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The Judicial Branch and Marbury v Madison


1. Article Three of the Constitution sets up the Judicial Branch. It is the shortest part of the Constitution. Our founding fathers did not expect the judiciary to play a large role.

2. The structure of the Judiciary was largely left up to Congress. Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Judiciary Act of 1803 to set up the branch as we know it today. They created a three level (tiered) system and laid down certain rules concerning operation of the courts.

3. The Supreme Court was given certain powers in the Constitution to rule on cases directly. This is called original jurisdiction. They have original jurisdiction on cases involving the President and other issues outlined in article three of the Constitution. You might want to look at the Constitution (article III) to see some of the others. Mostly however the Supreme Court is only an appeals court. This means that they only hear cases after the they have been heard by lower courts. In this sense the Supreme Court has what is known as appellate jurisdiction.

4. Federal Judges get "lifetime tenure." This means that they hold their terms for life. Judges can be impeached by Congress for misconduct or for "high crimes and misdemeanors." Remember, this only applies for federal judges. Why would we want judges to have lifetime tenure? Answer: It allows them to be free of political or job considerations when making decisions.

5. The Judicial Branch the way we know it was set up by Congressional action. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set up a three tiered court system.

The following outline shows the structure of the court.

The Supreme Court

1. The supreme court is the highest court in the nation.
2. They interpret the Constitution. No one can override their decision except another, later, court decision.
3. The court can rule on some cases directly - this is called original jurisdiction.
4. The court mostly functions as an appeals court - appellate jurisdiction.
5. They can overturn a lower court (circuit court) ruling.
6. They only take cases they want to take. Out of three thousand cases they are asked to hear each year, they only hear a couple of hundred.
7. If they refuse to hear a case, the lower court ruling stands

The Circuit Court

1. They only hear appeals from the lower District Court. This is called appellate jurisdiction.
2. The nation is divided into geographic areas called circuits. There are 12 circuits.
3. There are three judges on a circuit court. They make rulings together as a 3 judge panel.

The District Courts

1. These are local federal courts located in major population centers. (West Islip and Brooklyn).
2. They hear trials. These are jury trials.
3. Since cases begin here they have what is called "original jurisdiction."

The chart below shows the levels of the courts as well as some of other federal courts that are part of the Judicial Branch.



It is important to remember that under the system of FEDERALISM both States and the Federal Government have been given the power to establish courts and punish lawbreakers. Because this is the case states have also established courts. State courts deal with most crimes. Federal courts deal with crimes occurring on federal property, violation of federal crimes and alleged violations of the Constitution.


On the eve of his last day in office outgoing President John Adams, a Federalist, appoints 82 Federalist justices. These "midnight judges," as they were called, represented a threat to incoming President Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican. Jefferson feared Federalist interpretation of the law for the next 20 years, a fear that ended up coming to fruition. Among these midnight judges was one William Marbury. Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, John Madison, not to deliver the official documents granting Marbury his position. Based upon the Judiciary Act of 1801 Marbury appealed directly to the Supreme Court asking for a "writ of mandamus" or an order to act.

Chief Justice John Marshall recognized he would be correct in ordering Madison to deliver the papers but feared weakening the image of the Court if President Jefferson refused to comply. Instead Marshall ruled that the Judiciary Act of1789, which Marbury had used to submit his claim directly to the Court was unconstitutional, and it was. In this way the Court was able to rule a law unconstitutional and thus created the important precedent of judicial review.

**The important thing to remember is that this is the first time the Court rules that a law is unconstitutional. This creates the power of judicial review. You must know what judicial review is and you must associate it with the Marbury Case. This is always a Regents question.

The court, in ruling this way, sets what is known as a precedent. The power of judicial review is not in the constitution. It is precedent. It is done because it was done before. This is the power of the Court. They set precedent. The lower court must rule based upon the supreme court ruling or they will just be overturned on appeal. The only was to overturn a supreme court decision is by passing an amendment to the Constitution or by having the Court overturn its own precedent with a later case. Something that is sometime done.

By using the power of judicial review and setting precedents the Supreme Court actually can "make law." Take the case of Roe v Wade as an example. When the Court ruled in Roe that laws prohibiting abortion in Texas were unconstitutional they, in effect, struck down ALL LAWS in the WHOLE NATION that prohibited abortion.

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