The federal court hierarchy comprises district courts, federal courts of appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, there are 94 district courts representing the entry level in the federal judicial system. Most of the federal cases originate in the district courts, at least one of which is present in every state. All cases that are brought to these trial courts can be defended by the respective parties who appeal in their testimonies directly to the juries. It is rather an exception in the federal judicial system, as the juries hear testimonies only in the district courts. The vast majority of the federal cases are successfully resolved in district courts where a single judge presides over every case.
If the district court’s decision does not satisfy the parties, there is a possibility to escalate the case. There are total of 12 circuit courts of appeals that deal with cases from district courts complicated by all types of the legal issues. All facts in the cases are perceived as proven, thus, there is no need to use juries in the courts of appeals. Acting as first-level appellate courts, these institutions adjudicate the cases through the panel of judges. As Patterson points out, the highest interest of circuit court judges is the correct application of the law (510). Any miscarriage of justice at this level is highly unlikely; therefore, 99 percent of all appeals are resolved at circuit court.
The federal Supreme Court is the highest nation’s tribunal. All cases unresolved in the courts of appeals are brought for the final decision to this second-level appellate court. The nine justices serve on the Supreme Court and, as with the courts of appeal, their priority are not the facts but the law application. The U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to enforce constitutionally guaranteed rights upon any agencies and entities in accordance with legislative intent and established procedures. All lower courts abide by the legal principles established by the Supreme Court, but this fact can be misleading. There is the upper-court myth that suggests that the lower courts decisions are insignificant compared to those of the Supreme Court which, of course, is incorrect. Currently, the Supreme Court considers many cases on the individual rights, especially the minority interests. There are still unresolved disputes with lawmaking agencies regarding the Supreme Court’s authority to rule in such cases.
The state court systems largely depend on the trial courts. As with the federal system, there is also an appellate level that deals with all cases that trial courts could not resolve. If no federal issue is involved, the state courts’ decisions could not be appealed at the federal courts’ level. On the rare occasions when the cases are indeed relevant to the federal scope of powers, only specific aspects will be ruled upon in the court’s decision. Thus, the federal court myth which implies that the state courts are subordinated to the federal courts is also inaccurate. Formally, the president is responsible for nominating the federal judges on all levels, and the nominees should also get the Senate approval. It is a lifetime position with the topmost level of responsibility.
The strict adherence to the majority rule and the principles of precedent are distinctive features of the judicial restraint doctrine. Being a conservative judicial philosophy, it generally implies that the judiciary should be secondary to the legislatures’ judgment. According to the restraint approach, the elected officials should decide nearly all public issues as opposed to the decisions made by judges. There is an alternative philosophy which is known as judicial activism. This doctrine encourages the judges to invent new legal principles even if they contradict the elected officials’ policy decisions. Judicial activism proponents argue that the general principles of fairness should dominate over the inadequate law and it is the judges’ role to influence the laws based on the newly developed precedents. Generally, this doctrine is supported by the liberal political forces, whereas the conservative party sticks to the judicial restraint philosophy.
As with the political setup, the separation of judicial powers is essential in keeping the judiciary independent and objective. Alexander Hamilton in his address “To the People of the State of New York” argues that the judiciary being separated from other governmental agencies “will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution”. As Hamilton explains the role of power departments, “The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated”. In comparison to these, the judiciary has no direct power in the society through any executive arm. Consequently, there are no possibilities to abuse the power that does not exist or to fall to some other lures that the executive authorities face. These considerations indeed make the judiciary the “weakest” and the least dangerous branch in the governmental setup.
Other arguments in favor of the independent judiciary concern its unique position among the three branches of the federal government. It is the branch that can only judge without any possibility to participate in the laws’ creation. Obviously, the two approaches of the judicial restraint and judicial activism balance very closely around this fundamental consideration. Generally, the current U.S. judicial system corresponds to the concepts initially suggested by Hamilton and remains the important part of the governmental establishment.
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