HGov: Judicial System Structure 1

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.

1) Read Chapter 14 Federal Judicial System

Econ: Chapter 14 Review


Chapter 14 review:
unemployment, inflation, recession, fiscal policy, government spending, budget, taxes, automatic stabilizers, income taxes, unemployment compensation, monetary policy, open market operation, discount rate, reserve requirement, buying government securities, selling government securities, recognition lag, operational lag, Federal Reserve, Board of Governors, District Reserve Banks Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC).


HGov: Chapter 11 Review




Chapter 11 Review


Congressional membership, Congressional leadership, Congressional committees, how a bill becomes law process.

Econ: Fiscal and Monetary Policies

The federal government uses monetary and fiscal policies to stabilize and keep the economy healthy. Monetarists believe that fiscal policy is not as important as monetary policy, which addresses how the Fed controls the rate of growth of the money supply. Supporters of monetary theory believe that the Fed should increase the money supply at a smooth rate each year. Monetarists believe that the main problem with fiscal policy is that it cannot be implemented effectively.

Power of Money: Fed’s monetary policy responsibility, using the Fed’s response to inflation of the late 1970s as a case study.

HGov: Bill Becomes Law

Bills come to a committee from a variety of sources, including individual citizens and interest groups. A large number originate in departments and agencies of the executive branch. These bills are put forward to advance the policies advocated by the president. No matter where a bill originates, a member of Congress must introduce it. According to the rules of the House, the speaker distributes proposed legislation to the various committees for study. In the Senate, the majority leader handles this task.

Once a bill is sent to a committee, the chair decides what to do with it. One option is simply to ignore it. Another option is to hold hearings on the bill, either in the full committee or in one of its subcommittees. Subcommittees are smaller groups of lawmakers that focus on particular areas within the full committee’s jurisdiction. The committee chair can refer a bill either to a subcommittee that will give it a favorable reception or to one that will not. This is another source of a chair’s considerable power. A committee’s work on a proposed bill can be divided into three phases. At each point, the legislation can move forward or die.

The first phase usually begins with a legislative hearing in front of the subcommittee to which the bill was assigned by the committee chair. The purpose of the hearing is to listen to testimonies and gather information from individuals who are interested in or have expertise to share about the proposed legislation. The people called on to testify may include the bill’s sponsors, public officials, lobbyists, and private citizens. Hearings can be fairly short, or they can drag on for days. Subcommittee chairs, for the most part, control the selection and scheduling of witnesses. If they favor a bill, they can move the hearing along. If they oppose a bill, they kill it by scheduling hearings that never seem to end.

After the hearings end, subcommittee members gather to determine a bill’s final language. This meeting is known as a markup session, because this is when members mark up, or amend, the bill. At least one-third of the subcommittee’s members must be present at a markup session to make up a quorum. The chair starts a markup session by noting the bill’s title and opening it up to amendment. Amendment procedures vary by committee, but typically any change in a bill must be approved by a majority of those present. The committee members usually debate the merits of each proposed amendment before voting on it. During markup, members are often torn between their roles as delegates and as trustees. As delegates, they want to address the particular interests of their home districts or states. As trustees, they want to shape a bill that will be good for the country while also attracting support from other lawmakers, the president, and the general public.

Once subcommittee members deal with the last amendment to the bill, they vote on a motion to return the bill to the full committee. Those who do not want the bill to move on vote no at this point. However, if a bill has made it through markup, it will most likely be sent back to the full standing committee. The standing committee can then accept the bill as is or amend it further, even holding more hearings and its own markup session. It then votes on whether to report the bill to the full House or Senate for a floor vote. If the vote is favorable, the committee staff prepares a written report explaining why the committee recommends the enactment of this bill. It is then up to the full House or Senate to agree or disagree with the committee’s recommendation.

In the Senate, a bill reported out of committee is ready to be voted on by the full chamber. But in the House, the bill’s sponsors need to clear one more hurdle: the House Rules Committee. This powerful committee can move a bill ahead of others on the House schedule so that it can be considered quickly. Or it can delay a bill’s arrival on the House floor. The Rules Committee also sets the rules for debate on a bill. A bill’s supporters usually ask for a closed rule. A closed rule severely limits floor debate and amendments to a bill. A closed rule makes it easier to get a bill through the House quickly, with no damaging debate or changes. Opponents, in contrast, prefer an open rule. An open rule allows floor debate and the introduction of amendments that could cripple or kill the bill. The Rules Committee does not act independently of the speaker of the House. The speaker often sets the guidelines for when and how a bill will be debated on the floor. Should the speaker desire changes in a bill, for example, he or she might arrange for an open rule.

In both chambers, the majority party controls what happens on the chamber floor. With thousands of bills lined up waiting for a vote, floor time is precious. The speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate determine which bills will be debated and who will be allowed to speak for how long. Once floor debate on a bill begins, the speaker and majority leader both have the power of recognition. No member may rise to address the chamber without first being recognized, or given permission, by the leader. The power of recognition is so important that members of Congress do all they can to stay on good terms with their House and Senate leaders. Armed with the power of recognition, the speaker and majority leader are usually able to run an orderly legislative process. That process has three main parts: (1) general debate on the bill, (2) debate and voting on amendments to the bill, and (3) voting on final passage of the bill.

With 435 members, the House has to put limits on floor debate. On most bills, the Rules Committee often limits general debate to one hour—30 minutes each for the majority and the minority parties. The goal of this one-hour rule, like much that takes place on the House floor, is to keep the legislative process moving. The bill’s sponsor and main opponent usually control a bill’s debate time. They dole out their precious minutes to colleagues who want to speak on the bill. Typically, House members are limited to just one or two minutes at the microphone, so they learn to make their points quickly. Still, with most floor debates now being televised, members appreciate even this short amount of face time in front of the voters back home.

The Senate prides itself on its tradition of unlimited debate. With only 100 members, it can afford to be more relaxed about time. But sometimes, this tradition can bring the legislative process to a halt. In contrast to the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader has limited control over the legislative agenda. To schedule a bill, the majority leader often must work closely with the minority leader. The majority leader also has less control over floor debate. Senators must consent to limit debate. If they do not, any senator—once recognized—may speak on any subject at any length. This right comes into play most vividly when a senator starts a filibuster. A filibuster involves prolonged debate or other delaying tactics aimed at blocking the passage of a bill favored by a majority of lawmakers. A Senate filibuster can go on for days, with one long-winded speaker following another. The Senate adopted a means of closing debate known as the cloture rule. At that time, this rule required a supermajority of two-thirds of all senators to cut off debate. Today, cloture requires only three-fifths of the Senate, or 60 votes. A filibuster is not the only delaying tactic available to senators. They can also place a hold on bills to delay debate. A hold signals the lawmaker’s intention of launching a filibuster if the bill is sent to the Senate floor. Because the identity of the person placing the hold may be kept secret, senators use this tactic when they do not want to openly oppose a bill.

Like the rules for debate, the amendment process also differs in the two chambers. In the House, when general debate ends, the measure is opened to amendment. Under the five-minute rule, members debate each proposed change. In theory, though not often in practice, this rule limits members who support and oppose an amendment to five minutes of debate time each. Once all amendments have been voted on, the full House is ready to vote on final passage of the bill. The Senate follows a similar procedure, with one important difference. According to House rules, an amendment is supposed to be germane, or relevant, to the content of the bill. In the Senate, however, senators can attach amendments that are totally unrelated to a bill. Known as riders, such amendments may be used as “sweeteners” to win more votes for a bill. Or they can serve as “poison pills” designed to make sure a bill fails. Riders are often used to get controversial legislation or bills favoring special interest groups through Congress. Must-pass legislation, such as an emergency funding bill, tends to attract many riders because the president is unlikely to veto such a measure. The result is often described as a Christmas tree bill.

Floor votes in the House and Senate can be taken in three ways. In a voice vote, supporters all together call out “aye,” meaning “yes.” Then opponents call out “no.” The louder voices, in the judgment of the presiding officer, win the vote. In a standing vote, first the supporters and then the opponents stand to be counted. Neither of these two methods records how each individual lawmaker voted. In a roll-call vote, each member’s vote is officially recorded. In the Senate, this is done by having a clerk call each name from the roll of senators and recording each one’s vote. The much larger House uses an electronic voting system. Each member inserts his or her plastic Vote-ID card into a voting station slot and punches a button for “yea” (“yes”), “nay” (“no”), or “present.” A vote of “present” means the member abstains, or chooses not to cast a vote on this bill.

Before voting on any bill, most legislators consider the views of their constituents, as well as their own personal convictions. They may also feel pressures and influences from several other often conflicting, sources.

Interest groups are sometimes called pressure groups and with good reason. Their lobbyists crowd committee rooms and the halls of Congress. They confront legislators who are undecided on how to vote on a particular bill. They can also be persistent.

Leaders of each political party expect their members to support the party’s public policy goal. To gain that support, leaders can pass out favors, such as the promise of a plum committee assignment or help raising campaign funds. They can also use persuasion.

Members of Congress regularly yield to the pressure to trade votes. This kind of logrolling, or mutual support and cooperation, is a common way to get things done in Congress. Typically, two opposing groups each want a particular bill passed, so each promises to vote for the other’s measure.

Once the House or Senate passes a bill, the bill does not go directly to the president. Both chambers of Congress must vote to approve the bill in identical form before it goes from Capitol Hill to the White House for the president’s signature. A bill first passed by the House must be voted on by the Senate and vice versa. If the bill is changed in any way by the second chamber, the House and Senate will have to work out a compromise version. This often happens informally, and leaders from the two chambers iron out their differences and come to an agreement on any amendments. However, with major or controversial legislation, House and Senate leaders cannot reach agreement informally. In such cases, the bill is sent to a joint conference committee. The task of this committee is to work out a compromise that a majority of lawmakers in both chambers can accept and that the president will sign into law.

Once the bill is delivered to the White House, the president has 10 days (not counting Sundays) to do one of the following:

  • Sign the bill into law.
  • Veto the bill.
  • Take no action on the bill. At the end of 10 days and Congress is in session, the bill becomes law without the president’s signature.
  • Take no action on the bill. At the end of 10 days and Congress has adjourned, the bill fails without the president’s veto.

A bill that has been vetoed by the president is delivered back to the first chamber that passed it. That chamber may decide that the bill cannot be saved. Or it may try to override, or cancel, the presidential veto.

Econ: Monetary Policy

The Fed has a number of monetary tools available to change the money supply and interest rates to affect real output, employment, and price levels.

The Fed uses expansionary monetary policy or easy money policy to expand the money supply during recessions. A decrease in the reserve requirement, a lower discount rate, or the Fed’s purchase of securities can achieve this result. As the money supply grows and interest rates fall. The increase in demand results in an increase in real GDP, employment, and price levels.

Contractionary or tight money policy is used to reduce the money supply during periods of significant inflation. An increase in the reserve requirement, an increase in the discount rate, or the Fed’s sale of securities will reduce the money supply, increasing interest rates. As a result, real output will fall back to full-employment output and employment will fall. Because of the ratchet effect, however, prices are unlikely to decline.

Monetary policy holds advantages over fiscal policy in that monetary policy is very flexible and can be implemented quickly. Its policymakers are shielded from political pressure, allowing them to focus solely on what is good for short-run stabilization and long-run growth of the economy. But monetary policy also faces limitations on its effectiveness. It takes some length of time to recognize economic instability and to fully implement the monetary policies. But more importantly, while monetary policy works well to discourage borrowing during periods of inflation, it is not as effective in promoting investment during severe recessions. Firms consider return on investment as the benefit of investing, and when they have excess capacity as a result of lower consumer demand, they have little reason to invest even when interest rates are low. Banks may hesitate to make loans to firms that may close or households that may fall into foreclosure or bankruptcy, fearing the loans may not be repaid.

Thank You Parents