Judicial Branch

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
. 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

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
2. They interpret the Constitution. No one can
override their decision except another, later, court
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)
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

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.