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Article III of the United States Constitution, which creates the federal judicial branch, is notable for its brevity. It also is notable for what it does not say about the nature and exercise of national (often called federal) judicial power. How and why have federal courts become such influential players in America’s scheme of separation of powers and defining the powers of the national government and the states? How has the federal judiciary developed its own institutional identity in relationship to Congress and the executive, and in relationship to the states? What checks exist on the exercise of federal judicial power?

These and other questions about the national judiciary will be explored in the following six segments. The course begins with a brief overview of political theory and history to set the stage for the debates at the Constitutional Convention, and after, about how the federal judiciary should be organized and the range of its powers. The segments thereafter show how the Supreme Court developed from a weak branch of the national government that lacked institutional identity and prestige into the powerful third branch that since the mid-19th century has played an important role in the American political system. The course concludes with analysis and examples of the institutional and political checks that can and have been used to limit the exercise of federal judicial power. In the process, the course offers a framework for understanding and engaging in the ongoing discourse about the proper role of the national judiciary in American politics.