If democratic institutions struggle to balance individual freedoms and collective well-being, the judiciary is arguably the branch where the individual has the best chance to be heard. For those seeking protection on the basis of sexual orientation, for example, in recent years, the courts have expanded rights, culminating in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all fifty states (Figure).
Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. __ (2015).
The U.S. courts pride themselves on two achievements: (1) as part of the framers’ system of checks and balances, they protect the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution from breaches by the other branches of government, and (2) they protect individual rights against societal and governmental oppression. At the federal level, nine Supreme Court judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for lifetime appointments. Hence, democratic control over them is indirect at best, but this provides them the independence they need to carry out their duties. However, court power is confined to rulings on those cases the courts decide to hear.
In cases of original jurisdiction the courts cannot decide—the U.S. Constitution mandates that the U.S. Supreme Court must hear cases of original jurisdiction.
How do the courts make decisions, and how do they exercise their power to protect individual rights? How are the courts structured, and what distinguishes the Supreme Court from all others? This chapter answers these and other questions in delineating the power of the judiciary in the United States.