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Judicial Branch of Government: Definition, Role & Power

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  • 0:01 Definition of the…
  • 0:49 The Courts and the…
  • 2:05 Checks and Balances
  • 3:12 Judicial Review
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dustin Parrett
In this lesson we examine the judicial branch of the government, including the Supreme Court and its power of judicial review. You will learn how the Supreme Court can rule laws unconstitutional.

Definition of the Judicial Branch

The judicial branch is one of three branches of the federal government. The judicial branch includes criminal and civil courts and helps interpret the United States Constitution.

If the federal government were like a basketball game, the judicial branch is much like the referee that helps settle disputes. The executive branch and the legislative branch are often like the players in the game trying to score points against each other, and the judicial branch is there to clarify the rules and make sure each side is acting fairly.

The judicial branch is able to do this through its special power known as judicial review and as part of the process of checks and balances between the three branches of government.

The Courts and the Supreme Court

The main body of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court. It is the top court in the United States, and no other court can challenge it. The main job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution. Like being a referee when two players cry foul, it is the Supreme Court's job to decide who is correct.

There are nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court. The odd number of justices is meant to reduce the chances of ties during cases, and thus for the Supreme Court to decide a case, they simply need a majority of justices to agree.

Being a justice on the Supreme Court is a prestigious and powerful position. Not only is their job important, but once they are officially appointed and confirmed, they serve for life. Supreme Court justices never have to run for re-election or seek re-appointment. This gives them a lot of freedom to do the job as they see fit without consequences.

In addition to the Supreme Court, the judicial branch is made up of lower courts. These courts serve under the Supreme Court and help manage the workload. There are simply too many cases in the court system for the Supreme Court to hear them all, so these other courts help. The Supreme Court then handles the most important cases.

Checks and Balances

The three branches of the federal government each have the ability to keep the others from getting too powerful. In other words, each branch helps balance against the other branches by checking their powers.

The other branches of the government can check the judicial branch through the nomination and appointment process. The actual people who make up the judicial branch, the judges and justices, must be nominated by the executive branch and approved by the legislative branch. This gives the other branches of government an important say in what kind of people will work for the judicial branch. This is a very important process, especially since these justices serve for life.

Additionally, under extreme circumstances, the legislative branch may remove members of the judicial branch through a process known as impeachment. While this has only occurred rarely, and has never occurred with a Supreme Court justice, it still represents the ability of the legislative branch to balance against the powers of the judicial branch.

The judicial branch has a very important power it may use to keep the other two branches in line. This power is called judicial review.

Judicial Review

When the United States was just getting started as a country, the role of the judicial branch was uncertain. It wasn't until a dispute between a president and his predecessor reached the Supreme Court that the judicial branch's role became defined. This case, Marbury v. Madison, held that the Supreme Court's role was to settle questions about the interpretation of the Constitution.

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