judicial branch

[ joo-dish-uhl branch ]
/ dʒuˈdɪʃ əl ˌbræntʃ /
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the branch of government charged with the interpretation of laws and the administration of justice; the judiciary.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is the judicial branch?

The judicial branch is the branch of government responsible for interpreting laws and applying justice.

In the United States, the federal and state governments are divided into three parts—the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. For the federal government, the branches are established by the Constitution of the United States. At the state level, the judicial branch is established either by the state legislature or by a state constitution.

In general, the judicial branch at both the federal and state level has two very important jobs. The first is to settle disputes regarding laws, while the second is to ensure citizens are treated fairly under the law. This is done through the justice system and involves many courts, lawyers, and judges.

Federally, the highest court in the land is the United States Supreme Court. With a few exceptions, this court only hears appeals that involve a dispute with how the Constitution is interpreted. Every lower court in the country must comply with the rulings of the Supreme Court.

Through the system of checks and balances, the judicial branch can check the power of the other two branches of government and has its own power checked by them. Federal judges are appointed by the president (executive branch) and approved by Congress (the legislative branch). On the other hand, the Supreme Court has the power to declare a law as unconstitutional, which can severely limit the actions of both of the other two branches.

US states are free to organize their own versions of the judicial branch. In general, the states usually have a state supreme court, a start court of appeals, and lower courts that descend all the way down to municipalities, such as cities and towns.

Why is the judicial branch important?

In the United States, the federal judicial branch was established by Article III, Section I of the Constitution, which was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. While the Constitution doesn’t use the term judicial branch specifically, this term has long been used to refer to the American court system.

The Constitution doesn’t go into as much detail on the structure of the judicial branch compared to the other two branches. While the Constitution requires a national Supreme Court, it lets Congress decide on the number of judges (justices). Additionally, it allows Congress to decide how the entirety of the rest of the federal court system should be organized.

Today, the judicial branch impacts all Americans in one way or another. If you commit a crime, you are guaranteed a fair trial by the criminal courts. If you have been wronged by someone or by an organization, you can file a lawsuit, which will be resolved by a civil court.

Did you know ... ?

Federally, the judges of the judicial branch are appointed rather than elected. At the state level, most judges are appointed, but in a few cases judges are elected.  Judges also serve for life unless they are impeached or retire, which has led to some very old federal judges. The record for oldest U.S. federal judge was set by Wesley Brown, who served until he died at 104 years old!

What are real-life examples of judicial branch?

This photograph shows the United States Supreme Court Building, located in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court is the highest court of the judicial branch.


Most Americans know about the judicial branch and often have very heated opinions about cases decided by the Supreme Court.

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

In the United States, the judicial branch creates new laws.

How to use judicial branch in a sentence

Cultural definitions for judicial branch

judicial branch

The court systems of local, state, and federal governments, responsible for interpreting the laws passed by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch. These courts try criminal cases (in which a law may have been violated) or civil cases (disputes between parties over rights or responsibilities). The courts attempt to resolve conflicts impartially in order to protect the individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution, within the bounds of justice, as defined by the entire body of U.S. law. Some courts try only original cases, whereas others act as courts of appeals. The ultimate court of appeals is the Supreme Court. On the federal level, the system of checks and balances empowers Congress to create federal courts, and all federal judges must be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The courts may exercise the powers of judicial review and injunction.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.