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The branch of government that is endowed with the authority to interpret and apply the law, adjudicate legal disputes, and otherwise administer justice.

The U.S. judiciary comprises a system of state and federal courts, tribunals, and administrative bodies, as well as the judges and other judicial officials who preside over them.

Every society in human history has confronted the question of how to resolve disputes

among its members. Many early societies chose a private system of revenge for dispute resolution. As civilization gradually evolved, and the system of revenge was perceived as counterproductive to society, communities began designating individuals to resolve disputes in accordance with established norms and customs. These individuals were usually leaders who were expected to exercise their judgment in an impartial manner.

The origins of judicial action, judicial power, and judicial process may be traced to the first communities that relied on neutral third parties to resolve legal disputes. Judicial action is any action taken by a court or other judicial body to interpret, apply, or declare what the law is on a particular issue during a legal proceeding. It is also the action taken by a judicial body to settle a legal dispute by issuing an opinion, order, decree, or judgment. Judicial power is the authority of a court to hear a particular lawsuit or legal dispute, and take judicial action with regard to it. Judicial process is the procedures by which a court takes judicial action or exercises its judicial power.

Ancient Greece, one of the earliest known societies in Western civilization, employed a combination of judicial procedures. Greek rulers, known as arkhons, were empowered to hear a variety of disputes, as was the agora, a group of respected elders in the community. A court known as the Areopagus heard murder cases, and direct retaliation by private citizens was still permitted in many civil disputes. The judicial powers of these institutions were gradually replaced by the Ekklesia, an assembly of six thousand jurors that was divided into smaller panels to hear particular cases.

Juries played an integral role in the development of the English judicial system. As more legal disputes were submitted to juries for resolution, this system became more self-conscious. Concerns were expressed that both judges and juries were rendering biased decisions based on irrelevant and untrustworthy evidence. Litigants complained that trial procedures were haphazard, arbitrary, and unfair. Losing parties sought effective remedies to redress erroneous decisions made at the trial court level. Each of these concerns has manifested itself in the modern judicial system of the United States.

The blueprints for the U.S. judiciary were laid out in 1789. During that year the U.S. Constitution was formally adopted by the states. Article III of the Constitution delineates the general structure of the federal judicial system, including the powers and obligations of federal courts. The Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 73 [codified as amended in 28 U.S.C.A.]) fleshes out many details of federal judicial power that were not addressed by the Constitution. The blueprints for the state judicial systems were created similarly by state constitutional and statutory provisions.

The U.S. judicial system has three principal characteristics: it is part of a federalist system of government, it has a specific role under the federal separation-of-powers doctrine, and it is organized in a hierarchical fashion.



The judiciary is part of a federalist system in which the state and federal governments share authority over legal matters arising within their geographic boundaries. In some instances both state and federal courts have the power to hear a legal dispute that arises from a single set of circumstances. For example, four Los Angeles police officers who were accused of participating in the 1991 beating of speeding motorist Rodney G. King faced prosecution for excessive use of force in both state and federal court. In other instances a state or federal court has exclusive jurisdiction over a particular legal matter. For example, state courts typically have exclusive jurisdiction over matrimonial law, and federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy law.

Separation of Powers

Under the separation-of-powers doctrine, the judiciary shares power with the executive and legislative branches of government at both the state and federal levels. The judiciary is delegated the duty of interpreting and applying the laws that are passed by the legislature and enforced by the executive branch.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress its lawmaking power, and Article II authorizes the president to sign and veto legislation and to execute laws that are enacted. Article III grants the federal judiciary the power to adjudicate, among other things, lawsuits that arise under the Constitution, congressional law, and treaties with foreign countries.

Federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, are not elected to office. Instead, they are appointed to office by the president of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. Once appointed, federal judges hold office for life, unless they resign or are impeached for "Treason, bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors" (U.S. Const. art. II, § 4).

The lifetime appointment of federal judges is controversial. On one hand, the federal judiciary runs the risk of growing out of touch with popular sentiment because it is being immunized from the electorate. On the other hand, it is considered necessary for the judiciary to remain independent of popular will so that judges will decide cases according to legal principles, not political considerations.

In many states judges are elected to office. Nonetheless, each state constitution similarly delegates powers among the three branches of government. Accordingly, judges are still expected to decide cases based on the law, not the political considerations that the executive and legislative branches may take into account in executing their duties.


The U.S. judiciary is a hierarchical system of trial and appellate courts at both the state and federal levels. In general, a lawsuit is originally filed with a trial court that hears the suit and determines its merits. Parties aggrieved by a final judgment have the right to appeal the decision. They do so by asking an appellate court to review the decision of a trial court.

The structure of state court systems varies by state, but four levels generally can be identified: minor courts, major trial courts, intermediate appellate courts, and state supreme courts. Minor courts handle the least serious cases. For example, municipal courts handle city ordinance violations, such as speeding tickets and parking violations. Cases that involve state constitutional issues, state statutes, and common law are dealt with by major trial courts. For example, felony cases, such as murder or rape, would be handled in a major trial court. Trial courts are called by different names in different states. For example, in Pennsylvania they are called courts of Common Pleas.

Intermediate appellate courts, called courts of appeals, review cases that have been decided by trial courts. They do not hear new evidence; they decide whether the lower court (the trial court) correctly applied the law in the case. State supreme courts review cases that deal with state law. The decision of the court is final since the state supreme court is the ultimate arbiter of state laws and the state constitution. Supreme courts are called by various names depending on the state. For example, West Virginia calls its state supreme court the Supreme Court of Appeals.

Federal cases, including civil and criminal, are handled by federal district courts. There are 94 district courts, with at least one in each state, as well as a district court for the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The number of judgeships appointed to each district is laid out in Title 28, Section 133 of the U.S. Code, which is a compilation of the permanent laws of the United States.

The 94 districts are divided into 12 regional circuits. Each of these circuits has a U.S. court of appeals, also called a circuit court. U.S. courts of appeals were created by the Evarts Act of 1891 (28 U.S.C.A. § 43); the central location of each court is determined by statute (28 U.S.C.A. § 41 [1995]). Each federal appellate court has jurisdiction over a certain geographic area, and may hear appeals only from federal district courts within that jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, however, has nationwide jurisdiction to handle certain kinds of cases, including patent cases and those that involve trade with other countries.

The Supreme Court is the nation's highest appellate court. It is sometimes called the "court of last resort" because once the Court reviews a case, and renders a final judgment, further appeals cannot be made. The nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court review cases that begin at either the federal or state level. These cases usually focus on important issues involving the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The Supreme Court receives its authority from Article III, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

Special Courts Not all lawsuits begin in an ordinary court. Both the state and federal governments have established special courts that are expressly designated to hear specific types of cases. For example, at the federal level, the U.S. Court of International Trade handles cases involving foreign business dealings, and the U.S. Tax court handles disputes between taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Examples at the state level include special courts that hear cases involving juveniles (i.e., juvenile court) or cases involving domestic issues (i.e., family courts). Specialized courts have also been created to hear appeals. For example, the Court of Military Appeals was established in 1950 to review court-martial decisions.

Alternative Dispute Resolution and Administrative Agencies In certain areas of law, litigants are prohibited from beginning a lawsuit in an ordinary trial court unless they first exhaust other methods of dispute resolution through an administrative body. Since the mid-1930s, state and federal governments have created elaborate administrative systems to dispose of certain legal claims before a lawsuit may ever be filed. For example, at the federal level, administrative agencies have been created to oversee a number of disputes involving labor law, environmental law, antitrust law, employment discrimination, securities transactions, and national transportation.

Administrative agencies are created by statute, and legislatures may prescribe the qualifications for administrative officials, including administrative law judges, who are appointed by the executive branch; courts of law; and heads of government departments. These agencies are charged with the responsibility of establishing, developing, evaluating, and applying policy over a given area of law. The body of rules, principles, and regulations promulgated by such agencies and their officials is known as administrative law.

Laws created by state and federal administrative bodies, including adjudicative bodies, are considered no less authoritative than laws enacted by legislatures, decreed by the executive branch, or issued by the judiciary. However, litigants who first exhaust their administrative remedies through the appropriate agency and are dissatisfied with a decision rendered by an administrative law judge, may appeal the decision to an ordinary court of law.

State and federal governments have passed formal rules that set forth the procedures that administrative bodies must follow. The rules governing federal administrative adjudication are provided in the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 551 et seq. [1988]).

Further Readings

Kozlowski, Mark, and Anthony Lewis. 2003. The Myth of the Imperial Judiciary: Why the Right is Wrong About the Courts. New York: New York Univ. Press.

MacDowell, Douglas M. 1978. The Law in Classical Athens. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

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