The Judicial Branch

"The Judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.... The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority...."

-- Article III, Sections 1 & 2,
The Constitution of the United States

The judicial branch hears cases that challenge or require interpretation of the legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President. It consists of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. Appointees to the federal bench serve for life or until they voluntarily resign or retire.

[Photo: The Supreme Court is the most visible of all the federal courts. The number of Justices is determined by Congress rather than the Constitution, and since 1869, the Court has been composed of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. Justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

  1. What does the Supreme Court do that affects me?
    The Supreme Court has decided many of the historic cases that affect people every day. For example, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision held that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional and that all children, regardless of their race, should be able to obtain the same education. In the 1930s, the Court ruled in West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish that a state law mandating a minimum wage for women and minors was valid. This decision is considered by many to be the beginning of a more equal role for women in the workplace.

  2. How does a case get heard in the Supreme Court?
    The Supreme Court considers very few cases each year. Most of these are the result of the Court's granting a writ of certiorari -- a petition to the Court to have a case heard. If four of the nine Justices consider a case to be worthy of review, a writ is granted.

    Some cases are heard because they fall within the Court's "original jurisdiction." These include cases between the federal government and a state; two or more states, or a state and citizen of a different state; or cases involving diplomats or other foreign ambassadors.

    Cases brought to the Supreme Court generally address important federal matters, such as when a right guaranteed by the Constitution is denied by a state, or when a state law is found to be in conflict with federal law.