The Court System

Role of Courts, Judges, and Jurisdiction

Role of Courts in Protecting Liberties

Courts play an important role in adjudicating disputes between parties. In civil cases, the court protects and establishes property and individual rights and liberties, while in criminal cases, the court protects and establishes liberty rights. Not all wrongs can be brought before a court, and those that can must follow specific procedures.

The primary role courts play in the legal system is to resolve disputes between parties. Courts also help determine if the laws enacted by the executive and legislative branches are constitutional. In civil cases the court protects property and individual rights and liberties. Civil law is a system of written rules that deals with relationships between people. It covers a variety of actions, such as contract claims, personal injury, family law, and disputes over real property. In real property disputes, courts decide ownership rights. Generally, in the United States, private citizens or the government may bring civil cases.

Criminal law is a set of rules regulating crimes against public order, such as felonies and misdemeanors, and punishable by fines and incarceration. Criminal law has three main categories. A personal crime is an offense against an individual that causes harm. Battery, kidnapping, homicide, and rape are personal crimes. A property crime is an offense that involves interference with a person's right to use or enjoy their property. Property crimes include burglary, embezzlement, arson, trespass, and forgery. An inchoate crime is an offense that someone began and took substantial steps toward but that was not completed. Inchoate crimes include "attempted" crimes (such as attempted murder and attempted robbery), solicitation, and conspiracy. In the United States only the government can bring criminal charges against a person.

Criminal Law and Civil Law

There are two categories of law in the legal system: criminal and civil. They have similar procedures but are pursued for different reasons.
Not all wrongs can be brought before a court. To bring a civil cause of action, the plaintiff, or the party initiating the lawsuit, must show that the particular facts of their case fall within a recognizable cause of action. For example, making an offensive gesture such as sticking out one's tongue at another person is protected speech, not a cause of action. The rules of civil procedure require that the plaintiff include the alleged violated law and facts to support the claim. If the plaintiff fails to do this, the defendant, or the party being sued or charged with a crime, can ask the court to dismiss the claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief, or the possible benefits of the claim, can be granted.

The rules of civil and criminal procedure require that the parties take certain actions to provide the other side with an opportunity and notice to participate in the litigation, or lawsuit. Even if a party has a winning argument, if proper procedures are not followed, the party risks the case being dismissed, or closed with no finding of guilt or liability.

A case can be dismissed with prejudice or without prejudice. A dismissal with prejudice means that the case is dismissed permanently. A dismissal without prejudice means that the case can be brought back to court, usually after certain conditions are corrected.

Role of Judges

Law is a process characterized by conflicting sides, and the judge is an impartial finder of both fact and law.

A judge's role varies and depends on whether they serve as a trial court or appellate court judge. A trial court judge presides over the litigation process—pretrial, trial, and posttrial—and only one judge presides over each case. The judge ensures that the litigation progresses at a reasonable speed, rules on any motions presented by the parties, and decides all questions of law.

Another important function of the trial court judge is ruling on the admissibility of evidence, which can greatly affect the outcome of the case. If the parties waive their right to a jury trial, or if the circumstances do not entitle the parties to a jury trial, the trial court judge will decide the facts of the case and render a verdict.

Judges in the appellate court, also called the court of appeals, have a different role than trial court judges do. First, appellate court judges serve on panels of usually three or more judges. They review the case to determine whether an error occurred, but not all errors are considered important enough to require reversal. These judges receive filings, evidence, and transcripts from the proceedings in trial court. The appellate court is typically restricted to the evidence presented before the trial court and cannot consider new evidence.

State court judges are normally elected, but some are appointed. The president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoints all federal court judges.


Federal Court System

The most powerful court in the United States is the Supreme Court. The federal court system consists of 94 district courts (also known as trial courts), 13 courts of appeals (appellate courts), U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the Supreme Court.
Judges have the power of judicial review established in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803). Judicial review is a judge's authority to rule on whether a law passed by the legislative branch or executive branch violates the Constitution. If the judge finds that the law is unconstitutional, they can invalidate the law.

There are two basic philosophies that a judge takes when exercising their power of judicial review. Judicial restraint is a philosophy that courts should refrain from ruling on the constitutionality of a law unless it is absolutely necessary. It is described as a type of conservative legal decision made solely according to the law and prior court decisions. This viewpoint is based on the premise that social, economic, and political change should come from the political process, not from the courts, and the court has an obligation to honor previous decisions. In contrast, judicial activism allows the courts to play an active role in social, economic, and political change. It is described as rulings that are guided by the personal decisions or political interests of a judge; the judge makes a decision that includes their own opinion or stance on the issue. Roe v. Wade (1973) is an example of judicial activism, as the Supreme Court ruling in that case overturned the state court's law that abortion was a criminal act except for the purpose of saving the mother's life.

Importance of Jurisdiction

When a dispute is brought before a court, the proper jurisdiction must be established.

When a dispute comes before a court, the venue and jurisdiction must be established. Generally, venue is the location where the crime or legal cause of action happened and where the case will be heard. Venue is concerned with the case being filed in the proper geographical location. Cases must also be filed in a court that has jurisdiction to hear the case. The primary distinction between venue and jurisdiction is that venue is concerned with the geographical location where the case will be brought and jurisdiction is concerned with whether a court has the power to hear the case. There are two types of jurisdiction courts must have to hear a case: personal and subject matter.

Personal jurisdiction is the power a court has to give orders to a particular party, both during the litigation phase and when enforcing a judgment. This jurisdiction is generally determined at the time the lawsuit or legal action is filed. Generally, a court has personal jurisdiction over a party in the following situations:

  • The party is a resident of the state where the lawsuit is filed.
  • The party files documents, including forum selection clauses in contracts, in court by submitting to jurisdiction. A forum selection clause is a contractual agreement that designates the court and location where the parties would like to have their dispute decided.
  • A summons is served on a party while the party is physically within the state where the lawsuit is filed. A summons is a court order for a party to appear in court at a particular date and time.
  • A long-arm statute applies. A long-arm statute is a state law that establishes jurisdiction over a party that does not live or is not located in the state where the lawsuit is filed, but the party is alleged to have committed a tort (wrongful act), signed a contract, caused foreseeable harm, or conducted regular business activities there.

Subject-matter jurisdiction is a court's power to hear a type of case. Some state courts can hear only certain types of cases, such as small claims (relatively small monetary disputes) and domestic relations (advising on family disputes). Federal courts allow two main types of civil cases: federal question cases and diversity cases. A federal question case involves a claim arising under the U.S. Constitution, a federal statute, or a federal treaty. A diversity case requires the plaintiff and the defendant to be citizens of different states or one or more party to be from a foreign nation, and the amount in controversy must exceed $75,000.

A court of original jurisdiction, which most commonly exists with a trial court, hears a case first and renders a decision. If a party is not satisfied with the decision, they may appeal it. A court with appellate jurisdiction, or the right to review outcomes of a lower court, examines the decision to determine whether it was legally correct. Appellate courts have three or more judges who hear a single case, with no juries and typically with no additional evidence presented. The appellate court typically makes its decision based on the evidence contained in the record from the trial court.

Trial Courts and Appellate Courts

Trial courts are fact finders. Appeals courts usually review the trial courts' legal conclusions only, not their factual findings.