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Getting to Know the U.S. Court Systems

The United States court system is actually many court systems: a federal system and 50 state systems. Each has its own structures and procedures. All are multi-tiered. Legal cases begin in a lower court and sometimes work their way up to a higher court. Some cases initiated in a state court system ultimately end up in the federal court system.

State courts

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 jurisdiction 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.

Some trial courts with limited jurisdiction also hold pretrial hearings for more serious criminal cases.

Courts of general jurisdiction include circuit courts, superior courts, district courts, or courts of common pleas, depending on your state. They hear lawsuits that involve greater amounts of money or more serious types of crimes than the cases heard in trial courts of limited jurisdiction.

Many states also have specialized trial courts that hear cases related to a very specific area of the law. These courts can include probate courts, family law courts, juvenile courts, and small claims courts.

Next tier up in the typical state court system are the appellate courts. These courts don't hold trials but instead review the decisions and procedures of the trial courts in their systems and either uphold or reverse their decisions or modify the amount of a monetary reward. Sometimes appellate courts order retrials.

Lower court decisions are not automatically appealed. You must initiate an appeal and provide a legal basis for appealing. Thinking that you "got a raw deal" is not enough.

Every state has a court of last resort, generally 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

Most of the federal court system is divided into districts and circuits. There is at least one federal district in every state, but populous 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 general 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:

  • Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka. This ruling was the beginning of the end of racial segregation in America's public schools.
  • Roe vs. Wade. Gave all American women the right to decide for themselves, in consultation with their doctor, whether or not to have an abortion.
  • Miranda vs. Arizona. This ruling gave persons who are arrested the right to be informed of their legal rights at the time of their arrest: "You have the right to remain silent. . . ."

The Constitution only allows certain kinds of cases to be heard by the federal courts. In general, these courts are limited to cases that involve the following:

  • Issues of Constitutional law
  • 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 adversarial 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 requirement helps level the playing field, ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. Attorneys learn these rules in law school.

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