Skip to main content

The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution

Article III, Section 1

The Text

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. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

The Meaning

Article III establishes the federal court system. The first section creates the U.S. Supreme Court as the federal system’s highest court. The Supreme Court has final say on matters of federal law that come before it. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has nine justices who are appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate.

Congress has the power to create and organize the lower federal courts. Today, there are lower federal courts in every state. A case is filed and tried in the federal district courts and in some specialty courts, such as admiralty or bankruptcy courts. The trial courts look at the facts of the case and decide guilt or innocence or which side is right in an argument or dispute. The courts of appeal hear appeals of the losing parties. The appellate courts look at whether the trial was fair, whether the process followed the rules, and whether the law was correctly applied.

To ensure that they are insulated from political influence, federal judges are appointed for life as long as they are on “good behavior.” This generally means for as long as they want the job or until they are impeached for committing a serious crime. In addition, the Constitution specifies that Congress cannot cut a judge’s pay. This prevents members of Congress from punishing a judge when they do not like one of his or her decisions.