court system in the United States

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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court system in the United States

court system in the United States, judicial branches of the federal and state governments charged with the application and interpretation of the law. The U.S. court system is divided into two administratively separate systems, the federal and the state, each of which is independent of the executive and legislative branches of government. Such a dual court system is a heritage of the colonial period. By the time the U.S. Constitution had first mandated (1789) the establishment of a federal judiciary, each of the original Thirteen Colonies already had its own comprehensive court system based on the English model. Thus, the two systems grew side by side and came to exercise exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and overlapping, or concurrent, jurisdiction in others.

The Federal Court System

Of the two systems, the federal is by far the less complicated. According to Article III of the Constitution, "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." In accordance with this directive, the federal judiciary is divided into three main levels.

At the bottom are the federal district courts, which have original jurisdiction in most cases of federal law. Made up of 92 districts, the federal district court system has at least one bench in each of the 50 states, as well as one each in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. There are from 1 to more than 20 judges in each district, and, as with most federal jurists, district court judges are appointed by the President and serve for life. Cases handled by the federal district courts include those relating to alleged violations of the Constitution or other federal laws, maritime disputes, cases directly involving a state or the federal government, and cases in which foreign governments, citizens of foreign countries, or citizens of two or more different states are involved.

Directly above the district courts are the United States courts of appeals, each superior to one or more district courts. Established by Congress in 1891, the court of appeals system is composed of 11 judicial circuits throughout the 50 states plus one in the District of Columbia. There are from 6 to 27 judges in each circuit. In addition to hearing appeals from their respective district courts, the courts of appeals have original jurisdiction in cases involving a challenge to an order of a federal regulatory agency, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The highest court in the federal system is the Supreme Court of the United States, the only federal court explicitly mandated by the Constitution. Since 1869 it has been composed of one chief justice and eight associate justices. The Supreme Court sits in Washington, D.C., and has final jurisdiction on all cases that it hears. The high court may review decisions made by the U.S. courts of appeals, and it may also choose to hear appeals from state appellate courts if a constitutional or other federal issue is involved. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in a limited number of cases, including those that involve high-ranking diplomats of other nations or those between two U.S. states.

In addition, the federal judiciary maintains a group of courts that handle certain limited types of disputes. Included among such special federal courts are the Court of Federal Claims, which adjudicates monetary claims against the U.S. government, and the Tax Court. Special court judges, unlike those in the three main levels of the federal judiciary, do not serve for life. The U.S. armed forces have courts-martial for cases involving military personnel (see military law).

At the end of the 1990s, controversy had arisen over the response of federal appeals courts to steadily increasing caseloads. Critics charged that the courts were saving few cases for full consideration and were perfunctorily affirming many lower court decisions rather than publishing reasoned opinions; many felt that this practice was eroding confidence in the system and was denying litigants a chance for further review by the Supreme Court. Defenders of the practice responded that it was necessary if speedy resolution of cases were to occur.

State Court Systems

The system of state courts is quite diverse; virtually no two states have identical judiciaries. In general, however, the states, like the federal government, have a hierarchically organized system of general courts along with a group of special courts. The lowest level of state courts, often known generically as the inferior courts, may include any of the following: magistrate court, municipal court, justice of the peace court, police court, traffic court, and county court. Such tribunals, often quite informal, handle only minor civil and criminal cases. More serious offenses are heard in superior court, also known as state district court, circuit court, and by a variety of other names. The superior courts, usually organized by counties, hear appeals from the inferior courts and have original jurisdiction over major civil suits and serious crimes such as grand larceny. It is here that most of the nation's jury trials occur. The highest state court, usually called the appellate court, state court of appeals, or state supreme court, generally hears appeals from the state superior courts and, in some instances, has original jurisdiction over particularly important cases. A number of the larger states, such as New York, also have intermediate appellate courts between the superior courts and the state's highest court. Additionally, a state may have any of a wide variety of special tribunals, usually on the inferior court level, including juvenile court, divorce court, probate court, family court, housing court, and small-claims court. In all, there are more than 1,000 state courts of various types, and their judges, who may be either appointed or elected, handle the overwhelming majority of trials held in the United States each year.

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