The U.S. Court System

The U.S. Court System


The U.S. Court System can be complicated if you do not know how it works. What follows is a clear explanation of the U.S. Court System.

The U.S. Supreme Court

Created by Sec. 1, Article 111 of the Constitution is the Supreme Court of the United States. Set out by statute in Title 28 of the U.S. Code is its jurisdiction; and spelled out by legislation, is the organization of the Court.

Some rules govern the presentation of the cases, and these are developed by the Court itself. Judicial Review is one of the most essential powers of the Supreme Court, while the Supreme Court, being a separate branch of Government, holds that outside factors exert some influence on the Court.

This works by having nine Justices, which consists of one Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices. These people are appointed by the President, who first obtains the advice and the consent of the Senate. Apparently, these Justices (who serve during good behavior) serve until death, retirement, or resignation ends their service.

A point to note here is that since World War 11, the 11 U.S. Presidents have appointed 25 Supreme Court Members – made up of 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats

Judicial Review

The Judicial Review System entails:

If some Laws violate the Constitution, the Courts have the power to declare the Laws invalid.

The supremacy of Federal Laws or Treatise when they differ from State and Local Laws

The Role of the Court as the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution.

Influences on the Court

On the Supreme Court justices and their decisions, there exist both legal and political influences. Among the legal influences on the Supreme Court decisions are:

•The Constraints of the Facts: Unless they have an actual case brought before it, the Court cannot make a ruling unless the facts of a case are the relevant circumstances of a legal dispute or offense. The Supreme Court must respond to the facts of a dispute.

•The Constraints of the Law: The Supreme Court must determine which laws are relevant, among the legal constraints in deciding cases. These include; interpretation of the Constitution, interpretation of statutes, and interpretation of precedent.

•On Supreme Court Decisions, among the political influences are:

•"Outside Influences" Such as the force of public opinion, pressure from interest groups, and the leverage of public officials.

•"Inside Influences" Such as justices' personal beliefs, political attitudes, and the relationship between judges.

How Cases Make Their Way to the U.S. Supreme Court

About 4,500 cases for review are requested by the Supreme Court every year. Actually, there are less than 200 cases that are decided by the Court annually. Further, for a case to make its way to the Supreme Court, there are three ways:

1) There are cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction (heard there first). Cases in which a state is a party and cases dealing with diplomatic personnel, like ambassadors, are the two examples.

2) Those cases appealed from lower federal courts can be heard at the Supreme Court. Some laws obligate (or force) the Supreme Court to listen to them. But most come up for review on the writ of certiorari, a discretionary writ that the Court grants or refuses at its own discretion. The writ is granted if four of the justices want it to be heard.
3) The U.S. Supreme Court reviews appeals from state supreme courts that present substantial "federal questions," usually where a constitutional right has been denied in the state courts.
In both civil and criminal law, the Supreme Court is the final Court of Appeal.

State Courts

•There is a Court system that exists primarily for each State and independently from the federal courts. The existing State court systems, at the bottom level, there are the Trial Courts, and at the top level, there are the Appellant Courts. Of the Nation's legal cases, there are about 95% decided in State Courts, or Local Courts, which are agents of the states).

•Some states have only a single Appellate Court, whereas other States have two Appellate Courts. Usually giving lower courts specialized titles and jurisdictions, the States vary considerably in the way in which they organize and name their Courts.

•Issues such as divorce and child custody disputes are settled in the Family Courts;

•And the settlement of the estates of deceased persons is handled by Probate Courts. Less formal Trial Courts are below these specialized Trial Courts such as Magistrate Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts.

These two Courts just mentioned are responsible for handling quite a variety of minor cases such as traffic offences and These handle a variety of minor cases, such as traffic offenses, and they usually don't use a jury.

•Cases that originate in state courts can be appealed to a federal court if a federal issue is involved and usually only after all avenues of appeal in the state courts have been tried.

•There were over 88 million cases heard at the State Trial Courts in 1990 throughout the U.S. Further, there were 167000 appealed at the next level, while 62000 filtered through to the State Courts as a last resort.

Federal Courts of Appeal

When cases are appealed from district courts, they go to a federal court of appeals. Courts of appeals do not use juries or witnesses. No new evidence is submitted in an appealed case; appellate courts base their decisions on a review of lower-court records. In 1990, the 158 judges handled about 41,000 cases.

There are 12 general appeals courts. All but one of them (which serves only the District of Columbia) serves an area consisting of three to nine states (called a circuit.)

There is also the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which specializes in appeals of decisions in cases involving patents, contract claims against the federal Government, federal employment cases and international trade.

Interestingly between 26 and 4 Judges sit on each Court of Appeals; and a panel of three Judges usually hears each case. The best hope of reversal for many Appellants are the Courts of Appeals; since the Supreme Court hears so few cases.

It's a fact worth noting that fewer than 1% of the cases heard by the Federal Appeals Courts are later reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Federal District Courts

Except for the U.S. Supreme Court itself, all Federal Courts were created by Congress. Across the country, there are ninety-four Federal District Courts, with at least one of these Courts in every State (larger states have up to four). There are about 550 Federal District-Court Judges who are appointed by the President with the advice of the Senate.

The only Courts in the Federal System in which Juries hear testimony in some cases are the District Courts; and most cases at this level are presented before a single Judge.

These Judges heard about 267000 cases in 1990. Bound by legal precedents established by the Supreme Court, are the Federal District Courts established by the Supreme Court. Most federal cases end with the District Court's Decision.

Court of Military Appeals

When a person who is in the military commits a crime, they can be tried and punished by the Military Courts. If the matter goes to appeal, the Court of Military Appeals hears the appeal of the Military Court Martial.

Court of International Trade

Cases involving appeals of rulings of the U.S. Customs offices, are heard in the Court of International Trade.

Court of Claims

Finally, cases wherein the U.S. Government is sued, are heard by The Court of Claims.


•It has been heard from a range of sources that the Courts today are facing a wide range of challenges. The five critical areas of the significant issues were identified as:

•Case preparation, court information management, support for court hearings, facilities management, and people management.

•Issues of caseloads and the required amount of staff to handle them were among the most prominent issues raised by the panel.

•Concerns related to Court Security and Emergency Preparedness were also among the most prominent.

•Further common concerns were Data protection in addition to the quality of Data entered into the Court Information Systems.

Sharing information across jurisdiction boundaries and across criminal justice areas, was a significant concern.

Also contained within these issues were others about balance and fairness and the knowledge that currently, the only reasonable outcomes of many of the matters handled by the lower courts were heavily affected by the personal funds of those whose matters were being tried.

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