United States Court Systems

The United States Court Systems – CJA/500 Survey of Justice and Security
In the United States you will find two major court systems. They are the “State Court System” and the “Federal Court System.” The Federal Court System acts as an older brother to the state court system as federal law trumps state law. However, generally speaking it’s pretty easy to establish which system a case will proceed through. If the charges are bases on state laws, then the case proceeds through the State Court System. If the charges are based on federal laws, then the case proceeds through the Federal Court System. Even using this common sense interpretation, debate still occurs on jurisdiction. The systems parallel in many ways, but individually still maintain unique roles in America.

State Court System

The State Court System usually reflects a three tier model (Adler, Mueller, and Laufer, 2009). Starting at the bottom level of the model you have the courts of limited jurisdiction. Next are the courts of general jurisdiction, and finally at the top level you have the courts of last resort. Limited jurisdiction refers to the courts that have specific jurisdiction over specific types of misdemeanor cases such as traffic law violations, health law violations, civil suits, and minor criminal cases (Adler, Mueller, and Laufer, 2009). These courts include Magistrate Courts, Municipal Courts, Police Courts, Justice Courts, District Courts, Juvenile Courts, City Courts, and Small Claims Courts.

The second level of courts in the State Court System are the trial courts of general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction courts are not limited to specific types of cases, but on the contrary have jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases in the region or district they are given (Adler, Mueller, and Laufer, 2009). These courts include Superior Courts, District Courts, Circuit Courts, Court of General Sessions, and Court of Common Pleas – most popular are the Superior Courts. These courts also use juries on many accounts, and they also handle some limited jurisdiction appeal cases. An interesting model possibly to be used in other states eventually is the new system California now uses. In 1998, California began what eventually was accepted by all counties in the state, to unify their limited and general jurisdiction courts into one system of Superior Courts with general jurisdiction over all cases (California Courts, 2009).
The third and final level of the courts in the State Court System are the courts of last resort. These courts include Court of Appeals, Supreme Court, and Supreme Judicial Court. Most states use a model that includes a single intermediate appellate court, and then a supreme court as the last resort (Adler, Mueller, and Laufer, 2009). This helps to filter the cases. Another way is their ability to choose which cases. These cases are known as discretionary cases. Other cases that are debated on an error of law are mandatory to be taken by the appellate and supreme state courts. They are call mandatory appeals. Ruling over all the cases in a state supreme court are five to nine justices.

Federal Court System

The federal court system is also made up of three levels which are the U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally the United States Supreme Court. First are the U.S. District Courts who act as the main guardians and gatekeepers of the federal law (U.S. Courts: Federal, 2009). They have jurisdiction over almost every category of federal cases primarily civil and criminal subject matter (U.S. Courts: District, 2009). The two main exceptions to this jurisdiction are The Court of International Trade and The United States Court of Federal Claims. These two courts have jurisdiction on all cases mainly pertaining to international trade, customs issues, money claims regarding the United States, and property claims regarding the United States (U.S. Courts: District, 2009).

U.S. District courts are found in 94 U.S. districts including the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and many other places of the continent (U.S. Courts: District, 2009). U.S. District Courts even handle bankruptcy cases in their broad spectrum of jurisdiction. Whatever the case though, in order for the case to be taken into federal court and heard it must meet the subject matter jurisdiction. The three options of meeting this requirement include diversity jurisdiction, federal question jurisdiction, and supplemental jurisdiction. After deciding subject matter jurisdiction, the venue or appropriate district is then decided and a case becomes a federal case in a federal district court.

The U.S. Courts of Appeals make up the second level of the Federal Court System. There are 12 regional circuits over the 94 federal districts. The federal appellate courts handle all federal appeals that go past the district courts within their regions (U.S. Courts: Appeals, 2009). The U.S. Supreme Court makes up the highest court level in the entire United States of America. It is made up of eight associate judges led by the Chief Justice of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court takes on a certain amount of cases each year. If a case meets guideline requirements set by congress, once it leaves federal and state courts the Supreme Court can choose to hear it (U.S. Courts: Supreme, 2009). They usually choose the cases that involve very important controversies over the Federal Law, and most importantly the U.S. Constitution.


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