Article III of the United States Constitution establishes the Judicial Branch of the federal government, which consists of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts that Congress may create. The scope of the judicial power extends to all cases arising under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
Judges preside over judicial cases. Unlike members of the other branches of government, judges are not voted into office; they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Judges have life tenure, which allows them to make impartial decisions without being unduly affected by public opinion. However, under Article III of the Constitution, a judge who does not display good behavior can be removed from office by impeachment in the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate.
For more information on the Judicial Branch under the Constitution, see The Judicial Branch.
While the Constitution establishes the Judicial Branch, it delegates to Congress the authority to structure the court system. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the lower courts. The lower courts are broken into two levels: the District Courts and the Courts of Appeals. The District Courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. The Courts of Appeals hear appeals from the decisions of the District Courts. There are currently 94 District Courts and 13 Courts of Appeals.
For more information on the U.S. federal court system, see Court Role and Structure.
Under Article III, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors, pubic officials, and individual states, and appellate jurisdiction in all other cases. The Judiciary Act of 1925 gave the Supreme Court certiorari power (the power to choose its own cases). The Court usually chooses to hear cases involving significant legal issues that have not been uniformly decided by the lower courts. Because the Supreme Court does not issue advisory opinions, a claimant must have proper standing to bring a suit.
While the Constitution does not specify the number, title, or responsibilities of Supreme Court justices, the Judiciary Act of 1789 established a Chief Justice and multiple associate justices. The Chief Justice is the most senior member of the court, regardless of how many years he has served on the bench. As the most senior member of the court, he writes the majority opinions (when in the majority), which allows him to influence the historical record. In addition to the duties of the associate justices, the Chief Justice also has duties unique to his position, including the duty to preside over presidential impeachment trials under Article I of the Constitution. The Chief Justice, however, does not have the authority to overrule the Court’s decisions, and his vote has the same legal weight as the vote of each associate justice.
The number of justices has fluctuated throughout the years. There are currently nine Supreme Court justices. If five or more justices agree on a decision, they issue a majority opinion that becomes law. If a justice disagrees with the majority opinion, he may write a dissenting opinion. If a justice agrees with the majority’s conclusion but for different reasons, he may write a concurrence. If five or more justices agree on the result of a particular case but no single rationale or opinion garners five votes, a plurality opinion results. When the court fails to reach a majority, the plurality opinion is the one that received the support of the most judges.
For more information on the U.S. Supreme Court, visit the FAQ section on the Court's website.