Constitutional Checks & Balances on the Power of the Supreme Court: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 United States Supreme Court
  • 1:27 Appointment to Judicial Branch
  • 2:30 Impeachment from…
  • 4:13 Executive Pardons
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Our federal government is divided into three branches. Each of the three branches holds certain checks and balances on the other two branches. This lesson explores the major checks and balances on the power of the United States Supreme Court.

United States Supreme Court

The United States Constitution established the United States Supreme Court and declared it to be the highest court in the land. Article III tells us that the Supreme Court's decisions are constitutionally established to be the supreme law of the land. This sounds as if the Supreme Court is untouchable and holds all the power of the federal government.

However, our framers were more cautious than that. They purposely designed a system with separate governmental branches. Our federal government is divided into the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Our Supreme Court, together with all other federal courts, makes up the judicial branch.

All federal power and authority is divided between these three branches, with each branch responsible for fulfilling specific governmental needs. Each of the three branches is intended to be dependent on the other two. The framers designed a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one branch held too much power or too much authority over any other branch. This system is also known as a separation of powers. Each branch has the governmental authority to review and restrain the operations of the other two branches.

Appointment to Judicial Branch

Let's look at how the legislative and executive branches perform checks and balances on the judicial branch by exploring a few examples. First, note that the members of the executive and legislative branches are elected. These people are our U.S. president and our members of Congress.

Conversely, the members of the judicial branch are appointed. The president nominates a judicial candidate, and the Senate must approve the appointment by a majority vote. Once confirmed, members of the judicial branch serve life terms and are free from any further control by the executive branch.

The appointment process serves as a check and balance on the judicial branch because the members of the other two branches select the members of the judicial branch. They choose the Supreme Court justices and all federal court judges. The president and Congress, therefore, have the freedom and ability to shape the Supreme Court.

Impeachment from Judicial Branch

Another way the other branches shape the judicial branch is through removal. This serves as another check and balance on the Supreme Court. Though the Constitution says Supreme Court justices and federal judges are appointed for life terms, the appointment applies only during good behavior.

Article II allows Congress the power to impeach, or permanently remove from office, members of the judicial branch. Impeachment is allowed for the conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The House of Representatives has the exclusive power of impeachment. Members can adopt articles of impeachment regarding a justice or judge. The articles are then presented to the Senate, where members hear evidence and vote. Impeachment requires a majority vote.

It's worth considering what type of behavior might garner an impeachment. The Senate impeached Judge Walter Nixon in 1989 after he was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury and sentenced to prison. However, lesser infractions can also lead to impeachment. For example, Judge Robert Archbald was impeached in 1912 due to having improper business relationships with parties who appeared in his court.

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