audio of oral arguments, historical documents, and even a virtual tour of the Supreme Court building.

PBS Presents The Supreme Court
The companion website to the four-part television series about the High Court and its most influential decisions since its creation in the late eighteenth century.

The My Lai Courts-Martial
This site features a wealth of primary and secondary source documents on the courts-martial following the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Video & Audio

Oyez: US Supreme Court Case Summaries, Oral Arguments & Multimedia
Subscribe to free iTunes podcasts of oral arguments, majority opinions, and dissent announcements from recent Supreme Court cases.

Hugo Black and the KKK
Hugo Black, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Supreme Court nominee in 1937, speaks to the American public about his controversial past.

Primary Sources

US Constitution, Article III
This section of the US Constitution, drafted in 1787, offered rough provisions for the establishment of a national Supreme Court along with more specific outline for the protection of certain rights, such as the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases.

The Judiciary Act of 1789
This Act, drafted by the nation's First Congress, established specific guidelines for the creation of a federal court system, including the number of justices who would serve on the US Supreme Court—one Chief Justice and five associate justices.

Marbury v. Madison
The transcript of the ruling of the Supreme Court in the 1803 case that set the precedent for judicial review.

The Judiciary Act of 1869
Since the establishment of the federal court system in 1789, Congress approved several Acts both increasing and decreasing the number of justices to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. The Judiciary Act of 1869 set the number of seats at nine, which has remained the size of the Court ever since.

The Evarts Act
In order to begin to deal with the Supreme Court's overwhelming caseload, New York Senator William Evarts led Congress to establish a new tier of appeals courts within the federal court system. The Act also granted the Supreme Court authority, though very limited, in determining which cases it heard.

The Judges' Bill of 1925
This Bill, recommended by the Supreme Court justices and approved by Congress in 1925, gave the Court greater authority in determining which cases it heard.

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