Judicial Authority: A Powerful Check on Other Branches

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What is judicial authority? How does Federalist 81 discuss the powers of the judiciary?

Judicial authority is the power of the judiciary to interpret laws or declare them invalid. Federalist 81 defends the powers of the judicial branch as described in the Constitution.

Read more about Federalist 81 and judicial authority.

What Is Judicial Authority?

The third branch of government, the judiciary, is unique. Unlike the executive branch, it possesses no army, navy, or other powers of enforcement to compel adherence to its decisions. Unlike the legislature, it has no direct power of the purse. However, there are several specific powers of the judicial branch.

Instead, the way that the federal courts exercise this power is through judicial review. This is the power of the judicial branch to declare null and void those laws or executive orders that are in violation of the Constitution. As explained in Federalist 81, judicial authority serves as a powerful check on both the executive and legislative branches. While courts generally do not have many formal powers to enforce their rulings, Congress and the president have historically complied with court orders, even when they disagreed with them.

Given its crucial function, and judges’ comparative lack of enforcement power, it was important that the judiciary be independent from the executive and legislative branches and have specific powers of the judiciary. To ensure this, judges were to serve for life, provided that they maintained “good behavior” on the bench. There were good reasons for this. Judges were meant to make their rulings solely on the Constitution, not for political considerations. If they had to be renominated and re-confirmed, they might feel the need to curry favor with Congress and the president, which could exert a corrupting influence on their jurisprudence. 

The highest court in the land was to be the United States Supreme Court. In the main, the Supreme Court acted as an appellate court—issuing final rulings (for those cases it chose to hear) on cases that had worked their way through the inferior federal courts. The only cases where the Supreme Court would have original jurisdiction would be cases involving ambassadors or cases in which a state was a party to a suit.

Judicial Authority: A Powerful Check on Other Branches

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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