American Government – The Courts – 3 short essays
1. “Deciding to decide” is an important aspect of Supreme Court policymaking. Discuss the process by which cases come to the Supreme Court and the way in which the Court control its docket.
2. Discuss the process by which judges are selected for the federal judiciary. Who are the important actors? What qualities do they look for in nominees to the bench?
3. Explain the difference between criminal cases and civil cases, and describe how the U.S. legal system handles each type.
The text book I’m working with is The Challenge of Democracy. Below is the internet link. https://books.google.com/books?id=_WlzlY9dv74C&pg=PA18&lpg=PA18&dq=What+has+been+the+government’s+oldest+objective?&source=bl&ots=nxtEJi0kQO&sig=3jgygNrqBdMEuI1BLa9K3dbVGGA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAGoVChMIs4–566ryAIVARseCh0f1gyh#v=onepage&q=What%20has%20been%20the%20government’s%20oldest%20objective%3F&f=false
THEMES AND HIGHLIGHTS:
American courts shape policies that form the heart of American democracy. Because judges tend to accept the rulings of other courts in similar cases, judges in effect make policy with their decisions.
The Constitution established “one Supreme Court” but left it to Congress to structure the federal judiciary. Take note of the organization of the court system today.
Each state (and the District of Columbia) has its own court system, and no two are alike. State courts co-exist with the federal court system, and individuals fall under the jurisdiction of both. The state courts handle and resolve the vast majority of legal disputes.
The federal courts are like a pyramid—the Supreme Court is at the apex, the U.S. Courts of Appeals occupy the middle, and the U.S. District Courts serve as the base.
There are 94 federal district courts and nearly 650 full-time district judges. There is at least one district court in each state. These courts decide criminal and civil cases.
Cases litigated beyond the federal district courts usually go to one of the thirteen regional appeals courts known as the U.S. Courts of Appeals. The judges on these courts sit in panels of three. They aim at correcting errors in the lower courts and making policy through the opinions they write.
There are thirteen appeals courts; twelve cover cases from geographic areas known as circuits. Because the circuit courts are not bound to consult with each other about application of the law, there may be variance in their interpretations. Such conflicts are corrected by review at the Supreme Court level.
The Supreme Court decides about one hundred cases a year, though it receives about seven thousand requests for review. The Court’s jurisdiction falls into two categories: original and appellate. The Constitution specifies the Court’s original jurisdiction. The Court is the first and only forum for the resolution of the very few original jurisdiction cases.
Appellate jurisdiction is subject to congressional control; it is also the primary source of cases entering the Court from state and federal courts. Cases being appealed from state courts must have reached the end of the line in that system and must also raise a federal question, an issue covered under the Constitution, federal laws, or treaties. It takes the votes of four justices to grant a case full consideration.
Once the Court grants review, attorneys submit written arguments (briefs). Oral arguments usually follow. The voting outcome is the judgment. After voting, the justices in the majority draft an opinion setting out the reasons. After the conference, the chief justice writes the majority opinion or assigns that responsibility to another justice in the majority.
Although he is only one of nine justices, the chief justice has several unique and important functions based upon the authority of that office. The chief justice may provide social leadership by generating solidarity within the group or by providing intellectual or policy leadership. Through his or her power to control the docket and direct conferences, the chief justice may exercise control over the discussion of issues.
How do the courts work? Crime is a violation of the public order as defined in the criminal code. The code is legislation that regulates conduct and specifies sanctions for violations. Government maintains order by prosecuting persons for violating the criminal code. These are called criminal cases. Most criminal cases are prosecuted in the state courts. Some criminal violations—for example, possession of a controlled substance such as cocaine—are prosecuted in federal courts.
Civil cases stem from disputed claims to something of value. They involve private disputes arising from such matters as accidents, contractual obligations, and divorce. Government can be a party to such disputes.
How does a person become a judge? The mechanics of appointment are nomination and confirmation. The president makes nominations when vacancies or new positions occur in the federal judiciary. The Senate must confirm the president’s nomination by a majority vote. This is known as the advise-and-consent function. Nominees for the district courts or the courts of appeals must be acceptable to the senior senator of the president’s party from the state in which the vacancy arises. Senators have the power to stall or scuttle unacceptable nominees. The practice of senatorial courtesy thus forces a president to share the nominating power with members of the Senate.
Supreme Court justices exercise great power; their appointments become important political events. Recent presidents have made their marks on the federal judiciary. Carter wanted to base appointments more strongly on merit. He also wanted the judiciary to be more representative of the general population. Reagan did not share Carter’s second objective and appointed far fewer minorities and women. Although Bush’s record in the appointment of minorities and women to federal judgeships was better than Reagan’s, neither approaches Carter’s appointment record in this regard. Clinton’s appointments stand in contrast to those of Reagan and Bush. More than half of Clinton’s appointees were minorities or women.
Political ideology lies at the heart of judicial appointments; presidents tend to appoint nominees who share similar value preferences. The Reagan/Bush ideology-driven appointments will probably shape the judiciary into the twenty-first century. Clinton’s nominees reflect his quest for greater ethnic and gender diversity on the bench.
Presidents are not restrained by senatorial courtesy when making Supreme Court appointments, but presidents probably face more restraint from public opinion when they make such appointments.
It is difficult to predict how a person will decide once on the Supreme Court. The person’s earlier decisions as a judge in a lower court may provide some basis for such predictions.
The Supreme Court relies on others to implement its policies; the impact of its decisions reaches far beyond the parties involved. The Supreme Court confronts issues loaded with conflicting values or fundamental political beliefs; its decisions have impact beyond the immediate parties.