Explain the functions of the courts of law in the governments of the United States and the state of Massachusetts with emphasis on the principles of judicial review and an independent judiciary.

Scale of Justice
Scale of Justice


Focus Questions

  • What the functions of courts?

  • What are the principles of judicial review and an independent Judiciary?



For an overview, see the official US Courts.gov homepage:

Topics on the Page
Functions of the Courts in the United States
The Supreme Court
Women Supreme Court Justices
Thurgood Marshall
United States Court of Appeals
United States District Courts
Bankruptcy Courts
Courts in Massachusetts
Digital Games for Learning about Courts

"Guardian of Law" by James Earle Fraser, US Supreme Court
"Guardian of Law" by James Earle Fraser, US Supreme Court

Functions of the Courts in the United States


The United States federal court system is made up of four different types of courts.

  • United States Supreme Court
  • District courts
  • United States Courts of Appeals
  • Bankruptcy Court.

lessonplan.jpg For more information, view the following lesson plan from icivics.og: Lesson plan on the Judicial Branch

Multimedia.png View the following video Crash Course by PBS on the structure of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

05-SUPREMES-JP-jumbo.jpg


The major federal court of the country is the Supreme Court. They have the final decision of difficult court cases that lower courts couldn't decide. The Supreme Court is where the law has the most potential to change.

The Supreme Court is made up of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices.
  • This court hears between 70 and 80 cases each year and they usually involve issues and questions about the Constitution or federal law.
    • The Supreme Court has to follow strict guidelines established by Congress when hearing cases

Who decides how many Justices are on the Court? Have there always been nine?
The Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress.
  • The first Judiciary Act, passed in 1789, set the number of Justices at six, one Chief Justice and five Associates.
    • Over the years Congress has passed various acts to change this number, fluctuating from a low of five to a high of ten.
      • The Judiciary Act of 1869 fixed the number of Justices at nine and no subsequent change to the number of Justices has occurred.

external image John_Jay.jpg

Click here for the United States Supreme Court website


Image to the right is John Jay who was first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1795


Play the following game to find out how YOU match up with the Supreme Court Justices:
Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 10.27.35 AM.pngHow Do Your Views Align with the Current Supreme Court Justices?


Click here for more information on the Supreme Court from the University of Missouri/Kansas City. See also the series The Supreme Court from PBS.

Here's a fun article about Teen Jury, a website about the Supreme Court created by two middle school students.


25 Landmark Cases in Supreme Court History


rotating gif.gif

For more on the Supreme Court, see

  • USG.3.13 for decisions about constitutional principles


  • USG. 3.14 for decisions about federalism

  • USG.5.7 for landmark cases about individual rights

  • USI.21 for how decisions are made in a democracy

  • USI.25 (for information on John Marshall and judicial review)



How Current Supreme Court Justices Compare with Predecessors

Multimedia.pngClick here to see the Martin-Quinn Scores, an overview of the ideological positions of Supreme Court justice since 1937 in a website created by faculty members at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

As reported in the New York Times (July 25, 2010), Harold J. Spaeth. a professor at Michigan State University, has coded Supreme Court rulings since 1937 as conservative or liberal.
  • The most liberal justices between 1937 and 2009 were Thurgood Marshall (21% conservative votes) and William O. Douglas
  • The most conservative were Clarence Thomas (82% conservative votes) and William Rehnquist.
  • According to this measure, four of the most conservative justices since the 1930s are currently serving on the Court (Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts).

Study Challenges Supreme Court's Image as Defender of Free Speech examines the Roberts Court record on First Amendment cases. It contends that the Roberts Court is ruling in favor of free speech at a lower rate than the three previous courts under Chief Justices Rehnquist, Burger, and Warren.

Female_Rose.pngWomen Supreme Court Justices



Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg


book.pngI Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is the first picture book about her life.


Biography on Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor



Sandra Day O'Connor. See her entry in Influential Women in American History

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. See her entry in Influential Women in American History



sotomayor.jpg
111th Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor



Female_Rose.pngIn 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sonya Sotomayor as the 111th Supreme Court Justice.
She is the court's first Hispanic and third female justice.
In 2010, she predicted that "nation's high court likely would be asked again to weigh issues of national security versus free speech because of the recently leaked classified war documents posted on the WikiLeaks website."


For a perspective on the background on the first Hispanic American to serve on the Court, see reviews on GoodReads of the book Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx.
kagan.jpg
112th Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan



Female_Rose.pngIn 2010, President Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan as the 112 Supreme Court Justice. Kagan is a First Amendment Scholar who has written several journal articles on the free speech right.


Click here for a NYT article about Justice Kagan

Multimedia.pngPresident Obama nominates Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, May 2010.


Quill_and_ink.pngThurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1976
Thurgood Marshall, 1976

Biography on Thurgood Marshall


Rotating_globe-small.gifThurgood Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice. Click here for a brief biography. See also the following overview of Marshall's life from Arlington National Cemetery.


rotating gif.gifFor more about Thurgood Marshall, see USII 25





Statue of Lincoln, Washington D.C. Court of Appeals. Photo: Matthew G. Bisanz
Statue of Lincoln, Washington D.C. Court of Appeals. Photo: Matthew G. Bisanz

United States Court of Appeals

Before cases reach the Supreme Court they must make their way through the other courts in the US. The US court of appeals hears cases involving patent laws and financial situations. The 94 U.S. judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. Appeals are formal requests for change in an official decision usually made by defense attorneys to lessen the punishment of their clients.

United States District Courts

US district courts take all matters of law and is the starting place of any case criminal or civil. The district courts are the trial courts in the federal system and can hear any case but within limits set by Congress and the Constitution. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. District courts are the local courts in cities and towns all over America. Every day across the country hundreds of people are selected for jury duty which take place in district courts. People have to report to jury duty because it is an important part of the legal system. Citizens of the US have the right to a jury trial. If people disregard jury duty they can be brought into court and even jailed because it is illegal to miss jury duty.

Bankruptcy Court

Bankruptcy court is actually part of the federal courts. The federal courts hear bankruptcy cases in each of the 94 jurisdictions across the country. Bankruptcy laws help people who can no longer pay their creditors. These courts help people get a fresh start by liquidating their assets to pay their debts, or by creating a repayment plan. Bankruptcy laws also protect and help troubled businesses through similar means. These procedures are covered under Title 11 of the United States Code (the Bankruptcy Code).

MA3X5NCF-1.jpgCourts of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
State courts like the ones in Massachusetts are set up like federal courts but have different laws depending on the state. Massachusetts has district courts, a supreme court, bankruptcy courts and appeals courts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.47.54 AM.pngDigital Games for Learning about Law and the Courts


Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been a leader of iCivics, free web-based games that teach schoolchildren learn about how courts and the law function in a democratic society. “Do I Have a Right” and “Supreme Decision” (the first games on the site released in fall 2009) are geared for middle school students.
  • "Do I Have a Right” places student game players as members of a law firm that advise clients about what amendment to the constitution applies to problems presented by individuals who walk into their law office.
  • "Supreme Decision” asks students to serve as a law clerk for a justice who must write an opinion in First Amendment case that where a school district seeks to ban students from wearing music band T-shirts.