The judicial branch 1) interprets the meaning of laws, 2) applies laws to individual cases, 3) and decides if laws violate the Constitution. It’s comprised of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
Supreme Court—The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The president nominates the Justices of the Supreme Court and the Justices must be approved by the Senate.
Nine members make up the Supreme Court— a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. There must be a minimum or quorum of six Justices to decide a case.
If there is an even number of Justices and a case results in a tie, the lower court’s decision stands.
There is no fixed term for Justices. They serve until their death, retirement, or removal in exceptional circumstances.
Federal Courts and Judicial Agencies – The Constitution gives Congress the authority to establish other federal courts to handle cases that involve federal laws including tax and bankruptcy, lawsuits involving U.S. and state governments or the Constitution, and more. Other federal judicial agencies and programs support the courts and research judicial policy.
The U.S. Courts were created under Article III of the Constitution to administer justice fairly and impartially, within the jurisdiction established by the Constitution and Congress. This section will help you learn more about the Judicial Branch and its work.
If the nomination moves forward, the Senate can debate the nomination. Debate must end before the Senate can vote on whether to confirm the nominee. A Senator will request unanimous consent to end the debate, but any Senator can refuse.
Without unanimous consent, the Senate must pass a cloture motion to end the debate. It takes a simple majority of votes—51 if all 100 Senators vote—to pass cloture and end debate about a federal judicial nominee.
Once the debate ends, the Senate votes on confirmation. The nominee for Supreme Court or any other federal judgeship needs a simple majority of votes—51 if all 100 Senators vote—to be confirmed.
Infographic: How the Supreme Court Works
Learn how cases reach the Supreme Court and how the Justices make their decisions. Use this lesson plan in class.
How the Supreme Court Works
The Supreme Court is:
The highest court in the country
Located in Washington, DC
The head of the judicial branch of the federal government
Responsible for deciding whether laws violate the Constitution
In session from early October until late June or early July
How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court
Most cases reach the Court on appeal. An appeal is a request for a higher court to reverse the decision of a lower court. Most appeals come from federal courts. They can come from state courts if a case deals with federal law.
Rarely, the Court hears a new case, such as one between states.
Dissatisfied parties petition the Court for review Parties may appeal their case to the Supreme Court, petitioning the Court to review the decision of the lower court.
Justices study documents The Justices examine the petition and supporting materials.
Justices vote Four Justices must vote in favor for a case to be granted review.
What Happens Once a Case is Selected for Review?
Parties make arguments The Justices review the briefs (written arguments) and hear oral arguments. In oral arguments, each side usually has 30 minutes to present its case. The Justices typically ask many questions during this time.
Justices write opinions The Justices vote on the case and write their opinions.
The majority opinion shared by more than half of the Justices becomes the Court’s decision.
Justices who disagree with the majority opinion write dissenting or minority opinions.
The Court issues its decision Justices may change their vote after reading first drafts of the opinions. Once the opinions are completed and all of the Justices have cast a final vote, the Court “hands down” its decision.
All cases are heard and decided before summer recess. It can take up to nine months to announce a decision.
The Court receives 7,000-8,000 requests for review and grants 70-80 for oral argument. Other requests are granted and decided without argument.
About the Justices:
There are nine Justices:
A Chief Justice, who sits in the middle and is the head of the judicial branch.
Eight Associate Justices
When a new Justice is needed:
The President nominates a candidate, usually a federal judge.
The Senate votes to confirm the nominee.
The Court can continue deciding cases with less than nine Justices, but if there is a tie, the lower court’s decision stands.
Justices are appointed for life, though they may resign or retire.
They serve an average of 16 years.
The Founding Fathers, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, wanted to form a government that did not allow one person to have too much control. With this in mind, they wrote the Constitution to provide for a separation of powers, or three separate branches of government.
Each branch has its own responsibilities and at the same time, the three branches work together to make the country run smoothly and to assure that the rights of citizens are not ignored or disallowed. This is done through checks and balances. A branch may use its powers to check the powers of the other two in order to maintain a balance of power among the three branches of government.
The Cabinet members are nominated by the president and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes). They serve as the president’s advisors and heads of various departments and agencies.
Judicial – Evaluates Laws
The judicial branch of government is made up of the court system.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. The nine justices are nominated by the president and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes).
Other Federal Courts
There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Congress established them around the country to handle federal business as the country grew, using power granted by the Constitution.
Here’s how each branch of government can change acts of the other branches:
1) Congress confirms or rejects the president’s nominees. 2) Congress can remove the president from office in only exceptional circumstances.
1) The president can veto legislation created by Congress. 2) The president nominates heads of federal agencies.
1) The Justices of the Supreme Court can overturn unconstitutional laws. 2) The Justices of the Supreme Court are also nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Checks And Balances – The ability of each branch to respond to the actions of the other branches is called the system of Checks And Balances.
The legislative branch has 5 basic responsibilities: 1) To draft proposed laws, 2) To confirm or reject presidential nominations: for heads of federal agencies, 3) Federal Judges, 4) And The Supreme Court. 5) The legislative branch also has the authority to declare war.
The legislative branch includes Congress (which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives), plus special agencies and offices that provide their support and their services to Congress. The American citizens have their right to vote for their Senators and their Representatives through free, confidential ballots in fair elections in their districts.
Senate – In the 50 states there are never more than two elected Senators per state, which means the total for Senators is always 100. A Senate term is six years and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve. The Senate tends to respond more directly to issues of national, rather than local concern, though both houses of Congress participate in all aspects of legislation and policymaking.
House of Representatives – Also referred to as a congressman or congresswoman, each representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve. The number of voting representatives in the House is fixed by law at no more than 435, proportionally representing the population of the 50 states. Currently, there are 5 additional non-voting delegates representing the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. A resident commissioner represents Puerto Rico. Learn more about representatives at The House Explained.
The executive branch carries out the laws and also enforces the laws. It includes 1) The President, 2) Vice President, 3) The Cabinet, 4) Executive Departments, 5) Independent Agencies, 5) And Other Boards, 6) Commissions, 7) And Committees.
The American citizens have their right to vote for the president and vice president through free, confidential ballots in fair elections in their districts.
Key roles of the executive branch include:
President – The president of the United States of America leads the country. He or she is the 1) Head of State, 2) Leader of the Federal Government, 3) and Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. The president serves a 4) four-year term, 5) and can be elected no more than two times. 6) He or she has to at least be 35 years old, 7) A natural born citizen, 8) and resided in the United States for at least 14 years.
Vice president – The vice president supports the president. If the president is ever unable to serve, then the vice president becomes president. The vice president can be elected and serve an unlimited number of four-year terms as vice president, even under a different president.
The Cabinet – A council of high-ranking members in the government. Cabinet members serve as advisors to the president. They include 1) the vice president, 2) heads of executive departments, 3) and other high-ranking government officials. Cabinet members are nominated by the president and must be approved by a simple majority of the Senate – 51 votes of all 100 Senators vote.
Executive Branch Agencies, Commissions, and Committees
Much of the work in the executive branch is done by 1) Federal Agencies, 2) Departments, 3) Committees, 4) And other groups.
Executive Office of the President – The Executive Office of the president communicates the president’s message and deals with the federal budget, security, and other high priorities. To provide the President with the support needed to govern effectively, the Executive Office of the President (EOP), was created in 1939, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The EOP has responsibility for tasks ranging from communicating the President’s message to the American people to promoting the trade interests abroad. Overseen by the White House Chief of Staff, the EOP has traditionally been home to many of the President’s closest advisors.
Executive Departments – These are the main agencies of the federal government. The heads of these 15 agencies are also members of the president’s cabinet. Fifteen executive departments — each led by an appointed member of the President’s Cabinet — carry out the day-to-day administration of the federal government.
Independent Agencies – These agencies are not represented in the cabinet and are not part of the Executive Office of the president. They deal with government operations, the economy, and regulatory oversight.
Boards, Commissions, and Committees – Congress or the president establish these smaller organizations to manage specific tasks and areas that don’t fall under parent agencies.
Quasi-Official Agencies – Although they’re not officially part of the executive branch, these agencies are required by federal statute to release certain information about their programs and activities in the Federal Register, the daily journal of government activities.
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