The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.- The preamble to the Bill of Rights
The United States was a product of a revolution fought to preserve the fundamental rights and liberties of an individual. American Revolution heralds the conflict between the British Colonial masters and its 13 American colonies to achieve their rights to govern themselves. This idea forms the basis of the federal democratic form of government that provides for representation of all sections of society belonging to varied ethnic and racial groups. Thus, the need to protect an individual’s civil liberties and civil rights is the society characterized by such diversity has over the period evolved into perhaps the most fundamental political value in American society.
The civil liberties and rights are provided by and protected and guaranteed through the ‘basic law of the land,' the Constitution of America framed in 1787. These rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution through the Bill of Rights that not only limits the power of the federal government but also protects the rights of its citizens. These rights after almost 200 years still govern the country and protect its citizens. Their protection ensured by the Supreme law of the land, the American Constitution, the protection of which is the duty of every branch of the government.
Civil liberties and civil rights protections the individual and regulate government activities by defining spheres of activity in which the government can exercise its authority or ensuring its limited interference. However, over a period as the system evolves it, in turn, becomes even more complicated. It produces further ambiguities and controversies, and through all the institutions of national government have responsibilities to guard the civil liberties of citizens, it is the American Judicial System established under Article III of the Constitution entrusts it with the function of interpreting and defending the American Constitution. It’s often called the ‘watchdog’ of the Constitutions. Hence, the basic understanding of American Bill of Rights and the manner in which these rights and liberties have evolved over a period can be understood through the study of America’s judicial system. Thus, I would like to begin this module by introducing the basic structure of American Judicial system and then further elaborate on the various attempts made by the judiciary in enriching and elaborating on the understanding of rights and liberty in the present globalized era.
The United States is in possession of one of the most sophisticated judicial systems in the world. The U.S. legal system is in part inherited from English common law and is based on an adversarial system of justice. In an adversarial system, different petitioners present their cases before a neutral party. The different arguments or point of view expressed by each appellant are supposed to allow the judge or jury to determine the truth about the conflict. Besides presenting written or oral arguments, evidence and testimony collected and submitted before the court by their respective lawyers (Silverman, 2007).
However, the success of American judiciary in a country as vast and diverse as the United States is the due in large part to the manner in which the American Judicial System is structured. Its hierarchical nature ensures that there is a balance and division at different levels with different federal courts at various federating units entrusted with the issues relating to maintaining and regulating the functions and structure of their federal law and tailored to adapt to the needs of its people. The jurisdiction of federal courts is quite vast, and it includes various issues. It also deliberates on different problems involving the constitutionality of law, legislation, and treaties, civil and criminal issues involving the country’s ambassadors and public ministers. The Court also meditates on disputes between two or more states, admiralty law, and bankruptcy cases.
Through the constitution provides for separation between different branches of the government ambiguities still exists. The members belonging to the Executive and Legislative branch of the government are either directly or indirectly get elected by the people. The President instead appoints the member of the Judiciary, and this appointment needs to get further confirmed by the simple majority of Senate.
The Congress also enjoys the power to decide the number of Supreme Court Justices. Currently, there are nine judges, one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices of the Supreme court. Though the tenure of the judges once appointed can be extended to the period that they retire or resign from their office, the Constitution provides for the removal of the judges in federal courts through the process of impeachment. The process of Impeachment is initiated in the House of Representatives, but the procedure is carried on in the Senate.
Presently, the American Judicial System is constituted of 3 different levels. It includes: the district courts which are at the lowest level in the hierarchy, the circuit courts which are the first level of appeal and the Supreme Court occupies the position at the top of the hierarchy of the United States Judicial System, the final level of appeal in the federal system. Currently, there are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts and one Supreme Court throughout the country.
The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal judicial system. Each district court consists of at least one United States District Judge, appointed by the President and the appointment needs to be confirmed by the Senate. The tenure of the judge extends till the individual retires or gets removed through by initiating the process of impeached by Congress. The District courts enjoy original jurisdiction over a wide; it has the privilege of being to be the first court to hear a case first before any other tribunal, this includes both civil and criminal cases. There is at least one district court in each district of United States, while some other areas in response to the increase in its population have as many as four. An example can be of the state of Missouri, which has as much as two district courts.
Congress has in the year 1968 passed a law that established the position of Federal Magistrate Judges. Their tenure of office is extended only up to eight years; they have an option to get reappointed after the completion of that term. They handle preliminary criminal matters such as setting bail and issuing search warrants and under civil cases they handle a variety of problems such as pre-trial motions etc.
Federal trial courts have also been established for a few subject-specific areas the examples of which includes the Bankruptcy Court, a separate unit of the district court that focuses on the cases of bankruptcy. The US Court of International Trade that enjoys a national broad jurisdiction in areas including international trade and customs and another unit of district court also includes the United States Court of Federal Claims.
The jurisdiction of the tribunals of does not include original jurisdiction. They are not trial courts. Instead they enjoy appellate court. These courts enjoy the privileged to review the decisions of the district courts and determine their validity. The method of appointment and tenure of the judges of the court of appeals is similar to that of their counterparts in the district courts. The court of appeals of Supreme Court can be includes, regional circuit courts, and federal circuit courts.
Here, the word ‘circuit’ in the judicial system primarily refers to the phenomenon that when the Supreme Court was initially located in the nation’s capital, the judges then had to travel a ‘circuit’ in different states to hear the cases. When the Courts of Appeal were created to reduce the pressure on Supreme court its judges had to do the same thing; even they have to travel to the courts within their circuit or region when required. Hence, these courts are referred as the ‘circuit courts.'
The judicial districts courts are divided into 12 regional circuits. The regional circuit court of appeals thus hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, and it also hears appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. The federal circuit courts, however, has wider jurisdiction which includes different specialized cases involving issues like patent laws, cases decided by Court of International Trade, Court of Federal Claims, etc. Beyond this, there are few other courts established to deal with appeals on specific subjects that involves veterans claims (United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and military matters (United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces).
Equal Justice Under Law- these are the words written above the main entrance of the Supreme Court Building and necessarily enshrine through it the essence and significant responsibility that the court tries to uphold. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court of appeal, and thus it is charged with ensuring that the civil liberties and rights of the American people. It also occupies the responsibility of being the guardian and final interpreter of United States Constitution.
According to Article III of the American Constitution, the judicial power of the United States would reside in ‘One Supreme Court,' thus providing for the formulation of the Supreme Court of America. Thus, the Supreme Court of America was established as early as in the year 1789. The Constitution has also provided for the provision to create courts ‘inferior’ to the Supreme Court ‘from time to time’ with the Congress. Thus, Congress enjoys the power to establish other federal and districts courts that are lower in the hierarchy to the Supreme Court and eliminate the same when required. This power doesn’t get extended to the Supreme Court. The Congress thus enjoys a significant discretionary authority to determine the shape and structure of its federal judiciary. The method of nomination, tenure, and removal of the judge of the Supreme court has already been described in the earlier part of this module. The Supreme Court also enjoys extensive jurisdictions which include:
The Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction which cannot be taken away by the Congress. The Court thus enjoys an original wide jurisdiction which involves cases involving ambassadors and other diplomats as well as the study of cases involving issues between the federal state and its federating units and between different federating units. It must be noted that the Supreme court enjoys exclusive jurisdiction deciding which cases it wants to hear. Over a period, the cases involving infringement of civil rights and liberties have dominated a number of cases taken up by Supreme Court.
The Supreme court is the final court of Appeal. It is also the final judicial arbiter in the United States on matters of federal law. It also means that there cannot be an appeal against any decision of the Court except by the new hearing of the court or by the process of constitutional amendment. However, the Court may consider appeals from the highest state courts or federal appellate courts. With the Supreme court at the top of the hierarchy in the American Judicial System, it is obligatory for the Lower courts to follow the precedent set by the Supreme Court when providing its verdict.
Judicial Review is the most significant and exclusive power enjoyed by the Supreme Court. It empowers the Court with the ability to judge the constitutionality of the law approved by the President. If any law created and passed by both the legislative and executive machinery of the state violates the constitution of America, the Supreme Court has the right to declare that law null and void. Its authority, however, doesn’t extend to ensuring the implementation of a law.
Though the power of Judicial Review isn’t included in the Constitution, it has evolved into one of the most significant functions performed by Supreme Court. Through the process of Judicial Review, it ensures that the civil rights and liberties of the individual are protected by striking down laws that violate the Constitution. This ensures that the will of people as given in the Constitution would be dominant to the temporary will as expressed by the legislative laws and norms. Here, I would like to take a historical trajectory to trace how the Supreme Court has managed to perform this role as the guardian of the civil rights and liberties of the individual in the United States of America.
The Bill of Right provides for various civil liberties and rights as enshrines in the Constitutions. The concept of right, however, differs a great deal from the conceptual understanding of rights. Both these words, however, have been mentioned in both the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The conceptual understanding of ‘liberties’ refers to the sphere of Individual activities in which the Government cannot interfere. It is often understood as the negative understanding of rights granted to an individual. The concept of ‘right’ on the other hand refers to the positive actions undertaken by the government to improve the life of its citizen.
These civil liberties and rights as enunciated in the Bill of Rights as the 10 amendments to the American Constitution. These amendments include various civil liberties and rights including freedom of speech, petition and religion, right to bear arms, protection from troops inside one’s house these could be referred to as the civil liberties that are guaranteed to the citizen of America. Other rights that ensure the right to trial by jury, protection from cruel and unusual punishment etc. are a part of civil rights. However, over the period the difference between two conceptual understandings have become severely ambiguous.
These rights enshrined in the constitution to limits the powers of the federal government. These rights were so created and included in the Constitution to ensure that governmental institution and actions cannot encroach upon them. It was the fear of the dominant government that resulted into the inclusion of Supreme Court in the Article III of the Constitution and entrusting its role of the supreme guarding of the individual rights and liberties as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
The function of Supreme as the Guardian of civil rights and freedoms isn’t just restricted to its role of enforcing those rights as enunciated in the Bill of Rights. Instead, its role is extended to recognizing and interpreting other Fundamental rights that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Constitution or its various Amendments but are inherent to the understanding of liberty. The Court’s broad and dynamic interpretation of the Constitution taking into consideration the evolving social, economic and cultural aspect of an individual has helped in the development of various civil rights and liberties.
Originally, the Bill of Rights guaranteed protection against the federal government; this wasn’t extended to include the encroaching activities by the state institutions. The Fourteenth Amendment introduced in 1868 extends the protection guaranteed by the Constitution to include activities of the federal as well as the state governments. But it was the federal courts and other judicial units that played a significant role in enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment and ensuring that the entire government machinery would abide by the Bill of Rights.
The limitations placed by the Fourteenth Amendment on the authority of the state can be understood to have forbidden the federating unit from denying any person ‘life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’. While, guaranteeing every person within the jurisdiction of the federating unit, ‘the equal protection of the law.' Later it was just its successful implementation but its interpretations by the Supreme Court in the later period that further enhanced its significance.
An example can be given of the case of Gitlow vs. New York, 1925 where Supreme Court to broaden the applicability of the Bill of Right’s protection of freedom of speech and upheld the state along with the federal government to the similar constitutional standards. There have been other cases where Supreme court has applied a progressive interpretation of various Fundamental Rights to protect an individual’s civil liberties and rights. The understanding of, ‘the equal protection of the law’ has also evolved and its understanding. It has been used by the court to protect minority communities against discrimination; an example can be given of the Brown vs. Board of Education which established for integration between the dominant American community and the African Americans.
Various Supreme Court decisions were also imbibed into various legislative reforms included its legalization of abortion and its affirmation as constitutional rights and recently the courts legalizing same-sex marriages etc. The very recent example of Courts protecting citizen’s rights and liberty include its verdict against the travel ban imposed by the Trump administration that has banned the entry of individuals in the country by their country of origin. This provides a significant example of the actions of Courts in securing the rights and liberties of minority communities against the state authority.
Through this entire analysis, it can be understood that the Judicial System of the country is the supreme guardian of various civil rights and liberties guaranteed to the citizen of the country. It also exercises its power and ability to restrict the arbitrary laws passed by the popularly elected democratic government that might encroach on the right and liberties guaranteed to the different minorities. In essence, it serves to ensure that the changing views of a majority do not undermine the fundamental values common to all Americans, i.e., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process of law.
Website: Silverman. J., January 2007. ‘How the Judicial System Works’ 31HowStuffWorks.com. <http://people.howstuffworks.com/judicial-system.htm>
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