The Judicial Branch
Where the Executive and Legislative branches are elected by the people, members
of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial Branch, leaves Congress
significant discretion to determine the shape and structure of the federal judiciary.
Even the number of Supreme Court Justices is left to Congress — at times there
have been as few as six, while the current number (nine, with one Chief Justice
and eight Associate Justices) has only been in place since 1869. The Constitution
also grants Congress the power to establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court,
and to that end Congress has established the United States district courts, which
try most federal cases, and 13 United States courts of appeals, which review appealed
district court cases.
Federal judges can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives
and conviction in the Senate. Judges and justices serve no fixed term —
they serve until their death, retirement, or conviction by the Senate. By
design, this insulates them from the temporary passions of the public, and allows
them to apply the law with only justice in mind, and not electoral or political
Generally, Congress determines the jurisdiction of the federal courts. In
some cases, however — such as in the example of a dispute between two or more
U.S. states — the Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction,
an authority that cannot be stripped by Congress.
The courts only try actual cases and controversies — a party must show that
it has been harmed in order to bring suit in court. This means that the courts
do not issue advisory opinions on the constitutionality of laws or the legality
of actions if the ruling would have no practical effect. Cases brought before
the judiciary typically proceed from district court to appellate court and may even
end at the Supreme Court, although the Supreme Court hears comparatively few cases
Federal courts enjoy the sole power to interpret the law, determine the constitutionality
of the law, and apply it to individual cases. The courts, like Congress, can
compel the production of evidence and testimony through the use of a subpoena.
The inferior courts are constrained by the decisions of the Supreme Court —
once the Supreme Court interprets a law, inferior courts must apply the Supreme
Court's interpretation to the facts of a particular case.