The Judicial Branch

US Government Quick Study Guide

U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
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The only federal court provided for in the Constitution (Article III, Section 1) is the Supreme Court. All lower federal courts are created under the authority granted to Congress under Article 1, Section 8 to, "constitute Tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court."

The Supreme Court

Supreme Court justices are appointed by the President of the United States and must be confirmed by a majority vote of the Senate.

Qualifications of Supreme Court Justices
The Constitution establishes no qualifications for Supreme Court justices. Instead, nomination is typically based on the nominee's legal experience and competence, ethics, and position in the political spectrum. In general, nominees share the political ideology of the presidents who appoint them.

Term of Office
Justices serve for life, baring retirement, resignation or impeachment.

Number of Justices
Since 1869, the Supreme Court has been comprised of 9 justices, including the Chief Justice of the United States. When established in 1789, the Supreme Court had only 6 justices. During periods of the Civil War, 10 justices served on the Supreme Court. For more history of the Supreme Court, see: A Brief History of the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice of the United States
Often incorrectly referred to as the "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court," the Chief Justice of the United States presides over the Supreme Court and serves as the head of the judicial branch of the federal government. The other 8 justices are officially referred to as "Associate Justices of the Supreme Court." Other duties of the Chief Justice include assigning the writing of the courts opinions by the associate justices and serving as the presiding judge in impeachment trials held by the Senate.

Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court exercises jurisdiction over cases involving:

  • The U.S. Constitution, federal laws, treaties and maritime affairs
  • Matters concerning U.S. ambassadors, ministers or consuls
  • Cases in which the U.S. government or a state government is a party
  • Disputes between states and cases otherwise involving interstate relations
  • Federal cases and some state cases in which the lower court's decision is appealed

The Lower Federal Courts

The very first bill considered by the U.S. Senate -- the Judiciary Act of 1789 -- divided the country into 12 judicial districts or "circuits." The federal court system is further divided into 94 eastern, central and southern "districts" geographically across the country. Within each district, one court of appeals, regional district courts and bankruptcy courts are established.

The lower federal courts include courts of appeals, district courts and bankruptcy courts. For more information on the lower federal courts, see: U.S. Federal Court System.

Judges of all federal courts are appointed for life by the president of the United States, with the approval of the Senate. Federal judges can be removed from office only through impeachment and conviction by Congress.

Other Quick Study Guides:
The Legislative Branch
The Legislative Process
The Executive Branch

Expanded coverage of these topics and more, including the concept and practice of federalism, the federal regulatory process, and our nation's historic documents.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "The Judicial Branch." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Judicial Branch. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Judicial Branch." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).