Article by Annalisa
Edited by Jasmine and Audrey
How does the judiciary branch work? For example, how are federal judges selected? How to ensure they will uphold the spirit of law?
According to Article 3 of the US Constitution, “the judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish” (Third Article). These are the words that established the judicial branch of the federal government and its courts, one supreme with all others being inferior to it (making the Supreme Court the ultimate court of appeals). In later sections of the Constitution, the specific cases overseen by the Supreme Court (also known as original jurisdiction) are outlined as well as the protocols for trials and legal proceedings. The role of the judicial branch in the United States is to judge constitutionality of laws and executive orders as well as settle disputes, determine whether a crime was committed, and assign punishment (“Judicial Branch”).
Currently, in the United States federal system there is one Supreme Court, 13 Courts of Appeals, 94 District Courts, and two courts of special jurisdiction— the Court of International Trade and Court of Federal Claims (“Court Role”). An appellate court (or court of appeals) is responsible for hearing and reviewing appeals from legal cases that have already been heard in a ‘lower level’ court. An appeal is a legal request to a higher court for the reversal of a court decision. ￼￼courts, twelve are regional and one holds nationwide jurisdiction for specialized cases, such as international trade, patents, and federal claims. Each appellate court consists of three judges who hear appeals from district court and federal administrative agency decisions. As for the district courts, they hear cases for their geographic areas and are also paired with a bankruptcy court (“Court Role”). ￼￼￼(“Judicial Branch”).
In Washington State, the judicial branch is arguably more accountable to its constituents, serving in an elected capacity. Other than that, the structure is similar to the federal branch since it has regional courts and appellate levels. Justices of the Supreme Court are elected state-wide every six years. This year (2020), there were four positions on the ballot. There were also be judicial elections in all three divisions of the Washington Court of Appeals; however only one race is uncontested, an open position in District 3. Superior Court judges are elected to four-year terms with two contested elections—Position 13 and Position 30. If a candidate is running unopposed in an area with over 100,000 people they will not appear on either the primary or general election ballot, instead receiving ‘Certificate of Election.’ Current Issues:
Regional courts are not currently equal in population or number of cases heard. District 9, for example, encompasses almost all of the West Coast.
Conservatives have shown an increasing willingness to disregard procedure and stack the courts in their favor with certain judicial nominees.
The process is slow, some courts only completely process 1% of the cases brought to them. There have numerous suggestions for increased oversight and reductions in common roadblocks that favor the rich and powerful (the lack of public defenders, for example).
Racial, ethnic, gender, and age diversity is a serious issue across the judicial system, though some progress has been made in lower courts. The median net worth of Supreme Court justices in 2017 was 1.9 million (Berger) Further Research:
https://www.landmarkcases.org/: for more information on some landmark Supreme Court cases. Below are some interesting cases:
New Jersey vs. T.L.O: Student Search & Seizure
Roe vs. Wade: Abortion, Right to Privacy
Tinker vs. Des Moines: Student Speech, Symbolic Speech
https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/courts/reports/2019/05/08/469504/structural-reforms-federal-judiciary/: suggestions for reform to the judiciary
http://www.courts.wa.gov/programs_orgs/pos_bja/Judicial%20Branch%20Policy%20Objectives.pdf: principal policy goals of the Washington State judicial branch
http://votingforjudges.org/: more information on specific races and candidates in the judicial branch of Washington State.
Citations: Cover photo: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/1600/judicial-branch
Berger, Sam. Root, Danielle. Structural Reforms to the Federal Judiciary. (8 May 2019). Retrieved
September 18, 2020, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/courts/reports/
Court Role and Structure. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from
Fjelstad, Paul. Voting for Judges. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2020 from http://votingforjudges.org/.
Judicial Branch. (17 Nov. 2017). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from
The Third Article of the U.S. Constitution. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from