Judicial Branch

The term “judicial branch” refers to the branch of the U.S. government responsible for interpreting and applying existing laws to the cases that come before it. For example, the judicial branch decides everything from criminal and civil cases and applies the laws of the jurisdiction, as well as the Constitution to them. The most important arm of this important branch is the United States Supreme Court. To explore this concept, consider the following judicial branch definition.

Definition of Judicial Branch


  1. The branch of the government that interprets the laws written in the Constitution and applies them to the cases that come before it.



What is the Judicial Branch Meaning?

This government organization is comprised of a system of courts and judges. The purpose of this system is to interpret the laws that the legislative branch creates, and that the executive branch enforces. Heading up this branch is the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the most powerful Court in the country. It is comprised of nine justices, and it has the final say when it comes to making a decision in a civil or criminal case.

Checks and Balances

Checks and balances is the system by which the government “keeps itself in check.” In other words, checks and balances keeps one branch from becoming too powerful by allowing the other branches of government to either approve or reject the decisions each branch makes. If not for checks and balances, for example, the judicial branch would need to apply outlandish laws to cases that one of the other branches should have modified or rejected (“vetoed”).

Branches of Government

There are three branches of government: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. Of these branches of government, the legislative branch is the one that drafts up the laws. The executive branch either vetoes or approves these laws, and the judicial branch interprets the laws passed by the executive branch and applies them to future civil and criminal cases.

The legislative branch consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives, which exist on both the state and federal levels. The President of the United States heads up the federal executive branch, which also includes an additional five million workers underneath him. The United States Supreme Court leads this branch, which also consists of all the lower courts in the land, from federal and state courts to local courts as well.

The Judicial Process

The judicial process is a system of procedures used by an individual with authority, like a judge, to decide disputes between parties. The judge relies on previously established case law when applying the judicial process to a case. Sometimes, a judge may also make a decision on a case that affects the judicial process going forward by either creating a rule that had never existed before, or by modifying a rule that needed updating. This is the concept of “setting precedent.”

Role of the Supreme Court

The role of the Supreme Court is a pretty important one. Namely, the U.S. Supreme Court is the final judge when deciding cases involving Congress, as well as those concerning questions of constitutional rights.

The role of the Supreme Court is not an all-powerful one, though, as it too must follow the rules concerning checks and balances. For one thing, the President (executive branch) appoints justices to the Supreme Court (judicial branch). However, the President’s recommendation for this position must be approved by Congress. Also, the Supreme Court also has the power to tell the President when he is not acting in line with the Constitution.

Some refer to the role of the Supreme Court as the referee in a ballgame, with the President, Congress, the police force, and government officials making up the “teams.” Some “players” can make laws, others can enforce them, but all must exercise their powers within the powers the Constitution affords them.

Examples of Judicial Branch Powers

Perhaps one of the best judicial branch examples, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court expressed its powers, was in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). In this case, the high Court made precedent by creating the process of “judicial review,” which is the power of the American court system to strike down any laws or statutes that work in violation of the Constitution.

Another of these judicial branch examples is Clinton v. City of New York (1998). This case is a quintessential example of judicial system of checks and balances really works. Here, President William Clinton canceled provisions on two separate occasions that otherwise would have allowed for the collection of billions of dollars in taxes. The Supreme Court then had to review whether Clinton’s cancellations were constitutional violations. Ultimately, the Court ruled that he had indeed violated the Constitution.

Still another of these judicial branch examples is Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), wherein the U.S. Supreme Court set precedent once again by interpreting the Constitution. Here, the Court ruled that the Constitution protected American citizens’ right to privacy, specifically marital privacy when it came to using contraception. This was a big deal because in 1879, the state of Connecticut banned contraceptive drugs and devices, leading to the arrest, in the 1960s, of a gynecologist for opening a birth control clinic in New Haven.

Judicial Branch Example Involving a Federal District Judge

An example of the judicial branch exhibiting its power occurs in Walter Nixon v. United States [506 U.S. 224 (1993)] (not to be confused with United States v. Richard Nixon (1974)). In this case, Federal District Judge Walter Nixon received a felony conviction after making false statements to a grand jury. The House of Representatives then called for his impeachment. The Senate heard the evidence and convicted Nixon, ordering his removal from office.


Nixon challenged the decision in federal court, arguing that the Senate’s decision violated the impeachment clause of the Constitution. Specifically, the impeachment clause states that the Senate has the “sole power” to hear and decide impeachments. Therefore, by involving the House of Representatives, Nixon argued that the decision was unconstitutional. The lower courts refused to involve themselves in the case, and so Nixon brought the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court then had to decide whether the Senate truly did violate the Constitution. Ultimately, and unanimously, the Court ruled that no, it had not. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reading for the majority, observed that the Senate, so long as it followed the guidelines provided by the Constitution, could make its own impeachment decisions without interference from the lower courts.

Specifically, the Court wrote:

“In the case before us, there is no separate provision of the Constitution that could be defeated by allowing the Senate final authority to determine the meaning of the word ‘try’ in the Impeachment Trial Clause. We agree with Nixon that courts possess power to review either legislative or executive action that transgresses identifiable textual limits.

As we have made clear, ‘whether the action of [either the Legislative or Executive Branch] exceeds whatever authority has been committed, is itself a delicate exercise in constitutional interpretation, and is a responsibility of this Court as ultimate interpreter of the Constitution.’ (Citations omitted.) But we conclude, after exercising that delicate responsibility, that the word ‘try’ in the Impeachment Trial Clause does not provide an identifiable textual limit on the authority which is committed to the Senate.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • House of Representatives – One of the two houses of Congress. The House and the Senate create bills that the President then reviews and either vetoes or signs into law.
  • Impeach – To charge someone holding a public office with wrongdoing.
  • Senate – One of the two houses of Congress. The House and the Senate create bills that the President then reviews and either vetoes or signs into law.