HGov: Judicial System Structure


When Congress enacted the Judiciary Act of 1789, it created a dual court system in the United States. The federal judicial system was set up alongside the state judicial systems. For the most part, the two systems operate independently of one another, but they can overlap.

One way to sort out what gets tried where in this dual system is to look at each court’s jurisdiction, or its authority to enforce laws. State courts have jurisdiction over cases arising under state law. Federal courts are generally limited to cases involving federal law or the Constitution. Within each system, jurisdiction is limited by three factors: level in the court hierarchy, geographic reach, and type of case.

Each level within the hierarchy of the state or federal court system has a set of responsibilities. Trial courts, at the bottom of the hierarchy, generally have original jurisdiction. This means they have the authority to hear a case for the first time. Moving up the hierarchy, appeals courts have appellate jurisdiction. This means they have the authority to review decisions made in lower courts. Appeals courts do not second-guess jury decisions by reviewing the facts in a case. Instead, their focus is on whether the trial in the lower court was carried out in a fair manner, with no errors of law. An error of law is a mistake made by a judge in applying the law to a specific case.

With the exception of the Supreme Court, courts hear cases that arise within certain geographic boundaries. Within a state judicial system, the geographic jurisdiction of a trial court is usually limited to the city or county in which that court operates. In the federal system, trial court districts are larger. The geographic reach of appellate courts is greater than that of trial courts. Most states have regional appeals courts and a state supreme court. The federal system has 13 appellate courts. The U.S. Supreme Court accepts cases from anywhere in the United States and its territories.

A case’s subject matter also determines where it will be tried. At both the state and the federal levels, the typical trial court has general jurisdiction. This means the court can hear cases covering a variety of subjects. Some courts, however, have limited jurisdiction. This means they specialize in certain kinds of cases. Traffic courts deal only with traffic violations. Bankruptcy courts only hear cases involving bankruptcy issues. Juvenile courts work only with young offenders.

State courts are the workhorses of the judicial system, handling several million cases a year. Nearly half of these cases were traffic related. In contrast, the entire federal system hears fewer cases each year than do the courts of a medium-size state. State court systems vary in their structures. However, most states have four general levels of courts: trial courts of limited jurisdiction, trial courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate appellate courts, and courts of last resort.

Trial courts of limited jurisdiction are local courts that specialize in relatively minor criminal offenses or civil disputes handle most of the cases filed each year. They are known as justice-of-the-peace courts, magistrate courts, municipal courts, city courts, county courts, traffic courts, or small-claims courts, depending on the state and the types of cases they hear. Their hearings are generally informal and do not involve jury trials. Cases heard in these courts may be appealed to trial courts.

Trial courts of general jurisdiction are general trial courts that handle most serious criminal cases and major civil disputes. They are often called superior, district, or circuit courts. In rural areas, general trial court judges may have to travel within a large circuit to try cases. In urban areas, general trial court judges may specialize in criminal, family, juvenile, civil, or other types of cases.

Intermediate appellate courts or intermediate courts of appeals hear appeals from general trial courts. Though the structure varies from state to state, most state appeals courts employ three-judge panels to hear and decide cases.

Courts of last resort are the appeals court at the top of the state system which varies from state to state. The most common name is state supreme court. Most often, these courts of last resort convene in the state’s capital. Their jurisdiction includes all matters of state law. Once a state supreme court decides a case, the only avenue of appeal left is the U.S. Supreme Court. However, such appeals are limited to cases that present a constitutional issue, which is a highly unlikely occurrence.

Ninety-four district courts occupy the lowest level in the federal judiciary. These ninety-four courts include 89 federal court districts throughout the country, with at least one district in each state. The five additional district courts are located in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and three other U.S. territories. Each district court is a trial court with original jurisdiction in its region. District courts are where most cases in the federal system begin. In the past, civil cases dominated district court caseloads. Increasingly, criminal cases are crowding the dockets of these courts, with drug violations leading the way. District court cases are tried before a jury, unless a defendant waives that right. In such cases, the judge decides the outcome of the case in what is known as a bench trial.

Thirteen appellate courts occupy the second level of the federal judiciary. These midlevel courts are known as U.S. courts of appeals. Only a fraction of the cases decided in district courts are reviewed by appeals courts. Of these, an even smaller number get heard by the Supreme Court. Of the 13 appeals courts, one deals with cases arising in Washington, D.C. Another 11 review cases in circuits made up of several states. In 1982, Congress added the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to the judicial system. This 13th appeals court reviews cases nationwide that involve special subjects, such as veterans’ benefits and trade issues. The judges who staff appeals courts sit in panels of three to hear cases. Their primary job is to review district court cases to determine whether the district judge made an error in applying the law in that one trial. However, sometimes their decisions have a broader application than the specific case before them.

From time to time, Congress has established special federal courts to deal with specific categories of cases. Staffing these courts are judges expert in a particular area, such as tax or trade law. These special courts include both lower and appeals courts. During times of war, the United States has also set up military tribunals to try members of enemy forces. A military tribunal is a court in which officers from the armed forces serve as both judge and jury. In 2006, Congress authorized the creation of military tribunals to try noncitizens accused of committing acts of terrorism against the United States.

1) Read Chapter 14 Federal Judicial System
2) Read Chapter 15 Economic and Environmental Policy



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