The US Federal Court System: Why do the courts even matter?
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The US Federal Court System: Why do the courts even matter?

We’ve got courts full of judges, and judges
full of judicial philosophies. But we’re talking about a bunch of old lawyers wearing
funny costumes that I didn’t even get to vote for – are
we sure that they’re all that relevant to my life? Well that’s a hard yes. The courts might be the most underrated branch
of government when it comes to how much influence
they have on your everyday life. While Congress is coming up with laws with a
lot of fancy language you and I might never read, the courts help us figure out how federal
law actually works IRL, using – well, still
fancy language. Now this is where we get to dive in to the
most exciting part – the federal court system
in action. It’s time to talk about what kinds of stuff
the courts get to decide, and why it all matters
to you. Think about it this way: because lawmaking
power is divided up between states and the
federal government, it’s not often that a single law changes
everyone’s lives at once. When you vote, you can be voting about issues
like what kind of taxes you pay, or how much money
we invest in schools. But often, we vote to express our values,
about what kind of country or city or state
we want to live in. We vote to say, collectively, “what kinds
of priorities do we want our society to focus
on?” While our elected officials build our world
through laws, that often happens state by
state, and city by city. But when you vote, you might be thinking a
lot bigger than that. Those big deal questions are answered not
just in how the laws get written, but also how
the laws are interpreted. And that’s what the courts exist to do. Take Brown v. Board of Education. That’s the Supreme Court case about school
segregation that you might have heard of before. It decided that racial segregation of schools, based
on the idea that black schools and white schools
were “separate but equal,” wasn’t actually equal at all. The court ruled that, to make sure that all students
got access to the same education, they needed to
have access to the same schools. The Brown case looked at existing law – in this case
the part of the 14th Amendment that says that all US
citizens have the right to equal protection of the law – and found that the government has to apply it’s
laws to everyone equally, no matter who they are. The court’s job in Brown was to compare the
different ways the 14th amendment was being
interpreted by the Board of Education of Topeka, 13 elementary school parents in Kansas, and
all sorts of other groups like the NAACP and the
Department of Justice who wrote to the court. And using all that information, the court had
to figure out what “equal” actually looked like. They took that value of equality that we all
have in our heads and figured out how it walks
and talks and where it can go to school. And not just for one school district – for
the entire country at once. That’s probably the coolest thing about
the federal court system; at its highest level, the court can make a
landmark decision that puts our country’s
values in action, and changes what everyday life looks like
for all of us at the same time. The court did the same thing pretty recently
– in a case called Obergefell v Hodges. They interpreted the 14th Amendment to say
that “equal” meant that the legal rights of marriage
needed to include same-sex couples too. But the court’s interpretation doesn’t
always move in the same direction. Sure, in Brown and Obergefell, their interpretation
of the 14th amendment got broader and broader. But in Shelby County v. Holder, it got narrower. In 2013, Shelby County, Alabama sued then
Attorney General Eric Holder over part of the
Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the part that said that any new change in
voting laws in certain states had to be approved
by the Department of Justice, because those states, including Alabama, had
a history of voter discrimination, and the Department of Justice wanted to make
sure they weren’t trying to make voting harder
for people based on their race. Shelby County argued that between 1965 and
2013, the world had changed enough that we didn’t need to worry about whether some
states would try to make voting unequal anymore. And that it wasn’t fair to review the laws of
some states and not others and get in the way
of how states chose to run their elections. The majority of the Supreme Court justices
agreed with Shelby County, and struck down
that part of the Voting Rights Act. The 14th Amendment got narrower, in that case. As it turns out, a whole bunch of voting rights
restrictions in Alabama and other states followed
not long after. So the courts are important because big things
in your life that might matter to you – where you can go to school, who you can marry,
whether or not you get to vote – are all things that courts have the power
to change. But I think it’s also important to point
out that the changes the court makes aren’t
always worthy of a push notification. They also work in smaller ways that can affect
your everyday life. Like, we’ve all taken sides in the great
tomato debate by now, right? All those times I mentioned that the Supreme
Court has the power to decide whether tomatoes
are a fruit or vegetable? That was a real case in 1893. In Nix v. Hedden the Supreme Court was asked
to decide whether tomatoes counted as fruits, because fruit and vegetable imports were taxed
at different rates. The court decided tomatoes were vegetables and
they had to be taxed as such, a decision which may
still be affecting your grocery bill today. And it’s not just the Supreme Court that
can have an impact on you either. Plenty of cases end in the district courts
or the Court of Appeals, so the lower courts
get the last word on interpreting the law. Like Glik v Cunniffe. You might not have heard of this case, but you
have probably have heard about what it decided. In 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals
decided that it’s your right to record public
officials when they’re out in public. It’s the reason you’re allowed to take
video of police on your phone. And while the case never went to the Supreme
Court, it’s been cited across the country by other
appellate courts who agreed with the first circuit. Because court decisions help our government
figure out what to actually do with the law, they can be the first to open the floodgates
of justice or the last line of defense in laws
that we think are unjust. Like when President Trump issued an executive
order restricting citizens of 6 majority-Muslim
countries in 2017 from traveling to the US, several states sued to stop the order from
going into effect. It was the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals who issued a
temporary restraining order on the ban so that people
from those 6 countries could keep entering the US. They said that the ban violated the part of the first
amendment that says that the government can’t prevent
people from practicing a specific religion. The Supreme Court eventually decided to take
up the case so we don’t know how the executive
order will shake out quite yet. But if you were one of those people with a
sign at an airport, the Court of Appeals came
through for you. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Hey, I think this law is wrong or unfair and
I don’t know how to what to do about it,” the federal court system is one way to change
it. And it turns out, you can change what the
court system looks like, too. We’ll talk about how the heck you can make
a difference in who and what goes into the
courts next time.


  • AlthenaLuna

    The "great tomato debate" reminds me of a phrase – useful in both real life and in understanding how stats work in gaming contexts: "Intelligence is knowing that tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put them in a fruit salad."

  • Libby King

    I’m really loving this series! Just wondering why y’all aren’t promoting this on vlogbrothers and other complexly shows?

  • Jake C

    In Nix v. Hedden the court didn't decide tomatoes were vegetables, they decided that because everyone thought they were vegetables that they should be taxed as vegetables. From the ruling:

    "Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, "

  • Torilovem, the Jester

    I just learned this exists, and my question is:

    How can Hank Green be so omnipresent? I also just learned he is Dr Turtleman? And he also wrote An Absolutely Remarkable Thing that comes out September 25th and is available for preorder now??? HOW???

    Loving this video series btw very informative, as usual (maybe more usual than it should be humanly possible)

  • Kieran

    Your tomato ruling reminded me of a well-known case in the UK where McVities were arguing that Jaffa Cakes (which are generally kept in the biscuit aisle of shops due to their size) are cakes and not biscuits. To quote Wikipedia: (square brackets my own)

    "The product's classification as a cake or biscuit was part of a VAT [Value Added Tax, basically a tax on things you buy, paid by the shop] tribunal in 1991, with the court finding in McVitie's favour that the Jaffa cake should be considered a cake for tax purposes."


  • Jesse Phillips

    It seems the supreme court did not come through for those people protesting as it interpreted the travel restrictions as a legitimate action under the powers of the President.

  • Chrome

    Well I'm glad for the protesters, but one of my coworkers never got back into the country after his vacation because immigration doesn't have to give a reason to not let someone back in. The company recently had to give up on him coming back after about 6 months. 🙁

  • Erich Lauk

    I'm loving the series and very informative. Gives me a good feeling that I can do something to improve our country with the court system. I got an idea while watching the video if you and your team and look at different court cases and explain why they have an impact on our lives today? Not all of them but the ones you deem important that people should know about.

  • //\//\//\ film

    Botanically a vegetable is a plant or plant part we eat while a fruit is the part of a flowering plants that has seeds. Therefore all edible fruits are vegetables. Not only are tomatoes fruits, they are berries.

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