Federal Judicial Branch of Government
How was the federal judiciary created?
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia were aware that the new nation needed to be quite different from the English structure of government they had broken away from in a bloody war, so they worked out a plan whereby the federal government would have three separate but equal branches.
One of those branches would need to be the judiciary, but, according to the “History of the Federal Judiciary,” the delegates did not come to the Philadelphia convention with clear-cut ideas as to how the justice system would work. They were more concerned with the executive and legislative branches of the new government, given that the new nation wanted to emphasize liberty and non-interference from the central government.
The rule of law/justice prior to the Constitutional Convention was not uniform and not always fair, but – beginning in 1776 – the colonies “dismantled the colonial systems that were generally under the control of royal governors.”
Within the first “official” attempt to establish written rules and statutes, the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified in 1781, the only court created was the “Court of Appeals in Cases of Captures.” This particular court had jurisdiction over the capture of enemy ships, and had virtually no powers to enforce its decisions, the History of the Federal Judiciary explained. But during the Constitutional Convention, the delegates were committed to creating a judiciary that had power, and in the process of their efforts, they debated over several proposals for a meaningful federal system of courts.
Those delegates agreed on one thing right away: there should be a single “supreme court” and several lesser courts. But who would make the appointments of judges to the courts? How long would the judges serve? How would the federal courts interact with the state courts? All these issues were the subject of lively debate and argument, including the issue of how long a judge would serve? These issues were finally agreed upon and set into the “proposed constitution,” which would be later voted on for “ratification.”
Delegates found common ground in deciding that federal judges should serve lifetime appointments unless they were guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and if they were accused of serious wrongdoing, they would stand trial in impeachment proceedings brought forth by the House of Representatives.
How much would they be paid? Benjamin Franklin disagreed with the “Virginia Plan” for paying judges; he believed that instead of a standard salary (“fixed salary”) that could not be reduced or raised, the constitution should provide for a raise for judges in case their business increased in a huge way. Eventually, a cost of living strategy for raising judge’s salaries was agreed upon.
During the debate at the convention, James Madison suggested that the president and a group of judges would form a “council” and review legislation that came out of Congress; this council could veto legislation it believed to serve no important purpose. But Madison’s idea was discarded, and the delegates went ahead with an independent judiciary, to have equal but separate powers with congress and the executive branch. The president should have sole power to veto legislation, the delegates believed.
Meanwhile, the delegates agreed that in addition to a supreme court, and federal courts, there should be lesser courts (trial courts) for states and regions. One important thing the delegates did, according to the History of the Federal Judiciary, was to agree that federal courts should have power over all cases “in law and equity” that came to the surface under the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties. Disputes between states should be resolved in federal courts, and a trial by jury should be and must be guaranteed in criminal trials.
When the debates began in the states over ratification of the Constitution, the “Federalists” were the group that supported an independent judiciary – equal but separate to the other two branches of government – and the “Anti-Federalists” were those who believed that a federal judiciary would “soon overwhelm the states,” the History of the Federal Judiciary Web site explained.
The Anti-Federalists wanted to have a guarantee of trial by jury for civil cases as well as for criminal cases. The Anti-Federalists also feared the “…possible retrial of criminal cases without a jury,” since the Constitution as proposed didn’t explicitly “protect traditional rights to a jury trial.” But these objections by the Anti-Federalists were eventually dealt with successfully by the Federalists, and as Alexander Hamilton pointed out, the Constitution, when ratified, would be the “ultimate expression of the popular will…[and would] enforce the popular will when it was violated by legislation that was contrary to the Constitution.”
When Congress passed the Judiciary Act of September 1789, after the states had ratified the Constitution (with some amendments suggested along the way), the judiciary was set up as a “three-tier system of federal courts with broad jurisdiction that at the same time allowed the state courts” to have a share of jurisdiction when the issue involved under federal law and the Constitution. Only “the most highly qualified individuals” would be appointed to federal judgeships, the Federalists asserted to all skeptics, and the national system of courts would be able to – and willing to – always protect civil liberties. Just to assure those Anti-Federalists and others that civil liberties would be protected, a bill of rights was established, and it still is used today to protect liberties in most cases.
How does the federal judicial system work?
Let’s say a person wishes to file a civil case against a company or an individual, and file it in federal court. The Web site provided by the U.S. Government is called “Understanding the Federal Courts” (www.uscourts.gov).It costs $250 to file a civil action in federal district court, but an individual may not file “criminal charges” (only civil charges) in federal courts. Either the government or a law enforcement agency can bring criminal charges in federal court.
Everyone has a right to an attorney, and in criminal cases, the government pays for a lawyer for even the most humble individual, say, a homeless or otherwise destitute person. Judges are assigned to cases that are brought before specific courts and the majority of courts use “some variation of a random drawing under which” every judge in a federal court gets “roughly” an equal caseload.
How does a person check on the status of any case in a federal court? Interested citizens can check into the status of a court case – but it is not free to do so in all cases; certain searches are fee-based. There are public counters in every federal court which have “automated systems” that give citizens the opportunity to check into the progress of a federal court case of interest. A person doesn’t need to go into the actual federal court to check up on a case; logging on to http://www.uscourts.govgives the Internet user the opportunity to digitally check up on particular cases.
How quickly is a decision reached in federal courts? There was legislation passed in 1974 called “The Speedy Trial Act of 1974” which forces a federal court to schedule a criminal case to begin no longer than 70 days from the time of arrest. Civil trials do not have the same time frame, but there is a general rule that a civil case should be resolved within a year from the time it is brought before the court.
A federal court hires its own staff by putting out job notices on Web sites. There are no political appointees (or at least there are not supposed to be any) when it comes to staffing federal court offices.
And another important thing about the federal courts system that is important to American citizens is that the Supreme Court of the United States is the source of public information, not just an august body of lifetime appointees. Justices can make public pronouncements on issues that are important to the federal judiciary – not specific cases that come before the court, but general political and social issues.
For example, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, recently made a speech that warned about attacks against judicial independence. He was stating what the framers of the Constitution worried about hundreds of years ago when he said: “The long history of attack on judicial independence confirms that neither side in the political debate has a monopoly on the tactic” of challenging court philosophy and decision-making.
While he himself is conservative, and was chosen by President George W. Bush because he has a history of conservative decisions, Chief Justice Roberts noted that many of the recent attacks on the Supreme Court “…emanate from conservative quarters.” He reminded those conservatives who wish to politicize the Court that President Ronald Reagan, well-known as a conservative, “recognized that it was the job of judges to make unpopular decisions…but he also recognized that the courage required of them was the courage of a patriot… [who is] fulfilling the framers’ vision of a society governed by the rule of law.” When there is an attack on an individual justice that is conducted as “a means of intimidation,” the “vital function” of the Court is then under attack, he reminded.
The Supreme Court only takes certain cases that it believes have national implications, and the public currently ranks the Court as the “most trusted” branch of federal government, according to www.uscourts.gov.
History of Federal Judiciary. “Constitutional Origins of the Federal Judiciary.” Retrieved 10 Oct. 2006 at http://www.air.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf.
U.S. Courts Newsroom. “Chief Justice Praises Judicial Independence.” Retrieved 10 Oct. 2006 at http://www.uscourts.gov/newsroom/judicialindependence.html.
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