The American legal system is based on the idea of "common law" that it took from the English legal system. In a common law system the authority of the judges to decide cases are emphasized. Many other countries have a "civil law" system where laws are laid out in written codes of law, and the task of judges are to interpret when the laws apply in specific cases. In common law, obviously the judges still have to follow the written laws, but are given more freedom to come to their own decisions.
However, past decisions of judges are carried over into present cases, so before a case is decided, lawyers and judges consult past court decisions, this is known as "legal precedent," or stare decisis, since judges cannot contradict previous decisions (except in rare circumstances) the authority of past decisions has a strong hold on legal outcomes in the present. Furthermore, another feature of the American legal system are the high frequency of "plea bargains." Again, since common law allows for more interpretation, court cases can be very time consuming. To compensate for this, many cases are "plead out," meaning that the defendant will plead guilty to a lesser offense without a trial, in order to speed up the process of coming to a legal decision. Almost 80% of legal decisions in the U.S. are the result of plea bargains.
Many conservatives, oppose what they call "judicial activism" or what they consider to be the judicial branch of government taking too much of a pro-active role in deciding legislation, rather than interpreting the law, as it says in the Constitution. However, this criticism seems to overlook the features of how a common law system works. That being said, the judicial branch has almost always tended to be the most conservative branch of government, the branch least influenced by popular majorities. It should not be surprising, that Alexander Hamilton, the most conservative of the founders, spent the most time emphasizing the importance of the judiciary in the Federalist Papers.
The federal judiciary (of which Hamilton was a prime architect) set up under the Constitution went into effect, along with the Judiciary Act of 1789 which further specified the structure and duties of federal courts. One of the busiest was the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The 94 federal district courts are the lowest level of the federal judiciary. Above them, presently, there are 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal, in most cases these are the highest federal judicial authority most people will deal with if they have to. Higher than this is the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) but it limits the amount of cases it hears every year to about 100. The Supreme Court is currently composed of nine justices of the court including the Chief Justice, and Associate Justices. They are nominated by the President, approved by the Senate and serve life-terms. The power of the court is specified in Article III of the Constitution.
The primary concern of the Southern District today includes Manhattan and the Bronx and handling cases under "admiralty law" or cases involving trade or shipping disputes with foreign countries or interstate trade from other states. This is a highly sought after position and has been used a springboard for even higher offices, for example before he became Mayor of New York City in 1993, Rudolph Giuliani was the State's Attorney (or federal prosecutor) for the Southern District of New York. This is distinct from the Government of New York State and the City of New York, and you can see now how the different layers of government: federal, state, and municipal all overlap with each other depending on authority and function.
|Southern District of New York|
Legal matters involving trade with a foreign country come under the jurisdiction of federal law. Since the port of New York was the busiest port in the country, most cases involving disputes over shipping and international trade would occupy most of the court's activity.
The Supreme Court (as the federalists intended) has tended to play a more conservative role in government, often siding with business interests against attempts to regulate commerce through legislation. However, in the public imagination the court is seen as a crucial part of the civil rights movement, as the institution which finally ended legal segregation in the nation. By looking at some of the most important cases to come through the Supreme Court we begin to understand better the dual role the court has played in American history.
In judicial history the first really important case heard by the court was Marbury v. Madison in 1803. This case is important because it established the importance of judicial review in the U.S. The power of judicial review is the most important power of the court, and it is a power which is fairly unique to the U.S. supreme court, although all nations have a judicial branch of government, not all nations have this power. Basically, the power of judicial review gives the court the power to cancel out laws passed by Congress or actions undertaken by the executive branch, by determining the constitutionality of laws and actions, the court can deem them to be unconstitutional and thus invalidate them. This power was not clearly specified in the Article III of the Constitution, and it was not until Marbury v. Madison that the power of the court was established.
Since then, the court has weighed on many important matters from the regulation of businesses (Swift & Co. v. U.S.), to freedom of speech (Schenck v. U.S.), civil rights (Brown v. Board of Ed; Loving v. Virginia), abortion (Roe v. Wade), legalization of drugs (Gonzales v. Raich) and the role of money in government (Buckley v. Valeo). As mentioned already it has tended to side more with business interests in cases regarding it, but has also supported the civil rights of minorities. In other words, the court has tended consistently to support minority interests (whatever they may be) against the majority. That being said, at times the court has been more susceptible to the dominant values of the day, e.g. the court's decision in Brown v. Board of Ed, contradict earlier decisions which affirmed segregation like Plessy v. Feguson or Dred Scott v. Sanford which denied the citizenship and even the humanity of African-Americans.
The judicial branch continues to play an important role in protecting the rights of minorities (whether it be business interests or ethnic/racial minorities), however it does raise the question of whether the courts are too independent of the majority will. With life terms for federal judges and the lack of any accountability to the populace through elections it is relatively easy for the courts to ignore or defy popular will. The recurring question that will always be associated with the courts are what is the proper balance between the independence of the judges and the demands made by popular majorities?
Assignment Due 12/5: Choose one of the Supreme Court case summaries and select a passage, write out the passage, explain how the decision was made, and then explain why you chose it and why you believe this case is important.