• The Constitution establishes a Supreme Court
– the top of the American judicial system.
• Article III of the Constitution describes the
• The Constitution also authorized Congress to
establish any other courts that are needed
• Under the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress set
up the system of federal courts that is still in
• Most cases begin in district court where
evidence is presented and a jury or judge
decides the facts of the case.
• A party that disagrees with the decisions
may appeal it – ask the decision to be
reviewed by a higher court.
• Next level is the appellate court where the
judge reviews decisions of district courts to
make sure the right decision was made.
• The Court is made up of a Chief Justice and
eight Associate Justices
– Chief Justice –John G. Roberts, Jr.
– Justices – John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia,
Anthony Kennedy, David Hackett Souder, Clarence
Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer,
• The President appoints the justices but
Congress must approve the appointment
• Justices serve for life
• The main job of the Court is to serve as the
nation’s final court of appeals
Supreme Court Cont’d
• Hears and decides fewer than 100 cases per year
• Usually involve federal laws
• The justices hear oral argument and then vote –
must have the majority of at least 5 justices.
• Greatest power is to decide what the Constitution
– Declare whether acts of the President or laws passed
by Congress are unconstitutional – not allowed under
• Refers to the right of a court to hear a case
• Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases that
involve the Constitution, federal laws, treaties,
foreign ambassadors and diplomats, naval and
maritime laws, disagreements between states,
and disputes between a state or citizen and a
foreign state or citizen
• In Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court
established the right to judge whether or not a
law is constitutional
– Called Judicial Review
United States Court System
• State Court • Supreme Court
– Highest state court • Court of Appeals
– Hears appeals of – Hears appeals of cases
Appellate Court originating in United
• Appellate Court States District Court
– Hears appeals of Trial – Can review decisions by
Court federal administrative
• Trial Court
– Hears civil and criminal
• District Court
cases – Federal trial court
– Juries render verdict – Handles criminal and civil
based on evidence cases
– Judges enforce rules of – Juries render verdicts
procedure and judges enforce rules
Historic Supreme Court Cases
• McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) -- A
conflict arose between a state government
and the Federal government, with the state
government being declared subordinate to
the Federal government where laws conflict.
• Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) -- Slaves
were classified as property. This case fueled
the flames that began the Civil War
• Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) -- This
famous case laid the groundwork for the
"separate but equal doctrine" that limited
the rights of minorities for decades.
• Schenck v. United States (1919) --
"Clear and Present Danger" was
established in this case as an acceptable
reason for the limiting of free expression.
• Powell v. Alabama (1932) -- The
Supreme Court ruled here that the right to
counsel was required by law in death
• Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
(1954) -- A tremendous step in the direction of
equal rights for all citizens.
• NAACP v. Alabama (1958) -- Freedom of
association (the right to assemble in groups) was
• Miranda v. Arizona (1966)- that a person accused
has the warning that statements given can a will
be used against you in a court of law
• Roe v. Wade (1973) -- In this highly
controversial case the Supreme Court laid down
what states can and cannot control in regards to
• Roper v. Simmons (2005) – The U.S.
Supreme Court has decided that the
execution of juveniles is considered cruel
and unusual punishment.
• Notable Decisions