HGov: Review Judicial System and SCOTUS Case Studies


The U.S. judicial system not only resolves conflicts, but also shapes public policy through the judicial review process. The United States has two separate but related court systems: one federal and one state. The two systems maintain exclusive jurisdiction in some areas but overlap when cases involve both state and federal laws.

State judges are elected or appointed by the governor or legislature. In states using merit selection, judges are appointed and then confirmed by voters in a retention election. Federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Each state has its own hierarchy of courts. Trial courts of limited and general jurisdiction handle most cases. Intermediate appeals courts and state courts of last resort review cases appealed from the lower courts. The federal judicial system also includes special courts with very specific jurisdictions. Most cases involving federal law and the Constitution are tried in U.S. district courts. Decisions made there can be appealed to higher courts, including the Supreme Court.


Article I Supreme Court Case

  • McCullough v. Maryland

Amendment 1 Supreme Court Case

  • Engel v. Vitale
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman
  • Texas v. Johnson
  • Tinker v. Des Moines
  • Gitlow v. New York

Amendment 2 Supreme Court Case

  • United States v. Miller

Amendment 4 Supreme Court Case

  • Terry v. Ohio
  • Kyllo v. United States
  • Whren v United States

Amendment 5 Supreme Court Case

  • Miranda v. Arizona
  • Malloy v. Hogan
  • Hamdi v. Rumsfeld

Amendment 6 Supreme Court Case

  • Gideon v. Wainwright

Amendment 8 Supreme Court Case

  • Furman v. Georgia
  • Robinson v. California

Amendment 9 Supreme Court Case

  • Griswold v. Connecticut

Amendment 10 Supreme Court Case

  • United States v. Morrison

14th Amendment Supreme Court Case

  • Robinson v. California
  • Malloy v. Hogan
  • Hunt v. Cromartie
  • Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka



HGov: Judicial System


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.

Gov: Judicial Court Proceedings

Trial Court v. Appeals Court

Trial Court: Jury Selection

Trial Court: Opening Arguments


Trial Court: Witness Testimony


Appeals Court: Oral Arguments


Trial Court: Trial Verdict

  1. Compare and contrast the court proceedings in a Trial Court versus an Appeals Court.


Gov: Judicial System

citizenship-test    Judicial Branch Pre-test


Government: Judicial System

Federal-vs-State     The United States judicial system has two systems of courts: federal courts and state courts.

State courts are the workhorses of the judicial system, handling several million cases a year. State court systems vary in structure, however, most states have four general levels of courts: trial courts of limited jurisdiction, trial courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate appellate courts, and courts of last resort.

Trial courts of limited jurisdiction. Local courts that specialize in relatively minor criminal offenses or civil disputes handle most of the cases filed each year. Their hearings are generally informal and do not involve jury trials. Cases heard in these courts may be appealed to trial courts.

Trial courts of general jurisdiction. General trial courts handle most serious criminal cases and major civil disputes. In rural areas, general trial court judges may have to travel within a large circuit to try cases. In urban areas, general trial court judges may specialize in criminal, family, juvenile, civil, or other types of cases.

Intermediate appellate courts. Intermediate courts of appeals hear appeals from general trial courts. Though the structure varies from state to state, most state appeals courts employ three-judge panels to hear and decide cases.

Courts of last resort. The name of the appeals court at the top of the state system varies from state to state. The most common name is state supreme court. Their jurisdiction includes all matters of state law. Once a state supreme court decides a case, the only avenue of appeal left is the U.S. Supreme Court. Such appeals are limited to cases that present a constitutional issue.

Congress has established special federal courts to deal with specific categories of cases. Staffing these courts are judges expert in a particular area, such as tax or trade law. These special courts include both lower and appeals courts. The United States has also set up military tribunals to try members of enemy forces. A military tribunal is a court in which officers from the armed forces serve as both judge and jury.

Ninety-four district courts occupy the lowest level in the federal judiciary. These ninety-four courts include 89 federal court districts throughout the country, with at least one district in each state. Each district court is a trial court with original jurisdiction in its region. District courts are where most cases in the federal system begin. District court cases are tried before a jury, unless a defendant waives that right.

Thirteen appellate courts occupy the second level of the federal judiciary. These midlevel courts are known as U.S. courts of appeals. Only a fraction of the cases decided in district courts are reviewed by appeals courts. Their primary job is to review district court cases to determine whether the district judge made an error in applying the law in that one trial. Sometimes their decisions have a broader application than the specific case before them.

The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the federal judicial system. The Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. However, only a handful of original jurisdiction cases are filed each term. Majority of the cases reaching the Supreme Court are appeals from cases that began in lower courts.

Government Homework:
1. Read Chapter 15.2 pp.282-285
2. Amendments Quiz II – close Wed 10/30
3. Constitution Unit Test – Fri 11/1


Honors Gov: Judicial System Review

Judicial system review worksheet:

  • Identify the organization and jurisdiction of federal, state, and local courts and the interrelationships among the various types of courts.
  • Determine the role that judges play in the court system and describe the ways they are appointed.
  • Explain the structure, function, and process of the Supreme Court.

Honors Gov Homework:
1. Amendments Quiz II close today 10/8
2. Judicial Branch Quiz I – Wed 10/9
3. Constitution Quiz III – close Thurs 10/10


Honors Gov: Judicial Decisions

supreme-court-viewpoints1   Supreme Court justices contend with influences such as their personal views, social forces, and public attitudes. Since the Court only hears cases that affect an important constitutional issue, the justices must try to base their decisions on the principles of law and not on outside influences. Because the judiciary has become an increasingly powerful policymaking body in recent decades, it raises the question of the judiciary’s proper role in a democracy. The philosophies of judicial restraint and judicial activism provide different answers to this question.

Honors Gov Homework:
1. Constitution Quiz III – close Thurs 10/10
2. Amendments Quiz II close Tues 10/8
3.  Judicial Branch Quiz I – Wed 10/9


Honors Gov: Judicial Decision Making

supreme-court-justices-2011     A majority of justices must be in agreement to decide a case. The Court issues one of four types of written opinions, which are as important as the decision itself. An opinion may be unanimous. A majority opinion expresses the view of the majority of justices. A justice who agrees with the majority’s decision but for a different reason may write a concurring opinion. A dissenting opinion is the opinion of justices on the losing side in a case.

Honors Gov Homework:
1. Read Chapter 14 pp.461-464
2. Weekend Reading pp.464-474