The US Federal Court System: What Even ARE the Courts?

[♪INTRO] If you’re an engaged citizen of the US, or, god forbid, you get push notifications of the news on your phone, you hear a lot
about what our president is doing, or what Congress isn’t doing, every day, all the
time. But if that’s how you’re staying informed
about how our government works and what that means for you, you’re only getting two thirds
of the story. I wanna talk about the federal court system—the
part of out of government that figures out how our laws apply to our real lives. Except… what even are the courts? How do they fall into the big picture of US
government, and how did it get this way? [♪MUSIC] To start our journey of knowing the things we should know, let’s go back to basics. In the US we have three branches of government. The legislative branch, or Congress, comes
up with laws, the executive branch, the president, gets to sign or veto those laws, and the judicial
branch, our federal court system, interprets what the laws actually mean. This all comes from the Constitution – another pretty major thing that the court is tasked with interpreting – where our
founding fathers decided that there needed to be a separation of powers because they
didn’t want the US to feel like the monarchy they had just fought so hard to leave. The idea was that if any branch tried to take
a little too much power, the other branches could be like, “Hey, that’s our job. Get back in your lane.” So Article I lays out the powers and responsibilities
of Congress, Article II talks about what the president can and can’t do, and Article
III says that “The Judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme
Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and
establish.” Basically: we’re gonna have one, big, powerful
court. And probably other courts, but we’ll figure
that out later. It’s the shortest, and kinda the fuzziest
description of powers of all the branches of government. It left out all the details about who sits
on the courts, and how many courts there should even be, leaving all of that up to Congress
to decide. And like most of the American experiment,
we’ve been making it up as we go along. In the first ever session of Congress, lawmakers
passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 which spelled out how the whole federal court system would
work. Remember that ordaining and establishing part? Congress figured out that one Supreme Court
might not be enough for, y’know, a whole nation, so they decided there should be three
levels of federal courts, with the Supreme Court being the highest. That’s how we got district courts. These are the lowest level of the federal
court system where trials about federal law actually happen with one judge, a jury, witnesses,
the whole deal. There were originally 13 district courts—one
for every state at the time with an extra court in both Virginia and Massachusetts because
they had bigger populations. But now we have a lot more states, and a LOT
more cases, so there are a total of 94 districts today. If you go to district court and you don’t agree
with the result of that trial, you can appeal it to the next court up, which, helpfully,
is called the United States Court of Appeals. I love it when the names make sense. These are the 13 courts, each serving a different
region, or circuit, of the US, where you can ask higher, more powerful judges to reverse
the decisions of the district court. Appealing is kind of like asking the district
court if you can, like, borrow their car and they say no, so you go ask your other parent… the appellate court instead. In the Court of Appeals, a panel of three
judges from the region reviews your case, and they can decide to either uphold or overturn
the district court’s decision. Sidenote on the Court of Appeals—you may
have also heard it called the circuit court, and there’s a reason for that. In the original court system from 1789, the
Supreme Court justices “rode circuit,” traveling around from district to district
to hear trials in lower courts, which was kind of a lot of work because planes weren’t
a thing. The Supreme Court justices were like hey,
Congress, we’re doing a lot of traveling here, and we’re tired, and also it’s dangerous? Like, riding the circuit court trail sounds
like a really cool idea until one of your 6 judges dies of dysentery. So in 1891 they got rid of the traveling,
and took away their responsibility to hear appeals by creating a new court above the
circuit court—yep, it’s the Court of Appeals again. And in the Judicial Code of 1911, Congress
moved their trials down to the district courts and got rid of circuit courts all together. If you go to District Court, and then appeal
that decision, and then the Court of Appeals upholds it, and you want to appeal that decision,
you’ve got to go all the way to the Supreme Court—the final boss of the federal court
system. The Judiciary act of 1789 gave the Supreme
Court 6 justices. Yeah, only six, we added more later. It also decided that the Supreme Court had
the ability to hear cases before any of the other courts, known as original jurisdiction, if
those cases didn’t fit in the lower courts, usually when a case was a dispute between
two states. But their most important function, and the
majority of what the Supreme Court did, and still does, is hear appeals. When the court was first created, they were
required to issue decisions on all appeals from lower courts, but that was a lot of cases
that they had to review—whether they thought it deserved a review or not. So, nearly 100 years after the Supreme Court
was created, Congress came up with certiorari—a system to decide which cases the court will
review, otherwise they might still be hearing cases about whether tomatoes are a fruit or
a vegetable. Yes. that was a real Supreme Court case. Once the appellate court issues a decision,
either party to that case can petition for a writ of certiorari, or a writ of cert, asking the supreme court to review their case and telling them why they think it deserves review. The court gets nearly 10,000 of these petitions
a year and only accepts about 100 of them. What are some of the reasons that a justice
might want to review a case? Sometimes it’s because they think the decision
of a lower court—or the way they applied the law—is something that could impact the
entire country, so they want to consider it carefully, think about all of the intended and
unintended effects that application could have, and try to get it absolutely right. Other times they’ll review a case because
the appellate courts in different regions of the country have been deciding on similar
cases in different ways—so the Supreme Court needs to step in and decide how to apply the
federal law in the same way across the entire country. But no matter why the Supreme Court takes
up the case, it’s a big deal. By the time a case gets to them, it’s
already touched tons of smart people in the court system, who have spent a lot of time
thinking about the case, and the laws it deals with, and what those laws should mean today. And once those judges decide, the way they
interpret those laws affects what they will mean in the future. Who are those judges, by the way? And how did they get there? We’re going to talk about all the people
who decide who can become a judge, which is important because—you’re probably one of them. Stay tuned to learn exactly how the court
system affects you, and how you can affect the court system. [♪OUTRO]

36 Responses

  1. Stuii says:

    I have actually always wondered this! thank you Complexly!

  2. Eric Vilas says:


    …ok no but seriously I'm one of the first 25 people to see the first real video of a new Complexly channel? That feels like an actual, like, big deal and pretty big honor.

  3. Eric Vilas says:

    I can tell I'm gonna love the stuff you guys put here, I'm already loving this series!

  4. David Durant says:

    Thanks Hank. As someone outside the US I'm sure this will be fascinating. A bit surprised that wasn't pitched as a second season of Crash Course Government and Politics.

  5. Melias Clarkson says:

    Hang on… So the branch that interprets the laws was the one with the most obscure description? 😂

  6. EyeHeartThePanda says:

    Thanks for the knowledge! Looking forward to more videos and playlists to come

  7. FutureNow says:

    Ah the courts, the only thing barely keeping our democracy together these days.

  8. ItsRadishTime says:

    🎵we love courts and we don't care who knows 🎵

  9. Zachary Kahla says:

    Always thought it was pretty hilarious that the branch of government that was most ill-defined is the one that deals with the law, like the one thing expected to be clear.

  10. Laura DFTBA says:

    This channel is definitely one of my new favorites. Can’t wait to see what else gets uploaded!! DFTBA!

  11. Noah Sternemann says:

    i liked this

  12. Josh Keating says:

    Note appeals court does not hear case over facts but over policy/law. They will not hear a case to decide if person A stabbed person B. But instead if the police properly obtained the knife from person A which was later, after DNA test was found to be covered in person B's blood.

  13. John Crawford says:

    Just a quick (not so quick) note about the different roles of the branches of government. It's really the executive branch's job to interpret laws, which it does through the different departments (Department of State, Department of Education, Department of the Treasury, etc.). This is also how executive orders (and presidential proclamations and the like) work to actually affect policy. Only Congress can make a law, but the President can decide how to interpret that law.

    According to, "the judicial branch decides the constitutionality of federal laws and resolves other disputes about federal laws. However, judges depend on our government’s executive branch to enforce court decisions." Notice both the wording of the first sentence and the inclusion of the second sentence. These come from Marbury v. Madison, a Supreme Court case from 1803 that established judicial review and really defined the difference between the executive and the judicial branches. This case came up when Marbury was appointed in one of the last acts of the Adams presidency but that appointment was not delivered by Madison in the new Jefferson administration. The Supreme Court agreed that Marbury should have had his appointment delivered under the law, but also that the Court did not constitutionally have the power to issue a writ of mandamus (we command) from the law because it was an expansion of the Constitution through legislation, which isn't allowed.

    All of this is not to say that the video is wrong in saying the courts interpret the laws. That is in fact correct. The Supreme Court Building actually has an inscription from Marbury v. Madison that says "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." I just find it worrying that the role of the executive, which the judicial branch relies on, is so significantly reduced in this video.

  14. Maddie Briggs says:

    I am excited for this new channel, and I love that you're going to be putting up random and interesting content like this. I feel like Complexly would be a cool place for the occasional How to Adult video even if the main channel had to go.

  15. ndgo says:

    It’s amazing how few views hilariously biased videos get these days. Great channel Hank.

  16. Pheobe Owusu says:

    K so I've been a nerdfighter for at least 5 years can someone explain to me real quick how I never knew about this channel?

  17. Becky Joan says:


  18. Mr. Beat says:

    Thank you for covering this!

  19. Arthur O'Brien says:

    That is a highly partisan issue and for good reason. What a court is is defined by your political ideology/dogma.

  20. David Wood says:

    Honestly, I think this series needs to go on Crash Course so that more people see it. Or at least get plugged there and on vlogbrothers. It's hugely important.

  21. FiliOMG says:

    Just gonna point out that not putting the number of the video in the series in the title, or even the description, is very annoying. Especially when autoplay turns back on and throws you into a different video instantly. And even more so if Youtube just decides it wants to show you stupid auto-generated thumbnails instead of actually well designed and informative human made ones.

    Good series, though.

  22. Zuulaloo says:

    A lot of ̶U̶S̶ judges aren't impartial, with the ever increasing polarization and fanaticism it's like 1984 on steroids. We need a way to remove judges from power immediately and retroactively undo their decisions when they grossly abuse their powers.

    cough BLM cough Brock Turner cough Lynch mobs cough

  23. Andrew Farrell says:

    Oh man this is so exciting!

    I think the Judicial branch is simultaneously the least responsive and the most transparent branch of government.

  24. ecarson5129 says:

    Here from hanks channel. Excellent use of graphics and breaking down a complex topic in two small bites even within each video. my initial reaction was to click off of Hanks video because it sounded like a lot of effort to learn about it but the graphics kept my Millennial brain interested and the breakdown help to sync in a bit at a time. 👍👍

  25. Isaac lichtenstein says:

    Why isn't this on Crash Course? Why isn't Eons? Or all that other good stuff! I feel like continually dividing your audience must massively hurt views!? What is your idea behind making a new channel for each new thing, instead of doing something more like Extra Credits is doing, and having new shows within the same channel?

  26. Tom c says:

    Federal curropt courts of usa lol

  27. love orhate says:

    Are you from crash course!?

  28. Blake Dammann says:

    Does the state court system work this way as well?

  29. Little Darth says:

    This video is SO underrated dude!!!

  30. Taleb Ali says:

    federal courts fear judging presk-lawyer !.

  31. Human Earthling says:

    Which "federal court system" are you talking about? The constitutional Republic of America court system? or the United States federal court system?

  32. Human Earthling says:

    Quit using language so sloppily . Language is debased enough to cause the massive chaos that exists today. The first step to understanding anything anyone is saying or writing, it to be 'speaking' the same language at the get go.

  33. Human Earthling says:

    KNOW THIS: Every conceivable word that can be used to make a statement, has a different meaning depending upon who is saying it. Words mean quite a different thing when spoken by a common human being [the public] or someone in positions of power, authority, in politics, or who have been allowed to address the public. Recall , if you ever noticed in the first place, when asked to elaborate on the meaning of an issue during his impeachment hearings, Bill Clinton replied, "….it depends on what "is" is….." How's that for splitting hairs?

  34. Human Earthling says:

    Anyone who wants to know how deep the deception and deliberate confusion goes, just pick up a Black's Law Dictionary….but don't do it if your sanity is already teetering on the brink of a high bluff. Or, go to any law library and peruse the court rulings that fill up almost every square inch of space….which are only OPINIONS OF THE COURT, IE judgments handed down that qualify for the term, "making law from the bench" instead of relying on legislative enactments to make them Lawful instead of legal. …See how much trouble one can get into on just these few words?

  35. Human Earthling says:

    Save your sanity: learn how to genuflect in obeisance to the powers that be, because they are smarter than most of us are.

  36. Human Earthling says:

    What are the courts? Most of them are frauds and NOT Law Courts. Chancery and Equity courts are NOT bound by Law…but they hand out opinions. Well , we all have opinions, just like we all have an ass hole. The 'judges' are NOT bound by the Law of the wonderful constitution this fool cites as if it is still in effect…..BUT IS HAS NOT BEEN FOR AT LEAST 200 YEARS; it's been in suspension. This information is easy to find on the internet or the congressional record, but how many of you know how to access such books? How many of you know what a real Law is and what makes it a real Law? How many of you know how to use a Public Library? (about 1/10th of 1% ) How many of you know how to use a Law Library? (not even measurable.) How many of you know what you MUST know to live a comprehensible existence; or a sitting duck to the criminals in government…..? Is it any wonder that most of the resources on the Planet are held by the top 10% of the World Population?

    And YET, if I see or hear another damn fool mention America in the same sentence as the word democracy, I will SCREAM. And I just did.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *