system of courts that interprets and applies the law

The Judiciary is the branch of government charged with interpreting the laws as they are applied to specific situations, usually through the collective work of judges.


  • I do not think the United States would come to an end if we lost our power to declare an Act of Congress void. I do think the Union would be imperiled if we could not make that declaration as to the laws of the several States.
    • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., address to the Harvard Law School Association of New York, New York City (February 15, 1913); Speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1934), p. 102.
  • John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it!
    • Andrew Jackson, in Horace Greeley, The American Conflict, A History of the Great Rebellion… (1864), vol. 1, p. 106, noting that "I am indebted for this fact to the late Governor George N. Briggs, of Massachusetts, who was in Washington as a member of Congress when the decision was rendered" (footnote 27, p. 106). Chief Justice Marshall had read the Supreme Court's opinion in a dispute between the state of Georgia and two missionaries, who had been convicted of and imprisoned for living among the Cherokee Indians. The Supreme Court's decision was in favor of the missionaries. "The attorneys for the missionaries sought to have this judgment enforced, but could not. General Jackson was President, and would do nothing of the sort…. So the missionaries languished years in prison" (p. 106).
  • At the establishment of our constitutions, the judiciary bodies were supposed to be the most helpless and harmless members of the government. Experience, however, soon showed in what way they were to become the most dangerous; that the insufficiency of the means provided for their removal gave them a freehold and irresponsibility in office; that their decisions, seeming to concern individual suitors only, pass silent and unheeded by the public at large; that these decisions, nevertheless, become law by precedent, sapping, by little and little, the foundations of the constitution, and working its change by construction, before any one has perceived that that invisible and helpless worm has been busily employed in consuming its substance. In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life, if secured against all liability to account.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Monsieur A. Coray (October 31, 1823); Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1903), vol. 15, p. 486–87 (1904).
  • The germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal judiciary; an irresponsible body, (for impeachment is scarcely a scare-crow,) working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little to-day and a little to-morrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles Hammond (August 18, 1821); Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1903), vol. 15, p. 331–32.
  • The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting, with noiseless foot, and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step, and holding what it gains, is ingulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of that which feeds them.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Judge Spencer Roane (March 9, 1821); Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1903), vol. 15, p. 326 (1903).
  • The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric…. A judiciary independent of a king or executive alone, is a good thing; but independence of the will of the nation is a solecism, at least in a republican government.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Ritchie (December 25, 1820); Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1899), vol. 10, p. 170–71 (1899). A similar statement is made in Jefferson's "Autobiography," Writings, vol. 1, p. 112–13 (1892).
  • If the policy of the government, upon vital questions affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court,… the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there, in this view, any assault upon the court, or the judges. It is a duty, from which they may not shrink, to decide cases properly brought before them; and it is no fault of theirs, if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes.
    • Abraham Lincoln, first inaugural address (final text; March 4, 1861); in Roy P. Basler, ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953), vol. 4, p. 268 (1953).

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