The basic design of the federal court system resembles a pyramid. There are many courts at the lowest level, creating the broad base of the pyramid. There are fewer courts at the next level, and only one court at the apex of the pyramid. The federal courts at the lowest level are called district courts. There are 94 of these in the United States. They are also called trial courts because they handle trials, both criminal and civil. In other words, if you are accused of a federal crime, your trial will take place in a district court.
The district courts are organized into 12 larger groups. These groups are called circuits. Each circuit has one court of appeals. These courts do not hold trials. Instead, they only hear appeals of trials from the district courts and appeals of the decisions of federal agencies. Above the circuit courts is the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court’s main work is to hear appeals from the decisions of the circuit courts. The Supreme Court gets to pick which of these appeals it hears. Its decisions cannot be reversed by any other court.
The most important power of the courts is the power to interpret the constitution. This is called judicial review. The Supreme Court has made many very important decisions that have changed the law greatly. For example, it was a Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) that banned racial segregation in public schools. It was also a Supreme Court decision (Roe v. Wade) that made it illegal for states to ban abortions. These are momentous decisions that have had tremendous impacts on our society.
Even so, the courts’ powers are not unlimited. There are many restraints on them. For one thing, the Senate gets to approve appointments to the courts and can influence the courts in that way. The Congress can change the jurisdiction of the courts. The courts are also generally bound (though only informally) to follow precedents that have been laid down before. One of the two most important constraints on the courts is that they cannot enforce decisions on their own. They have to rely on the executive branch to enforce their decisions. This means they cannot make decisions that would be so unpopular that a president might be able to ignore them and refuse to enforce them. The other very important constraint is that the courts cannot actually make laws. They can only rule on questions of law that are brought before them. This means, for example, that the courts cannot change our tax policies or our welfare policies. They cannot decide whether it is a good idea for us to get involved in a particular war. This limits the sorts of areas in which they can have a major impact.
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