As Charles Hamilton Houston stated:
“A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society … A social engineer is a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who understands the Constitution of the United States and knows how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.”
Hence, it is highly essential to have judicial authorities who work for the betterment of society and its people rather than becoming a burden on the aforesaid. Where the officials of the executive and legislative arenas are elected by the citizens of the nation, the members of the Judicial Branch are chosen solely by the President followed by the assent of the Senate.
From appointing the number of Supreme Court Justices, which at one point were limited to only 6 but have now broadened the scope to 9 in the current day since 1869, to establishing various lower courts under the Supreme Court, first of which are the United States district courts which cater to federal cases and second of which are the United States courts of appeals, which are 13 in count that is appointed with the duty to review appealed district court cases, Article III of the Constitution, that is responsible for the creation of the Judicial branch, bestows the power to Congress to carve the shape, structure and modus operandi of the Judicial arena.
Speaking of the appointment, it is also essential to throw light on the removal of the Federal judges as well. The aforementioned authorities can only be relieved of their duty through the process of impeachment executed by the House of Representatives followed by conviction in the Senate.
The officials such as the Judges and Justices are not appointed to particularly serve a fixed term, they are to extend their duties until their death, retirement, or conviction as put forth by the Senate.
To understand which court has the authority to try cases, jurisdiction plays a very important role. In generality, the jurisdiction of all the judicial courts is highlighted by Congress, however, in some special cases, where a dispute has risen between two or more United States, it is the Constitution that bestows the knowledge of the jurisdiction to the Supreme Court that cannot be challenged or interjected by Congress.
It is essential to comprehend that, the power to interpret the law, emphasizes the constitutionality of the legal statutes, and subject the same to individual cases, solely lies with the Federal Courts.
The process of obtaining evidence and testimony through the use of a subpoena can be dictated and supervised not just by Congress, but such an authoritative power lies with the courts as well. Once the Supreme Court interprets the law in a particular way, the lower courts are bound to follow the same interpretation of the facts of a particular case.
2. Understanding the Apex Court
The highest court in the land, as it is termed, the Supreme Court marks the end stop for all the cases that are found to create a path in the US justice system. As written at the main entrance of the apex court building, “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW”, reflects the sole motto and responsibility of the said judicial system.
Serving as the topmost authority in the arena of law, not only does it cater to any and all cases or controversies that come under the ambit of the Constitution or any provisions of the law of the United States, but it also ensures to uphold the promise of equal justice under the United States law given by the Judiciary to the people of America. Not to forget, the Supreme Court is also responsible for safeguarding and interpreting the Constitution all in all.
The apex court which is the Supreme Court is a very powerful organ of the judiciary, hence it cannot extend its time on cases which are not essential. For this reason, the court only pays attention to a few cases which are of extreme significance and importance. From receiving about 10,000 petitions every year, only 70 to 80 cases come before the eyes of the court.
However, few instances have witnessed that, whenever the court declines to take up a case, either it is sent back to the inferior court for a review of the aforesaid, or upholds the judgement passed by the inferior court and brings closure to the pending legal proceedings.
2.1 The Appointment of Justices
Apart from the Chief Justice of the United States, the Supreme Court comprises a panel which contains a specific number of Associate Justices that are allotted as per the requirement and order of Congress. At the moment, the current number that is running pertaining to the Associate Justices is eight.
The process of appointment includes the power held by the President of the United States to nominate the Justices followed by the Senate’s assent, post their consent and advice, on the same, for electing the judicial authorities of the Supreme Court.
As an advantage, if an individual belongs to the position of a Justice, they neither have to run nor campaign for re-election, hence, they are considered to be radically unbiased and free from any political influence whilst making a decision or judgment in any case that comes before them.
Adding on the same, the benefit of being a justice also serves in terms of the fact that they can continue to hold their position until they wish to resign, pass away or have been either impeached or convicted by Congress.
2.2 Known as The Final Judicial Arbiter
The fact that none of the Court’s decisions can be challenged by any authority, considering the idea that the Supreme court is the final judicial arbiter in any case falling under the jurisdiction of the United States, terms the scope of the Court trying cases as entirely appellate in nature.
However, there are a few exceptions to the same which lie on the lines that the Court can extend to take into account appeals coming from the apex state courts or from federal appellate courts. Complementing the aforementioned, the Court also exercises original jurisdiction, in certain specified cases that involve any kind of dealing with ambassadors, and other diplomats, and in cases where the dispute lies between states.
It is essential to emphasize the fact that, the Supreme Court has to interpret the meaning of a particular provision under the law, decide whether the provision of the law supports the particular set of facts in question and rule on the applicability of the law, not to conduct any kind of trials even though times if the court holds jurisdiction, may decide to hear an appeal that pertains to any arena of law.
It serves as an obligation for the inferior courts, to adhere to the judgements put forth by the Supreme Court while deciding any outcome of any case.
2.3 Scope of the Court
Brought into existence by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Supreme Court was termed the head of the judiciary system, though it was only officially established post the codification of the Judiciary Act, of 1789, by Congress.
From defining the powers, and duties to emphasizing the structure and obligations of the legislative and executive departments, the Constitution of the United States covered the two branches briefly but failed to establish guidelines as aforesaid for the Judicial arena which pushed Congress to cater to the responsibilities of the legal sector which in turn gave rise to the idea that the powers of the judiciary, in a nutshell, must be vested in one single Supreme Court and in such lower courts as the Congress, as per their requirements, may dictate and establish from time to time.
Considered the last decision maker of the judiciary system, the Supreme court is also known as an appeals court which not only has the power to try cases that fall under the ambit of the Constitution, laws or treaties pertaining to the United States of America but also to deal with any dispute or controversy arising either where the United States is serving as a party, or between different states of the nation as well as amongst the citizens who belong to different states.
Complimenting the idea of the Supreme Court’s hold in trying cases, the court is also authorized to act in disputes that either have an admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.
Apart from these, the Supreme court extends original jurisdiction that is it converts itself into a trial court when there are controversies that encompass ambassadors, public ministers, and consuls as well as in disputes where the states mark their position as a party in the dispute.
Very rarely, it has been seen, the court utilizing its power of extending original jurisdiction as the major proportion of their dealings are in cases which come to them as an appeal, hence they are known to pass on the most important and binding judgements from their appellate jurisdiction.
Levels of Federal Courts in the U.S. –
Talking about the apex body of the Judiciary, which is the Supreme Court, it is highly essential to mention the lower courts that lie beneath the aforementioned. There are two basic levels of federal courts below it:
i) District Courts
The U.S District courts, which have district judges presiding over them, complemented with an expert jury, are known to be trial courts that lie at the federal level of the Judiciary. Comprising a total of 13 circuits, there are about 94 district courts that are brought into existence to date.
ii) Appellate, Appeals, or Circuit Courts
Positioned exactly below the Supreme Court, lies the U.S. Court of Appeals which is categorized into 13 geographically allotted circuits which as well includes the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit.
Consisting of only a panel of 3 judges, this court hears cases that challenge the district court judgements, appeals made by federal agencies and other specified cases, without having any jury to act as an advisory.
2.4 Size and Membership
Established by Congress, the structure of the judiciary, including the size of the Supreme Court varied from time to time. From 1789 to 1807, there were six justices appointed in the court of law, followed by an addition of one more in 1807, and then another two in 1869, the same is upheld even today.
As mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, the action of appointment of Supreme court justices and judges as well as of inferior courts, are executed by the president only post the advice and assent of the Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee conducts a proper hearing that depicts the nominees of the justices for the Supreme Court. Once a simple majority of the full Senate is received, the position of the said justice is said to be confirmed.
Due to an unfortunate circumstance, if the post of the chief justice is open and unoccupied, the president has the power to allot the position to an individual either outside the court or promote an associate justice to the said post which shall only be applicable post the assent of a simple majority of the Senate.
To date, only one justice has gone through the procedure of impeachment and that is, Samuel Chase, who was later acquitted in 1805.
3. Powers and Procedures
The highest judicial authority only entertains appeals if it pertains to federal cases, as well as cases positioned at the state level that involve a question of law.
Once a judgment has been passed by the lower courts, if one of the parties is dissatisfied with the aforementioned, they have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court by simply filing a writ of certiorari. However, it is to be noted that, the Supreme Court is not obligated to entertain all the appeals that come before them.
The high court hears less than 1% of the cases pertaining to a writ of certiorari. Only if Congress initiates a constitutional amendment, can a judgement of the Supreme Court be reversed, amended, or repealed. It is the rule of four, that the Supreme Court uses, to have a consensus on which cases they shall accept.
4. The Judicial Process
Guaranteed under Article III of the Constitution, the right of a fair trial before a competent judge and a jury of one’s peers is to be known to every citizen.
The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution provide additional protections for the accused which are as follows:
- A guarantee that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law.
- Protection against being tried for the same crime twice.
- The right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
- The right to cross-examine witnesses, and to call witnesses to support their case.
- The right to legal representation
- The right to avoid self-incrimination.
- Protection from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments
Regulated by either State or federal law, the criminal proceedings are executed depending on the type and intensity of the crime. Beginning with an arrest of the accused by a legal officer, a criminal procedure also encompasses the idea that if the expert jury desires to deliver a judgement, then the accused will be sent before a judge followed by being formally charged with a crime, at the time of which they can enter a plea.
Running parallelly to criminal, civil cases which deal with disputes arising between individuals and organizations and not amongst the state and a person or organization. In the aforementioned proceedings, a party who believes their rights are infringed has the authority to file a suit in the civil court to attempt to have that wrong remedied through an order. Post the initiation of the proceedings, from gathering evidence to presenting arguments by both sides, the procedures fall in the same line as if of a criminal case. The parties can decide if they want to waive their right to a jury trial, in which case, the outcome shall be adjudicated by a judge.
Post a case, that either fall under the criminal or civil jurisdiction, which has been adjudged, if the parties are not satisfied with the judgement, then it can be sent as an appeal to a higher court, either a federal court of appeals or state appellate court. An “appellant” who is an individual filing an appeal, has to showcase that the trial court/administrative agency has initiated a legal mistake which has adversely affected the outcome of the case. From referring to the background of the case put forth by the trial court or agency, to reviewing the factual information and findings of the aforesaid, the appellate court comes to a decision.
5. The Justices
The current Chief Justice of the United States is:
The current Associate Justices presiding over the Supreme Court are:
- Clarence Thomas
- Samuel A. Alito, Jr.
- Sonia Sotomayor
- Elena Kagan
- Neil M. Gorsuch
- Brett M. Kavanaugh
- Amy Coney Barrett
- Ketanji Brown Jackson
6. Recent Judgements by the Supreme Court
6.1 Shelby County v. Holder
In Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 case, the Court struck down a particular formula used in the Voting Rights Act (1965) which was used to determine the jurisdictions that were required under the act to seek federal approval of changes in their voting laws.
6.2 United States v. Windsor
In United States v. Windsor, a 2013 case, the Court ordered a provision to be unconstitutional of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996) that had defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
6.3 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a 2014 case, the Court took down the aggregate limits on monetary contributions by individuals to multiple federal candidates, political party committees, and noncandidate political action committees.
6.4 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., another 2014 case, the Court declared that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) allows some for-profit corporations to refuse on religious grounds to paying for legally mandated coverage of contraceptive drugs and devices in their employees’ health insurance plans.
6.5 Gill v. Whitford
In Gill v. Whitford, a 2018 case, the Court vacated for lack of standing and remanded a U.S. district court decision that had deleted a redistricting plan of the Wisconsin state legislature as an unconstitutional political, or partisan, gerrymander.
The highest court of justice is a position of power that must not just be respected but also upheld through and through, and the Supreme Court of the United States has always lived up to the expectations. From understanding it essence of the court to the recent judgements passed by the aforesaid field of judicial authority, to have “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” for all the nation’s citizens will always be the motto of the Supreme Court.