A Guide to the US Judiciary


America’s Judicial System
A Guide to America’s Courts

The United States has a dual court system made up of the federal court system and the state court system. The federal court system is comprised of the district courts, the circuit courts, and the Supreme Court, and the state court system is comprised of trial courts, appeals courts, and state supreme courts

Those are the Main three levels for the federal court systems. The Main levels for the state court system are similar where you have your state district courts, and  your state appeals courts, Lastly your state Supreme Court.

Throughout this guide we are to examine both court systems to see what those levels entail, what their responsibilities are and how a case makes its way through the court system. The diagram below depicts this system of the different courts.

Where the Courts Derive Their Power From
For the federal courts, Article III Section I of the Constitution establishes the Supreme Court and provides Congress with the power to form the other federal courts. For the state courts, each state’s laws and the Constitution establish the state courts.

Federal Court System In Depth
District Courts

The first of the three types of courts in the federal system, district courts, serve as the trial courts at the federal level. There are 94 district courts and around 677 judges. For each case, there is one judge that hears and rules on cases, who is appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. District Court judges serve for life, though they can be impeached and removed from office by Congress. The district courts have original jurisdiction, meaning that they have the power to hear and review a case, in matters concerning federal law, treaties, and the U.S. Constitution. District courts also have the power to hear cases in which $70,000 or more is in dispute between two or more states and cases in which the U.S. Government is a party in the lawsuit.

Circuit Courts

After a decision is made in the district courts, the losers of the case can appeal to the circuit courts. The circuit courts thus serve as the appeals courts for the district courts on the federal level with three judges that hear each case. There are 12 circuit courts that are divided by region. Some courts are known for being more liberal or more conservative than others. For example, the ninth circuit court, which includes California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Alaska, and Arizona, tends to be more liberal. Though the circuit courts are strictly appeals courts, there is a special appeals court that has jurisdiction over cases involving patent law and cases arising from special jurisdiction courts, such as the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

U.S. Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and is the last and final court of review. The court has appellate jurisdiction over cases that involve constitutional or federal law, which includes all federal cases as well as any state court cases that relate to federal or constitutional law. The court contains nine justices and typically comes across around 8,000 cases a year, though only reviewing and issuing rulings on approximately 80 of those each year. Though the U.S. Supreme Court primarily hears cases related to its appellate jurisdiction, it does have original jurisdiction over certain cases. These cases include matters between the U.S. and a state, involving two or more states, involving foreign ministers or ambassadors, involving citizens from two different states, or involving an individual citizen and a foreign country.

The Supreme Court’s arguably most important power is judicial review. In Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established that it has the authority to declare laws unconstitutional. As a result, the Supreme Court, under the judicial branch, serves as a check on both the executive and legislative branches. Though one might think that, since judicial review is a very important power, that the Supreme Court uses it often, the Supreme Court actually very rarely exercises its power of judicial review, given that striking down a large number of laws might cause confusion and disarray among citizens.

State Court System In Depth
State Trial Courts

State Trial courts are where criminal and civil cases are tried. It is where most cases start and end. In the trial courts there is a jury, with witnesses. In a trial court evidence is presented and a criminal and/or civil trial is conducted. The burden of proof however is different for criminal or civil trials. In criminal trials it is beyond a reasonable doubt, which means that the evidence has to be overwhelming and non circumstantial to convict an offender. For civil trials it is a preponderance of evidence, which means if there is a enough evidence circumstantial or not then the offender is found guilty In civil court

The jurisdiction of trial court is dependent on the state that the offense is committed in as long as that case does not fall into a different court. If a different court decided to hear that case such as federal courts then it is in the federal judicial jurisdiction and has priority of the state court jurisdiction.  The state court can’t hear cases that fall into the federal courts jurisdiction. If a court has general jurisdiction it is allowed to hear cases on any such civil matters.

However, courts with limited jurisdiction have limits to what cases they are able to hear in terms of cases and case materials. The lower level state trial courts as they are only tied to specific subject matters.  Unlike higher state trial courts and federal trial courts.

Supreme Court 1868. Image courtesy of Alexander Gardner, according to National Constitution Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

State Appeals Courts

Different from trial courts and similar to federal circuit court of appeals. The Appeals court usually consists of a panel of three judges. Is different from trial courts in a sense the appeals courts are not trials, therefore there are no juries. Challenges are made to state trial courts and like federal circuit court of appeals are heard in front of panels of three.

However it varies in terms of state appeals courts, each state’s court is different in how it uses its court. In North Carolina, its state court of appeals hears both civil and criminal cases. One important caveat is that if it is a capital offense such as murder those challenges pass the appeals court and goes straight to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Same goes for Massachusetts, its appeals court doesn’t hear first degree murder convictions. Any challenges to convictions for first degree murder goes straight to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. However some civil decisions have to go to the Appellate Division of the District Court before being able to the appeals court. So for each state there is a different process in terms of how they hear appeals.

Each court has about 12 to 15 judges with panels of three hearing legal challenges to convictions in either civil or criminal court. As mentioned in the examples listed above each state has a different process in how it’s court hears appeals to convictions

State Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court is the highest court in the state’s court system. Once the judgement is passed is considered to be binding in both state and federal courts.  These decisions can be appealed to the U.S Supreme Court as well. For instance,  in New York Times V. Sullivan the case was decided in the Alabama Supreme Court that the New York Times was libelous in the Printing of an Advertisement by a prominent civil rights group. The case was appealed to the U.S Supreme Court, which the decision was overturned.

Each state has a Supreme Court that has different duties or jurisdictions, North Carolina and Massachusetts sees all challenges to capital convictions in that state, while others have to pass through the courts in the appeals process. Unlike the U.S Supreme Court where it is set at 9 justices. Each state Supreme Court has a different panel of judges predetermined in its state constitution. Each state also has a different process on how to appoint these judges, for Wisconsin state Supreme Court justices are elected to ten year terms with no term limits being applied.

The state Supreme Court is not a trial; there are no witnesses, there is no evidence that is being presented, these courts are for the sole purpose of challenging the decisions made by the lower courts for an individual’s civil or criminal convictions.  As well as challenges in the state, for instance when Governor Tony Evers of Wisconsin signed an executive order to postpone its state primary, the republican majority in the state legislature took him to court. The state Supreme Court overturned the executive order and the primary was held. The Republican Majority again overturned an order by Evers to extend the stay at home order.













Featured image courtesy of The original uploader was Wikiwopbop at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

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