Judicial Branch Lesson for Kids: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Jenny Homer

Jenny has masters' degrees in public health and public administration.

The judicial branch is one of the three branches in the federal government. Find out why we have a court system, the history of the judicial branch, and how it fits in with the other two branches of government.

Playing by the Rules

If we think about any sport, the players and coach work together to play the game and win, but in some cases the rules get broken. That's why we have referees and umpires--people who do not have a stake in which side wins, but who interpret and apply the rules of the game. But who makes sure Congress and the president are following the U.S. Constitution? The judicial branch.

What is the Purpose of the Judicial Branch?

Because of their recent experience with England, when the Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, they were concerned with ensuring that no one part of government could become too powerful. Therefore, they created a government with 3 branches who had separation of powers, but with each branch having the ability to 'check and balance' the other branches. As such, the legislative branch (Congress) makes the laws, while the executive branch, headed by the president, carries out the laws. Article III in the Constitution created the judicial branch, to be headed by the Supreme Court, the highest court in this nation, to interpret the laws.

What is Judicial Review?

However, it was not until 1803 that the judicial branch got the power that they still have today. Marbury v. Madison set a legal precedent, a legally binding rule, when, for the first time, a law created by Congress was declared unconstitutional. This finding gave the federal courts the power of judicial review, meaning the ability to determine whether a law passed by Congress is constitutional. And this is how the judicial branch 'checks and balances' the other two branches.

Plaque at the U.S. Supreme Court quoting Marbury v. Madison explaining the job of the judicial branch.
Marbury v. Madison plaque

The idea of judicial review fits in with our sports example above. The courts are like the referee when Congress makes a law or the President takes an executive action that does not follow the Constitution. The courts review the law to determine whether it is constitutional. The courts also look at how the law should be applied in a specific situation.

Judicial Branch at the Federal and State Levels

The U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court

The Constitution only created the Supreme Court, while it gave Congress the right to create other courts, as necessary. At the federal level, there are three levels court systems, as follows:

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