The Judicial Branch of the Government

The judicial branch of the government is represented by the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as district courts and the courts of appeals. It is the only one of the three branches of government that is selected by the president of the United States and approved by the Senate. Since 1869, the Supreme Court has been made up of a panel of nine judges. Prior to that, there were six judges on the Supreme Court. One of the judges is considered the chief justice and the other eight are associate judges. Federal judges serve for life. Unless they retire, resign, or die, they can only be removed from their positions by impeachment. The reason for this is that the government wants the judges concerned only with responding to cases fairly and impartially rather than be influenced by politics.

The job of the Supreme Court is to interpret federal laws using the Constitution and previous cases as a guide. Trials are not held before the Supreme Court. The Court is a court of appeals, meaning that there has already been a ruling by a lower court that the Supreme Court has been asked to reconsider. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation so it has the final authority. That is not to say, however, that previous Court rulings are not overturned by new interpretations of law. For example, in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the Court determined that segregating public schools on the basis of race is unconstitutional. That ruling overturned the ruling by the Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1898, which said that segregation was constitutional. Certainly, as society changes, law often changes with it.

While the Constitution only requires a Supreme Court, Congress created the district courts and the 13 appellate courts, which have the responsibility of reviewing appeals of decisions made by district courts. This is necessary because it would be impossible for the Supreme Court to hear every federal court case in the country. District courts and courts of appeal are located around the country, usually in large cities or major metropolitan areas. These lower courts also determine if laws are constitutional and use the Constitution to make decisions but they are bound by decisions made by the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court has ruled on a law, lower federal courts must interpret the law the same way.

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