Civics refresher: “I’ll see you in court!”

by | Mar 20, 2017 | Actions

We have all seen the meme of Hillary Clinton and former President Obama laughing their heads off to Trump’s words, “I’ll see you in court.” But most Americans don’t really understand our court system as it relates to stopping heinous actions by our current president. And although I’m sure we can all think back to eighth grade social studies class where we learned about the three branches of government and the separation of powers, how many of us truly remember the details? Not many I’d wager.

The courts: a primer

One of the most wonderful things about a democracy is its court system. In a totalitarian regime, you cannot sue the state because they have illegally seized your property, harmed your person, or violated their own laws. But here in America, almost anyone can sue anyone else, including the government.

Each state has their own court system in addition to the U.S. court system. There are multiple layers of courts in both. In the federal system, there are three levels of courts: the district courts, the circuit courts (Court of Appeals), and the Supreme Court.

If you want to sue the president, you have to do it in federal court. To use the lawsuit against the first Muslim ban as an example, the State of Washington, among others, filed a motion seeking injunctive relief to stop the president from implementing his executive order. This motion was granted, and halted the implementation of key parts of the Muslim ban. Trump immediately filed an appeal to the circuit court asking the court to overrule what the circuit court had done.

Although this motion was later withdrawn since Trump decided to release a new executive order instead, let’s pretend it wasn’t. The appeal would then be heard by the Court of Appeals, which could either agree with the lower court and let the ruling stand, disagree with the lower court and reverse it and let Trump enforce the ban, or they could send it back to the lower court for some clarification. For the purposes of this illustration, let’s say the court agreed with the lower court and Trump could no longer implement his Muslim ban. He could then appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The highest court in the land

The Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on what is constitutional in this country. But they are also really busy. They get 7000-8000 requests per year to hear cases. On average, they rule on less than 150. This means that your chances of getting a hearing before the Supreme Court are very slim. But since Trump is the president, let’s assume he’d get that hearing. Once again, the court would hear all the evidence, look at the relevant law (the Constitution), and rule on whether or not the ban could proceed.

Once the Supreme Court has decided on an issue, there are no more appeals. When a district court finds in your favor on a given issue, it’s cause to celebrate but the decision may not be  permanent. A higher court could always overturn the decision. Given that Trump’s travel ban 2.0 is already back in court, we just may get to see the Supreme Court in action on this issue. Stay tuned!

Learn more

Offices of The United States Attorneys

Supreme Court of the United States

United States Courts for the Ninth Circuit

Ty Starks Morgan is an attorney who has worked in the foster care system for 23 years. She is the mother of two teen sons, two dogs, three cats, and a plethora of rescued foster animals.