In the United States, the judiciary is a dual court system. This means legal cases involving federal law are heard in federal courts and cases involving state law are heard in state courts. Some courts hear criminal cases, in which one party is tried for breaking a specific law or laws. Another type of court is a civil court, which a federal or state court that hears and decides legal disputes between two or more parties.
The legal proceedings that take place within both state and federal courts follow an adversarial system, which is the process through which two parties present their arguments and evidence (often via a lawyer) in front of a neutral judge or jury. The neutral party then decides the outcome of the case. In a criminal case, the parties are the prosecution, representing the government, and the defendant, accused of a crime. The judge or jury finds the defendant guilty or not guilty. If guilty, the defendant is given a sentence, such as a fine or imprisonment. In a civil case, a plaintiff charges that a defendant has injured him or her in some way. Here the judge or jury determines whether the defendant did or did not cause injury for which he or she is liable and, if so, the extent of that liability.
The jurisdiction of federal and state courts varies depending on the type and stage of a case. Federal courts have original jurisdiction, or a court's authority to hear and decide a case first, before any other court for cases involving federal laws and treaties, ambassadors and other public officials, maritime law, claims against the United States of America, disputes between a state or its citizens and another country or its citizens, and disputes involving two or more states (including citizens and land in these states).
Structure of the Federal Court System
The federal courts are organized in a three-tier system composed of the district courts, the appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. The vast majority of federal cases begin in the U.S. district courts, also called trial courts or courts of original jurisdiction. A district court is a federal court where a criminal or civil case most likely begins. A district judge hears the case, and a jury usually decides it. (In certain instances, the judge alone can decide a case, in what is called a bench trial.) There is at least one district court in each state and one each in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Every district court also includes a bankruptcy court unit. Bankruptcy cases are only tried in federal court and can involve personal, farm, or business bankruptcy.
In addition to the 94 district courts, there are two additional federal trial courts: the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims. The former hears cases involving customs and trade between the United States and other countries. The latter hears cases in which a litigant is asking for monetary or other damages from the United States, such as in situations where the federal government has absorbed private property.
The next level up in the federal court system is the U.S. circuit courts, which are appellate courts or courts of appeals. An appellate court is a federal or state court that hears challenges to decisions made by a lower court and rules on whether that court applied the law fairly to reach those decisions. For the purposes of the appellate courts, the 94 district courts are divided among 12 circuits, or regions. Each of these 12 circuits has a court of appeals. (Five circuits also include bankruptcy appellate units.) There is a 13th federal appellate court: the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears specific cases from across the country, including appeals on cases involving patent law and those decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims. In each case before a circuit, the appeal is heard by a panel of three appellate judges; no jury is involved.
The third and highest level of the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court. Its purview is clearly stated in the Constitution in Article 3, Section 2:
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.The Supreme Court mainly hears cases on appeal from the lower courts, although it does have original jurisdiction in cases involving ambassadors and public officials, as well as in cases in which a state is one of the litigants. The nine justices choose which appeals to hear (a process discussed later in this guide). A decision by the Supreme Court on a federal constitutional issue is considered the final word on that issue.
State Court Systems in the United States
State courts hear cases involving state law and state constitutions. Like the federal courts, the state courts are also organized in a bottom-up structure. State trial courts focus on state laws, which tend to be much more specific and deal with more granular areas, such as real-estate transactions and many types of criminal behavior. State appellate and supreme courts play a similar role as their federal counterparts but base their decisions on state constitutions and laws.
State trial courts vary both in structure and jurisdiction. There are traffic courts, small claims courts, and family courts, as well as a wide range of courts dealing with issues such as drug possession, crimes committed by homeless persons, personal injury, inheritance claims, contract disputes, and several other types of civil and criminal lawsuits. Depending on the type of court and the state, a judge or a jury may decide a case.
Another main difference between state and federal courts is how judges are chosen. Federal judges are nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and appointed for life. State judges are granted their position in a variety of ways, depending on the state. In some states, judges are elected by the people or the state legislature for set terms. In others, judges are appointed, either for life or a set number of years, by the governor or a nominating commission.
Some cases involve concurrent jurisdiction, a situation arising when both state and federal court have the authority to hear and decide a case. For example, an individual from one state suing an individual from another state might sue in the state court of the defendant or in federal court. With such a case, the plaintiff can choose in which court to have the case heard; however, the defendant may disagree and try to remove the case to the other court. Additionally, under what is called diversity jurisdiction, if each of two or more parties in a civil case involving state law is located in different states, a federal court can hear the case. Another rule applies to diversity jurisdiction: the "amount in controversy" must be more than $75,000 for the case to make it to federal court. This often applies to a class action lawsuit, which is a civil lawsuit brought by one person or a group on behalf of a larger group of people who claim to have been injured by the same party in a similar way. Examples of class action lawsuits are suits filed against pharmaceutical companies on behalf of thousands of people who suffered certain side effects from a medication or suits filed against a company whose investors were defrauded in some way.