American political science discussion

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Forum: Federal Court interpretation of the law


Should judges be guided by existing legal precedence (stare decisis) or use only their personal opinions in making judicial decisions? If so, why? If not, why not?

Forum: Federal Court interpretation of the law

The Judiciary, the Least Dangerous Branch?


Familiarize you with the development of the Court system at the Federal and state levels with particular focus on the Supreme Court.


Lesson Module 14, Lowi, Chapter 15 and Canon, Chapter 15

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Lecture Summary:

Much of the American court system is based upon the English court system. The adversary proceeding, common law, and even the physical arrangement of the courtroom is based upon the English system. Our court system is a two-track system, Federal and state. The majority of court cases are heard in trial courts at the state level. There are essentially four types of law: common law, made by court decisions, civil law, disputes between individuals, criminal law, dealing with crimes against the public, and public or constitutional law.

The Federal Court system deals with only a fraction of the litigation in America. It deals with cases involving litigants in separate states, civil cases involving federal agencies, and issues of federal criminal statues or state criminal cases which involve a constitutional issue.

The Federal Court system has three basic levels, Federal District Courts, Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. The Federal District Courts deal with matters of original jurisdiction. These are issues that are heard first and a decision made. The Circuit Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court deal with appeals from lower courts involving constitutional issues. All of these judges are selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The state court systems are organized similarly. Most states have county or city courts where original matters are heard. Following these lower courts are state appellate and state supreme courts. They hear matters involving state and federal constitutional issues from lower state courts of original jurisdiction. Lower court judges are often elected while appellate and state Supreme Court judges are often appointed.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the United States. Litigants have no higher recourse in the legal system. The Court decides what cases it will hear by granting a writ of certiorari or writ of habeas corpus. The Court decision is reached by majority decision, each justice having a vote in the matter. Majority and concurring opinions are published along with minority dissent. For a case to be heard, only four justices of the nine-member court need agree. Some scholars call this the rule of four.

The influences on the court include 1. the members and their opinions, 2. the Justice Department and the solicitor general, and 3. the flow of cases. Each member is appointed for life and regularly exercise their independent judgment after confirmation. Harry Truman discovered this when he tried to seize control of the steel industry during a wartime strike. Justice Tom Clark, his life-long friend and a Truman appointee to the Supreme Court, wrote the decision declaring the action unconstitutional. Solicitor generals in the Justice Department frequently advance cases that deal with constitutional issues the Executive branch desires decisions on. Finally, cases can come in patterns in areas such as privacy or police methods.

A hallmark of the Judiciary is its independence. The presidential appointment and Senate confirmation process make lifetime appointment palatable to the public. Court members can decide the meaning of the Constitution free from unnecessary and dangerous political pressures. The early Supreme Court case Marbury vs. Madison, 1803, established the independence and equal power of the judiciary with the other two branches of government.

The Warren Court in the 1950’s and 1960’s established an even greater role for the Court in resolving in traceable issues of civil and criminal rights. A philosophy of judicial activism, often the focal point of Earl Warren’s chief justiceship, caused great social change. The Warren Court was often criticized by strict constructionists who adhered to a philosophy of judicial restraint. The strict constructionists wanted to leave what they saw as political issues in the hands of elected politicians while interpreting the Constitution in a way, which sought the intent of the original writers. They felt that contemporary judges should not adjust the Constitution’s meaning to contemporary issues as judicial activists would. Strict constructionists tend to see the Constitution as an inflexible document, a counterpoint to the activists.

The Court continues to be a focal point in the development of civil liberties and civil rights in America. It also continues to define the role of government in light of the Constitution. The Court is the final guarantor of the people’s freedom.

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