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


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