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Role of the Judiciary in the Legal System

The judicial branch is charged with adjudicating disputes under the law and reviewing the laws passed by the legislative branch and executed by the executive branch. Below is a step-by-step synopsis of the role played by the judiciary in the legal system and an introduction to how the judiciary is a check on the power of the legislative and executive branches:

•    Step 1: Trial Court – Federal and state trial courts serve as the mechanism for enforcing the law. The government enforces criminal laws against individuals (including businesses) and individuals enforce their rights against other individuals. The trial judge enforces the procedural laws governing the trial process (such as the timing and presentation of evidence) and instructs the jury on the substantive law to be applied in a case. The jury is the fact-finder and determines a defendant’s guilt or liability. In some trials the judge will also serve as fact finder.

⁃    Note: Some courts do not allow parties a jury trial. Also, a defendant may choose to forgo the right to jury trial and have the judge act as fact finder..

•    Step 2: Appellate Court – Once a trial jury renders a verdict and the trial is complete, the parties have the opportunity to file an appeal. An appeal will generally allege the trial court’s erroneous application of procedural or substantive law or that the law applied in the case is unconstitutional. The appellate court will review the request for appeal and decide whether the case merits review. If the appellate court opts to review the case, any opinion rendered by the court becomes precedent for the court and all subordinate courts in that jurisdiction. If the court determines that a law was applied incorrectly or that it violates a party’s constitutional rights, the case (or part of the case) may be overturned and remanded to the trial court. The parties may then retry the case, applying the appellate court’s interpretation of the law.

⁃    Note: The appellate court may modify the trial court’s judgment or sentence without remanding the case.

•    Step 3: Supreme Court – The US Supreme Court has “original” and “exclusive” jurisdiction to hear any disputes or controversies between states. It has original, but not exclusive, jurisdiction to hear: cases where ambassadors, public ministers, or consuls of foreign states are a party; disputes between the US Government and a state government; and actions by a state against citizens of another states. In this role, the Supreme Court serves the function of a trial court. In practice, the Supreme Court rarely exercises its original jurisdiction. Rather, it primarily serves as the appellate court for all Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal and any state supreme court. The US Supreme Court will only hear appeals of state supreme court decisions that allegedly violate the appellant’s constitutional rights. In most states, the state supreme court acts as a second level of appeal and hears cases appealed from the intermediate state appellate court. Some states do not have an intermediate appellate court. In such cases, the state supreme court acts as the appellate court for all trial court decisions. The state supreme court (state cases) or US Supreme Court (federal cases) may direct that a trial court decision be appealed directly to it. This procedure skips the appellate court stage.

⁃    Note: The state supreme court determines if a state law violates individual rights under the US Constitution or the state’s constitution. If either State or Federal Supreme Court finds a law or application of a law to be unconstitutional, it can remand the case back to the subordinate appellate court for continued review or overturn the case (or part of the case) and remand it back to the trial court.

The judiciary ensures that the laws passed by the legislative branch do not run afoul of the rights granted to individuals under the Constitution. Further, it checks the execution of those laws by the executive branch. A law that is found to be unconstitutional is struck down. Congress may then go through the process of drafting a new law. Likewise, if an executive action is deemed unconstitutional, the executive must develop a new manner of executing the law that falls within the guidelines of the court’s decision.

•    Discussion: Can you think of any laws that have been overturned by the state or US Supreme Courts? What constitutional right(s) did the court find that the law violated?

•    Practice Question: What is the role of the trial court? What is the role of the appellate court? What is the authority of the US Supreme Court to hear cases?

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