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13.1 Guardians of the Constitution and Individual Rights

From humble beginnings, the judicial branch has evolved over the years to a significance that would have been difficult for the Constitution’s framers to envision. While they understood and prioritized the value of an independent judiciary in a common law system, they could not have predicted the critical role the courts would play in the interpretation of the Constitution, our understanding of the law, the development of public policy, and the preservation and expansion of individual rights and liberties over time.

13.2 The Dual Court System

The U.S. judicial system features a dual court model, with courts at both the federal and state levels, and the U.S. Supreme Court at the top. While cases may sometimes be eligible for both state and federal review, each level has its own distinct jurisdiction. There are trial and appellate courts at both levels, but there are also remarkable differences among the states in their laws, politics, and culture, meaning that no two state court systems are exactly alike. The diversity of courts across the nation can have both positive and negative effects for citizens, depending on their situation. While it provides for various opportunities for an issue or interest to be heard, it may also lead to case-by-case treatment of individuals, groups, or issues that is not always the same or even-handed across the nation.

13.3 The Federal Court System

The structure of today’s three-tiered federal court system, largely established by Congress, is quite clear-cut. The system’s reliance on precedent ensures a consistent and stable institution that is still capable of slowly evolving over the years—such as by increasingly reflecting the diverse population it serves. Presidents hope their judicial nominees will make rulings consistent with the chief executive’s own ideological leanings. But the lifetime tenure of federal court members gives them the flexibility to act in ways that may or may not reflect what their nominating president intended. Perfect alignment between nominating president and justice is not expected; a judge might be liberal on most issues but conservative on others, or vice versa. However, presidents have sometimes been surprised by the decisions made by their nominees, such as President Eisenhower was by Justice Earl Warren and President Reagan by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

13.4 The Supreme Court

A unique institution, the U.S. Supreme Court today is an interesting mix of the traditional and the modern. On one hand, it still holds to many of the formal traditions, processes, and procedures it has followed for many decades. Its public proceedings remain largely ceremonial and are never filmed or photographed. At the same time, the Court has taken on new cases involving contemporary matters before a nine-justice panel that is more diverse today than ever before. When considering whether to take on a case and then later when ruling on it, the justices rely on a number of internal and external players who assist them with and influence their work, including, but not limited to, their law clerks, the U.S. solicitor general, interest groups, and the mass media.

13.5 Judicial Decision-Making and Implementation by the Supreme Court

Like the executive and legislative branches, the judicial system wields power that is not absolute. There remain many checks on its power and limits to its rulings. Judicial decisions are also affected by various internal and external factors, including legal, personal, ideological, and political influences. To stay relevant, Court decisions have to keep up with the changing times, and the justices’ decision-making power is subject to the support afforded by the other branches of government in implementation and enforcement. Nevertheless, the courts have evolved into an indispensable part of our government system—a separate and coequal branch that interprets law, makes policy, guards the Constitution, and protects individual rights.

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