Court Systems, Judges, and the Law

The judicial system of the United States comprises a large number of federal and state courts. Only very specifically defined legal issues can be brought before federal courts. By far, the greatest number of court cases take place at the state and local levels.

The Court System: Federal

Along with certain federal crimes (such as terrorism or drug trafficking across state lines), federal courts hear non-criminal or civil cases:

  • If the case is premised on a question about the meaning of a federal statute or application of the Constitution;
  • If the parties are from different states, or if one is a citizen of a foreign country, and more than $75,000 is at stake; or
  • If the federal government itself has sued another party or itself been sued. For example, if a company is accused of violating a federal environmental law, the suit can be brought in federal court.

Viewed as a pyramid, the federal court system has the Supreme Court at its apex; its decisions are final and cannot be appealed. At the next level are 13 judicial circuits, each of which contains one U.S. Court of Appeals. Below the appellate level are 94 district courts and a few specialized federal courts, such as the Tax Court and Court of Federal Claims, which deals with such matters as the taking of private land for public purposes or suits filed against the federal government involving contracts or money damages.

In theory, therefore, a party to a federal judicial proceeding has access to three levels of decisions: if dissatisfied with the district court verdict, a party can appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals. A party may then seek review of a court of appeals decision in a case before the Supreme Court. In practice, however, the Supreme Court agrees to review only a small number of cases each year that it considers to be of significant national importance.

The Court System: State

State courts, which hear the overwhelming majority of criminal and civil cases, have an overall structure that parallels that of the federal court system. State trial courts initially hear civil and criminal cases; decisions can then be reviewed by courts of appeals, and finally, a case may be reviewed by the state court of last resort, often called the supreme court of the state. States also have differing kinds of specialized courts dealing with such matters as juvenile and family relations, probate, tax, or commercial law. Many states and localities have small claims courts in which people can file claims for small sums of money directly, without attorneys, following simplified and relatively quick procedures. In fact, lawyers usually are not allowed to represent clients in small claims courts. (Televised proceedings of small claims courts have become popular viewing for many.)

The Court System: Judges

Federal judges, whether in district courts or the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, are nominated by the President and subject to approval by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. To ensure their impartiality and to remove outside political pressures as much as possible, they are appointed for life, subject to removal only after impeachment or conviction of a serious crime.

At the state and local level, judges may be appointed or elected to specific terms of office. Elected or appointed, judges at every level must be seen as impartial arbiters of the law, not as partisan politicians. For example, they must remove, or"recuse" themselves from cases in which they have an interest or personal connection.

Whether at the federal or state level, judges cannot be removed before the end of their term for minor complaints or unpopular decisions. They can be removed from office only through the process of impeachment (bringing of charges) and conviction for serious crimes or violations -- either through the legislature or separate court panels.

Because government agencies -- federal, state, and local -- have broad responsibility for conducting a range of programs, many of them have established what are often called"administrative law judges" to resolve disputes. Administrative Law Judges in worker compensation boards, for example, hear cases involving employees injured on the job. Denials of social security, health, or welfare benefits are also commonly heard by the agencies that administer these programs.

The Court System: Legal Precedent

In civil and criminal matters, courts operate under the principle known as stare decisis, Latin for "let the decision stand." In other words, courts rely on the precedents established by previous court decisions in deciding current cases based on similar legal issues and facts.

Precedent does not mean that courts cannot, and do not, overturn previous decisions. However, reliance on precedent gives the law a measure of stability and predictability, ensuring that change will be evolutionary. Stare decisis, in the words of one Supreme Court justice, "is the strong tie which the future has to the past."

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