The American Judicial System is one of the most sophisticated judicial systems in the world. Every day thousands of people, including law enforcement officers, lawyers, judges, government officials and even accused criminals, take part in this system, hoping to settle disputes and work for justice. What makes this system even more remarkable is that it is able to operate successfully in a country as large and diverse as the United States. One of the keys to this success is a balanced and carefully ordered hierarchy: Several different federal courts control issues relating to federal law and each state has its own set of courts that can adapt to the needs of its people.
Of course, it’s all a bit more complicated than that and no system works perfectly, but learning how the judicial system works can be useful in case you ever need to file a law suit, defend yourself in court, claim damages from the government or even pay a traffic ticket. In this article we’ll talk about what the different types of courts do, how judges are appointed and the basics of jury duty. Let’s start by looking at the essential elements of the U.S. judicial system.
Most legal issues are resolved in state trial courts, the courts at the lowest tier in a state’s court system. O.J. Simpson’s criminal and civil trials were both conducted in a California trial court. Depending on the specific structure of your state’s court system, trial courts may be city or municipal courts, justice of the peace or jp courts, county or circuit courts, or even regional trial courts.
Most states have two levels of trial courts: trial courts with limited authority and trial courts with specific jurisdiction. Jurisdiction simply refers to the types of cases a court can hear. For example, trial courts of limited jurisdiction —which can include municipal courts, magistrate courts, county courts and justice of the peace courts — hear some kinds of civil cases, juvenile cases, minor criminal cases and traffic violations. Most legal problems are resolved in this kind of trial court.
Every state has a court of last resort, usually called the “supreme court.” Although supreme court decisions are final within a state court system, sometimes they can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Like appellate courts, supreme courts review the decisions and the procedures of lower courts; they don’t hold trials.
Federal courts in The American Judicial System
Most of the federal court system is divided into districts and circuits. There is at least one federal district in every state, but densely inhabited states can have multiple districts. Texas has northern, western, southern and eastern districts.
Generally, federal lawsuits start out at the district level in a federal court. Most are civil, not criminal, cases involving legal issues that fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government, not state government. If a lawsuit deals with certain types of federal law, it is heard in a special federal court. Tax court, bankruptcy court, court of federal claims, and court of veteran appeals are all examples of special federal courts.
Each federal circuit includes more than one district and is home to a Federal Court of Appeal. This court plays a role analogous to a state appellate court.
At the very top of the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court. Its legal interpretations are The Final Word on the law in this country. The nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate. They can remain on the court until their death or until they resign.
The U.S. Supreme Court hears only a very small number of cases. To get to that level, a case must usually work its way up through the lower tiers of a state court system and/or the federal system. The justices choose the cases they hear every year based on a case’s implications for Americans in common or for a certain group within society, not just the impact on the parties actually involved in the lawsuit itself. What follows are some of the Supreme Court cases that meet these criteria:
Precedent and Stare Decisis of The American Judicial System
When issuing decisions, all courts must follow binding precedent — that is their decisions must follow any rulings made by courts above them. On questions of the interpretation of the United States Constitution and statutes passed by Congress, the United States Supreme Court has the final say. All other courts, both federal and state, must follow any standard set by the Supreme Court.
All United States District Courts must follow the interpretation given by the Court of Appeal for the circuit in which it sits. Sometimes, different circuits reach contradictory results on a particular issue. This means that the Constitution may intermittently be interpreted differently in different states. Often, such a “split in the circuits” prompts the Supreme Court to grant certiorari on the issue involved, so that the law will be uniform throughout the country.
State courts are bound to follow precedent set by the Supreme Court and by the Courts of Appeals on issues of federal law, but not as to state law. Each state supreme court is free to construe the laws of its state as it sees fit, as long as the interpretation does not violate the United States Constitution. All lower courts in the state must follow state supreme court precedent on issues of state law, and federal courts in the state must do likewise.
The doctrine of stare decisis is somewhat different than that of precedent. Stare decisis is the desire of most courts to follow their own precedent, even when they are not required to. For example, once the Supreme Court has decided an issue of federal law, they are free to change their mind in some later case. But they are normally quite hesitant to do so, even if there has been a change of justices on the Court and the new members do not agree with the old ruling. They are much more likely to separate the older case when asked to apply it in a slightly different situation. In this way, the older doctrine may change, but more progressively, over time.
Issues of Constitutional law in The American Judicial System
Certain issues between residents of different states
Issues between U.S. citizens and foreigners
Issues that involve both federal and state law
Our legal system is based on the confrontational process, which means that fundamental to all court procedures, regardless of the court, is the belief that all parties in a legal dispute must have an equal opportunity to state their case to a neutral jury or judge and to poke holes in what the other side says. Attorneys usually do most of the case-stating and hole-poking.
So that everyone has an equal chance to win in a lawsuit, both sides are required to play by the same set of rules. This prerequisite helps level the playing field, ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. Attorneys learn these rules in law school.
The Supreme Court has the power to and does occasionally completely reverse an existing precedent. Although they can do so both as to statutory and constitutional issues, they often state that they are less likely to do so in matters of statutory construction. This is because if Congress disagrees with the Court’s interpretation of a statute, it may amend the law to change the result. If the Supreme Court feels strongly, however, that they have misinterpreted the Constitution, only they can change the result, unless the difficult cumbersome process of amending the Constitution is used. Such complete reversals, however, are quite rare.