The Court System

There are two parallel court systems in the United States , the federal and state systems.

The federal judiciary was established by Article III of the US Constitution.  The court system was fleshed out by the Judiciary Act which Congress passed in 1789.  It provided that the Supreme Court should consist of a chief justice and five associate justices (the total number on the Supreme Court bench has since been raised to nine).  It also mapped out the federal district and circuit courts and spelled out when the federal courts should have jurisdiction (legal authority).  Section 25 provided for appeals from the state courts to the federal courts in some types of cases. 

For a copy of the Judiciary Act:

In 1796, in the case Ware v. Hylton, the Supreme Court for the first time declared a state law to be unconstitutional.  The case concerned the payment of a debt by a Virginian to a British subject after the Treaty of Paris had ended the War of Independence.  The Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law when it ruled that the debt had to be made in the equivalent of "gold," not in state currency. 

In 1803 in the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court for the first time established its authority to exercise "judicial review" of the actions of the other branches of the federal government and declare them to be unconstitutional.

Today, at the base of the federal court system are 94 US District Courts which hear jury trials.  Appeals from those courts go to one of 12 US Circuit Courts of Appeal.  The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system.  It decides which cases to hear on appeal from the circuit courts. When it decides not to take a case on appeal, the lower court ruling stands.  It can also strike down laws as unconstitutional.  The president appoints federal judges who must be confirmed by the US Senate.  They can only be removed if they are impeached by Congress and then convicted.

The state courts hear civil and criminal cases under state law.  These systems differ from state to state.  Trial courts are at the base of the state court system. Usually cases are heard by judges and juries. At the top of the system, states have a supreme court which hears appeals.  Many states also have intermediate courts which help with the appeals process.  

About 20 states hold elections for judges, who run for office like politicians.  In other states, judges are appointed by the governor. 


Do you think it is better for judges to be elected by the people or appointed?  What are the pros and cons of each method of selecting judges?