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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
What the functions of courts?
What are the principles of judicial review and an independent Judiciary?
For an overview, see
History of the Federal Judiciary
"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.
Click on the link for more Information on the federal court system:
United States Supreme Court
United States Courts of Appeals
Lesson plan on the
Crash Course YouTube video on the
structure of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court
The major federal court is the Supreme Court and that is where the law has the 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 case
Click here for the United States Supreme Court website
Image to the left is John Jay who was first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1795
How Do Your Views Align with the Current Supreme Court Justices?
Click here for more information on the
from the University of Missouri/Kansas City. See also the series
The Supreme Court
Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan
President Obama nominates Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court
, May 2010.
Click here for a
, a website about the Supreme Court created by two middle school students.
For more on the Supreme Court, see
for decisions about constitutional principles
for decisions about federalism
for landmark cases about individual rights
for how decisions are made in a democracy
(for information on John Marshall and judicial review)
How Current Supreme Court Justices Compare with Predecessors
Click 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.
Women Supreme Court Justices
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
Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
is the first picture book about her life.
Sandra Day O'Connor
, the first female Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor
Thurgood Marshall, 1976
Biography on Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice. Click here for a
. See also the following
overview of Marshall's life
from Arlington National Cemetery.
For more about Thurgood Marshall, see
For more about the Supreme Court, see
The Major Formal and Informal Institutional Arrangements of Power
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 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).
Courts 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.
Digital Games for Learning about Law and the Courts
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been a leader of
, 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.
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