Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo

Image on the left is of the back of a group of people. The symbol of an equals sign can be seen on the back of several shirts. Image on the right is of a flag. On the flag is the symbol of an equals sign.
Figure 13.1 The Marriage Equality Act vote in Albany, New York, on July 24, 2011 (left), was just one of a number of cases testing the constitutionality of both federal and state law that ultimately led the Supreme Court to take on the controversial issue of same-sex marriage. In the years leading up to the 2015 ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry in all fifty states, marriage equality had become a key civil rights issue for the LGBTQ community, as demonstrated at Seattle’s 2012 Pride parade (right). (credit left: modification of work by “Celebration chapel”/Wikimedia; credit right: modification of work by Brett Curtiss)

If democratic institutions struggle to balance individual freedoms and collective well-being, the judiciary is arguably the branch where the individual has the best chance to be heard. For those seeking protection on the basis of sexual orientation, for example, in recent years, the courts have expanded rights, such as the 2015 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all fifty states (Figure 13.1).1

The U.S. courts pride themselves on two achievements: (1) as part of the system of checks and balances, they protect the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution from breaches by the other branches of government, and (2) they protect individual rights against societal and governmental oppression. At the federal level, nine Supreme Court judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for lifetime appointments. This provides them the independence they need to carry out their duties. However, court power is confined to rulings on those cases the courts decide to hear.2

How do the courts make decisions, and how do they exercise their power to protect individual rights? How are the courts structured, and what distinguishes the Supreme Court from all others? This chapter answers these and other questions in delineating the power of the judiciary in the United States.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Jan 5, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.