THE ORGANIZATION OF COURTS

The American court system consists of both state and federal courts (see Figure 3.1).

The federal government has its own court system, and each of the 50 states also has its own court system. No two state court systems are alike; indeed, the differences both in the functions and in the labels given to American courts are many and bewildering, and no generalization is absolutely reliable for all states. Court systems have rarely been the product of long-range planning. Nearly all represent a series of patchwork accommodations to changing needs (Spohn and Hemmens, 2012).

Although the organization and the structure of state court systems vary widely, in most states there are (1) trial courts (commonly called district courts), where most civil and criminal cases are originally heard, often before a jury; (2) intermediate courts of appeals, which primarily review cases decided at the trial court level; and (3) a court of last resort (commonly called a state supreme court), whose primary function is to review cases decided by the lower appeals courts.

Most of the nation’s legal business is settled in state courts under the provision of state law. However, state court decisions that involve a “federal question”—that is, decisions that present a question involving the Constitution (such as free speech) or federal laws (such as racial or sexual discrimination)—may be appealed to the U.S. federal courts or to the Supreme Court (Pfander, 2009).

The federal district courts carry most of the workload of the federal courts. At least one court of this type exists in every state, although some of the larger states are subdivided into several districts. There are 94 district courts and some 650 district court judges. A single judge usually presides over trials in the district courts. Although the right to a jury trial is a hallowed American legal principle, jury trials in criminal cases in the federal courts are actually quite rare: In 2015, only about 2% of 81,000 federal criminal defendants were convicted in jury trials (Weiser, 2016).

In the hierarchy of the federal judiciary, the several courts of appeals are immediately above the district courts. The nation is divided into 12 geographically defined jurisdictions, called “circuits,” and one nationwide specialized jurisdiction. There is a court of appeals with a panel of three judges in each circuit. The chief function of these courts is to review decisions made by the district courts within their jurisdictions. They are also empowered to review the decisions of federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission.

Thus, the typical court case begins in a trial court in the state or federal court system. Most cases go no further than the trial court. For example, the criminal defendant is convicted (by a trial or by a guilty plea) and sentenced by the trial court, and the case ends. The personal injury suit ends in a judgment by a trial court (or an out-of-court settlement by the parties while the court suit is pending), and the disputants leave the court system.

Some litigants, however, who are not fully satisfied with the decision of a trial court may, by right, file an appeal. An appeal may take one of two forms: a trial de novo (a new trial) or a more limited review of specific aspects of a trial proceeding. For example, a criminal

THE ORGANIZATION OF LAW

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American Court Systems Flowchart

Figure 3.1 American Court Systems Flowchart

defendant who believes that a conviction was based on errors by the trial judge (such as the admission of evidence that should have been excluded) may seek a new trial. In other instances, a litigant may seek a review of certain aspects of the trial based on procedural grounds. Most states have only one appellate court, usually known as the state supreme court. This court hears appeals from all trial court decisions, criminal and civil, except those of minor courts. State supreme courts render the final decision for all cases involving state law. The U.S. Supreme Court renders the final verdict on all matters involving federal law or the federal Constitution.

In the lower court, the losing party bears the burden of appealing. In a criminal case, the prosecutor is prohibited from appealing an acquittal. The sole function of appellate courts is to correct errors committed in law by the trial courts. As disputes move from the trial to the appellate level, they are typically transformed. They become almost exclusively disputes about law or about procedures; issues of law or questions concerning the way the trial was conducted are argued in appellate courts. Usually, the facts produced by the trial proceedings are not disputed at the appellate level. Time allotted for oral arguments before appellate courts is limited. Disputes are conducted primarily through briefs, motions, and memoranda. In a sense, disputes in appellate courts are a “lawyers’ game.” In trial courts, decisions are rendered by a single judge or shared by a judge and jury. In appellate courts, the decision-making process involves only judges. Some appellate courts have only a single judge, although most have several judges. Disputing in appellate courts is far removed in time and substance from the events that gave rise to the original disagreement. The original parties, their dispute, and its specific resolution become less important than the legal context into which they are placed.

 
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