Request A Free Consultation
Arizona panorama with cacti

The Judicial Branch of Government

August 11, 2016 Hastings and Hastings

On the Hastings & Hastings blog we endeavor to provide useful and actionable information regarding accident prevention, auto insurance, personal injury law, personal injury cases, retaining a lawyer, as well as other issues surrounding our fields of expertise. We also like to take close, studious looks at specific topics related to government and law. Today, we are going to discuss a topic with which we are intimately familiar – the judicial branch of the United States government.

The Constitution of the United States created a federal government which divided into three major branches – the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The branches of government were designed such that they would hold separate, yet co-equal powers. The operating principle behind this division was that prevent any one branch of government from becoming too powerful. By creating three separate yet equal branches of government, our founding fathers created a system of checks and balances which prevents any one branch of government from becoming too powerful. The system works similar to the game of rock-paper-scissors, in which no single element of an interconnected trio can express its power over the other two in such a way as to gain dominance.

As attorneys at law, we deal closely with all three major branches of government. The Legislative branch is tasked with creating laws, the Executive branch is tasked with carrying laws out, and the Judicial branch evaluates laws and manages the court system. In today’s blog, we are going to explore the history of the Judicial branch while learning about its structure and the way it fulfills its role in government.

The History of the Judicial Branch: Its Formation and Defining Tenets

In 1787, the young United States faced a number of problems. Primarily, it was bankrupt. Under the Articles of Confederation, which the country adopted in 1777, the federal government had no ability to levy taxes or regulate commerce. In fact, the federal government had almost no power at all. Congress couldn’t even raise enough money to pay the soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Individual states bickered and fought among themselves vying for economic advantages. Change was necessary. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was convened.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a heated and dissentious affair defined by two major conflicts – the balance of power between the branches of the federal government, and the balance of power between the federal and state governments. Initially, the focus of the debates regarding the structure of the federal government was placed on the relationship between the legislative and executive branches. While the delegates agreed that it was necessary to ensure that the two branches retained separate but equal power, they were unsure how to support this vision. Sitting somewhere to the side of this debate, left somewhat forgotten, was the promising judicial branch. It was only as the summer progressed, and the debates continued, growing in scope and complexity, that it became apparent how essential the judicial branch would be in creating a balanced and stable government. Over the next several months, the constitutional outline for the nation’s court system began to take shape, although what we think of as the modern federal court system was not fully outlined until the First Congress convened in 1789.

The first outlines of the modern judicial system can be traced back to the Virginia Plan, submitted to the Constitutional Convention by Edmund Randolph and written by James Madison. It proposed the establishment of a Supreme Court that would hear appeals of cases with national importance. This initial outline for a Supreme Court was quite difference from what we have today.

First off, it was proposed that judges would hold “tenure with good behavior,” rather than take lifetime nominations. There are clear complications with such a proposal. What does “good behavior” mean? Who determines this standard? Is the legislature qualified to oversee judges? If the legislature was given the power to oversee judges and remove them from service, would this open judges to political pressure and influence? In the final draft of the Constitution, it was determined that federal judges could only be removed via trail for violation of standard good behavior as defined by the protection of public interests. Upon the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a constitutional outline for the structure of the judicial branch had been outlined, however, the final piece of the puzzle would not come into place for a few more years.

The Judiciary Act of 1789

The Judiciary Act of 1789, signed to effect on September 24, 1789 established the modern federal judiciary of the United States. Although Article III, section 1 of the Constitutional stated that, “judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court and such inferior courts,” it did not detail the structure of the courts. Such specific details were outlined in the Judiciary Act of 1789.

The Federal Court System

The federal court system is composed of three levels of courts. United States District Courts are the lowest level of federal court. There are 94 federal judicial districts, with one court in each district. There are also three territorial courts. The federal judges who serve in these courts are nominated by the President of the United States and ratified by the Senate. They hold their seat until they retire, resign, pass away, or are impeached. These district courts are the primary trial courts in the federal court system.

The next level is the United States Courts of Appeals which provide mandatory review for decisions made by federal district courts. The United States Courts of Appeals are considered one of the most power legal bodies in the United States, in large part due to their ability to establish legal precedent. Currently, 179 judges serve on the United States Court of Appeals. Judges are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. As with federal district court judges, they hold a lifetime tenure. The annual salary for judges serving in the United States Courts of Appeals is $213,300. This is established by congress.

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest level of federal court. It is considered a court of last resort, which is to say, judgements by the Supreme Court are not subject to further review or appeal by any other court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 initially set the number of Justices on the Supreme Court to six, with five Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. Today, the Supreme Court is made up of nine justices, with eight associate justices and one Chief Justice. The current presiding Chief Justice is John Roberts. He was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2005 by President George W. Bush. He is the 17th Chief Justice of the United States.

Arizona Supreme Court

Just as the Federal Court system is divided into three distinct areas, so too is the state court system. The Superior Court of Arizona is a statewide trial court which hears a wide variety of cases including civil and criminal issues. The state appellate court reviews trials and appeal decisions. A majority of these issues come directly from the superior court. As with the Federal Supreme Court is the highest court in the Federal court system, the State Supreme Court is the highest court in the Arizona court system.

Superior Court judges serving in counties with a population greater than 250,000, are appointed by the governor after they have been screened and nominated by the Commissions on Appellate and Trial Court Appointments. Voters approach the retention of Superior Court Judges once every four years.