The president appoints all federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, who then must be approved by the Senate. Judges who are appointed to the district courts, the courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court serve for life. Political considerations often affect a president’s choice of a nominee to the Court. Presidents want someone with their own political beliefs to sit on the Court. The attorney general, the American Bar Association, interest groups, and even sitting justices advise the president on whom to nominate to the Court. The First African American member of the Court was Thurgood Marshall. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the Court. One early chief justice, John Marshall, was a very influential member of the Court. His opinion in the case of Marbury v. Madison outlined one of the Court’s most important powers, judicial review. With this power the Court can determine whether or not acts of Congress or executive orders are constitutional.
The Constitution gives the president the power to appoint federal judges with the “Advice and Consent of the Senate.” Presidents look for candidates who have distinguished themselves as attorneys in the state where an opening exists. They also tend to look for candidates who share their political ideology. The president submits a nomination to the Senate. The nomination goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for study.
Once a candidate has been selected, the nomination goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for review. The committee holds public hearings, during which it takes testimony from the nominee and from witnesses who support or oppose the appointment. The Judiciary Committee then recommends, by majority vote, whether the full Senate should confirm or reject the nomination. Finally, the full Senate votes on the nomination.
Senatorial courtesy allows a senator to block a nomination to a federal court in his or her home state. Nominations are blocked through a process known as the blue-slip policy. When the Senate Judiciary Committee receives a nomination, it notifies the senators from the nominee’s state by sending them an approval form on a blue sheet of paper. If a senator fails to return the blue slip, this indicates his or her opposition to the appointment. As a courtesy to the senator, the Judiciary Committee then kills the nomination by refusing to act on it.
If approved by the committee, the nomination is submitted to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. Nominees who make it through the confirmation process remain in office, as Article III states, “during good Behaviour.” This means they are judges for life or until they choose to retire.
Each state has its own method of choosing the judges who preside over state courts. There are three basic routes to a judgeship: judicial election, judicial appointment, or merit selection.
The oldest method of choosing state judges is through the election process. This method of choosing judges is not without its pitfalls. First, to fund their campaigns, judicial candidates must often seek contributions from lawyers and business that may eventually appear before them in court. This may interfere with their ability to be impartial. Second, voter turnout for judicial elections is notoriously low. Most voters simply do not know enough about judgeship candidates to cast a meaningful vote.
In a handful of states, judges are appointed by the governor or state legislature. This method relieves poorly informed voters of the responsibility of choosing judges. However, there are drawbacks. Governors often use their appointment power to award judgeships to those who have supported them politically. Similarly, state legislatures tend to appoint former lawmakers to be judges. Such appointees may or may not be highly qualified to serve as judges.
Merit selection and retention elections. Many judges are selected through a process that combines appointments and elections. Under this system, a committee nominates candidates for judgeships based on their merits, or qualifications. The governor then appoints judges from this list. After a fixed period, voters are asked to confirm or reject the appointment in a retention election. If a majority of voters answer yes, the judge remains in office for a longer term. If a majority says no, the judge is removed from office.
The judicial system’s job is to resolve conflicts peacefully in accordance with the law and in a manner most parties to the conflict will see as just or fair. The challenge of resolving conflicts in a just manner usually begins in trial courts, which focus on sorting through the facts of a case. Cases can be categorized by whether the dispute involves criminal or civil law. Criminal law refers to legal measures passed by a legislative body to protect the welfare of society and to provide punishments for those who fail to comply. People found guilty of violating criminal laws are punished through fines, prison sentences, probation, or similar penalties. Civil law refers to legal measures that govern conflicts between private parties or between a private party and the government. Conflicts can arise from various circumstances, including disputes over the ownership of property, injuries suffered in an accident, or questions about the terms of a contract. In most civil cases, one party sues another party for damages, or compensation of some sort.
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