This is Jerry Goldman again, the principal author of Chapter 14, "The Courts." Let's see if I can assist you in navigating this chapter.
It seems to me that you should bear in mind four points in understanding the role that courts play in the American system of government.
First, there are really two court systems that operate simultaneously on us as citizens. There's the state court system. Every state (and the District of Columbia) has one. Then there's the federal court system that serves the entire nation. The vast majority of disputes wind up in state courts. (Figure 14.1 makes that very clear.) State courts address disputes that arise from our interactions: claims arising from auto accidents, property and contract disputes, issues stemming from divorce, law enforcement of common crimes such as theft and assault. Federal courts resolve disputes that rest on some grant of power to the national government, such as counterfeiting of US currency. Since the Constitution limits the power of the national government, it should follow that the role of the federal courts to enforce such laws should also be limited. However, as the power of the national government has grown in relation to the power of the states, the power of the federal courts and the scope of its business have also grown.
Second. The courts possess enormous power--regardless of whether they use it--because of judicial review. This is the power to declare laws of coordinate branches (legislative and executive) null and void. This power is not granted explicitly in the Constitution. Courts possess it because of a single, brilliant decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1803. Ever since then, all courts hold the power to undo the work of other political branches. In the federal courts, where judges are appointed not elected, this power presents a special problem for democratic theory. Appointed judges can undo the work of the people's democratically elected officials. That doesn't sound particularly democratic, does it?
Third. The focus on the U.S. Supreme Court ought not to exclude the powerful role of all other courts, state and federal. However, the Supreme Court is usually the last stop for big problems, whether measured in dollars or in power. It carefully selects disputes to resolve. By controlling its agenda, the Court can try to avoid issues that might endanger its role. How could the Supreme Court be vulnerable, you may ask? Well, in reality it has no power in terms of money or force. It has only the perception that it is acting as a neutral decision-maker, though in fact it may be far from neutral.
Fourth. The Supreme Court has rarely strayed far from the public on most issues. When its decisions run against the strong tide of public opinion, the court runs the risk that the public will not regard its decisions as legitimate. That may explain why it rarely is a leader for social change.