The United States Federal Court System

The following material provides the basic information needed to stimulate critical thinking on the structure and function of the federal courts, the interaction of the attorney with those courts, and the precedent-setting decisions that have an impact on the modern court system.


Introduction
The judicial system in the United States is unique. It is actually made up of two different court systems: the federal court system and the state court systems. While each court system is responsible for hearing certain types of cases, neither is completely independent of the other, and the systems often interact. Furthermore, solving legal disputes and vindicating legal rights are key goals of both court systems. This lesson is designed to examine the differences, similarities, and interactions between the federal and state court systems to make the public aware of how each system goes about achieving these goals.

Objectives
After completing this lesson, one should be able to:

  • Understand that the American judicial system is actually made up of two separate court systems: the federal court system and the state court systems.
  • Know the structure of the federal court system and a typical state court system and be able to discuss the similarities and differences between the two.
  • Distinguish between the types of cases that are heard in the federal courts and those that are heard in the state courts.
  • Comprehend how the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the federal courts to become involved in cases arising in state courts and how, subsequently, this allows the two systems to interact.

Overview of Key Concepts


Why Are There Two Court Systems in the United States?

The U.S. Constitution created a governmental structure for the United States known as federalism. Federalism refers to a sharing of powers between the national government and the state governments. The Constitution gives certain powers to the federal government and reserves the rest for the states. Therefore, while the Constitution states that the federal government is supreme with regard to those powers expressly or implicitly delegated to it, the states remain supreme in matters reserved to them. This supremacy of each government in its own sphere is known as separate sovereignty, meaning each government is sovereign in its own right.

Both the federal and state governments need their own court systems to apply and interpret their laws. Furthermore, both the federal and state constitutions attempt to do this by specifically spelling out the jurisdiction of their respective court systems.

For example, since the Constitution gives Congress sole authority to make uniform laws concerning bankruptcies, a state court would lack jurisdiction in this matter. Likewise, since the Constitution does not give the federal government authority in most matters concerning the regulation of the family, a federal court would lack jurisdiction in a divorce case. This is why there are two separate court systems in America. The federal court system deals with issues of law relating to those powers expressly or implicitly granted to it by the U.S. Constitution, while the state court systems deal with issues of law relating to those matters that the U.S. Constitution did not give to the federal government or explicitly deny to the states.

Describe the Differences in the Structure of the Federal and State Court Systems.

Federal Court System

The term federal court can actually refer to one of two types of courts. The first type of court is what is known as an Article III court. These courts get their name from the fact that they derive their power from Article III of the Constitution. These courts include (1) the U.S. District Courts, (2) the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, and (3) the U.S. Supreme Court. They also include two special courts: (a) the U.S. Court of Claims and (b) the U.S. Court of International Trade. These courts are special because, unlike the other courts, they are not courts of general jurisdiction. Courts of general jurisdiction can hear almost any case. All judges of Article III courts are appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate and hold office during good behavior.

The second type of court also is established by Congress. These courts are (1) magistrate courts, (2) bankruptcy courts, (3) the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, (4) the U.S. Tax Court, and (5) the U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals. The judges of these courts are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. They hold office for a set number of years, usually about 15. Magistrate and bankruptcy courts are attached to each U.S. District Court. The U.S. Court of Military Appeals, U.S. Tax Court, and U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals are called Article I or legislative courts.

U.S. District Courts

There are 94 U.S. District Courts in the United States. Every state has at least one district court, and some large states, such as California, have as many as four. Each district court has between 2 and 28 judges. The U.S. District Courts are trial courts, or courts of original jurisdiction. This means that most federal cases begin here. U.S. District Courts hear both civil and criminal cases. In many cases, the judge determines issues of law, while the jury (or judge sitting without a jury) determines findings of fact.

U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal

There are 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal in the United States. These courts are divided into 12 regional circuits and sit in various cities throughout the country. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the 13th Court) sits in Washington. With the exception of criminal cases in which a defendant is found not guilty, any party who is dissatisfied with the judgment of a U.S. District Court (or the findings of certain administrative agencies) may appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in his/her geographical district. These courts will examine the trial record for only mistakes of law; the facts have already been determined by the U.S. District Court. Therefore, the court usually will neither review the facts of the case nor take any additional evidence. When hearing cases, these courts usually sit in panels of three judges.

U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States sits at the apex of the federal court system. It is made up of nine judges, known as justices, and is presided over by the Chief Justice. It sits in Washington, D.C. Parties who are not satisfied with the decision of a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal (or, in rare cases, of a U.S. District Court) or a state supreme court can petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. This is done mainly by a legal procedure known as a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari (cert.). The Court decides whether to accept such cases. Each year, the Court accepts between 100 and 150 of the some 7,000 cases it is asked to hear for argument. The cases typically fit within general criteria for oral arguments. Four justices must agree to hear the case (grant cert). While primarily an appellate court, the Court does have original jurisdiction over cases involving ambassadors and two or more states.

Special Article III Courts

  1. U.S. Court of Claims: This court sits in Washington, D.C., and handles cases involving suits against the government.
  2. U.S. Court of International Trade: This court sits in New York and handles cases involving tariffs and international trade disputes.

Special Courts Created by Congress

  1. Magistrate judges: These judges handle certain criminal and civil matters, often with the consent of the parties.
  2. Bankruptcy courts: These courts handle cases arising under the Bankruptcy Code.
  3. U.S. Court of Military Appeals: This court is the final appellate court for cases arising under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  4. U.S. Tax Court: This court handles cases arising over alleged tax deficiencies.
  5. U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals: This court handles certain cases arising from the denial of veterans’ benefits.

State Court Systems
No two state court systems are exactly alike. Nevertheless, there are sufficient similarities to provide an example of what a typical state court system looks like. Most state court systems are made up of

  1. Two sets of trial courts: (a) trial courts of limited jurisdiction (probate, family, traffic, etc.) and (b) trial courts of general jurisdiction (main trial-level courts);
  2. Intermediate appellate courts (in many, but not all, states); and
  3. The highest state courts (called by various names). Unlike federal judges, most state court judges are not appointed for life but are either elected or appointed (or a combination of both) for a certain number of years.

Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Trial courts of limited jurisdiction are courts that deal with only specific types of cases. They are often located in/near the county courthouse and are usually presided over by a single judge. A judge sitting without a jury hears most of the cases heard by these courts. Some examples of trial courts of limited jurisdiction include:

  1. Probate court: This court handles matters concerning administering the estate of a person who has died (decedent). It sees that the provisions of a will are carried out or sees that a decedent’s property is distributed according to state law if he/she died intestate (without a will).
  2. Family court: This court handles matters concerning adoption, annulments, divorce, alimony, custody, child support, etc.
  3. Traffic court: This court usually handles minor violations of traffic laws.
  4. Juvenile court: This court usually handles cases involving delinquent children under a certain age, for example, 18 or 21.
  5. Small claims court: This court usually handles suits between private persons of a relatively low dollar amount, for example, less than $5,000.
  6. Municipal court: This court usually handles cases involving offenses against city ordinances.

Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction
Trial courts of general jurisdiction are the main trial courts in the state system. They hear cases outside the jurisdiction of the trial courts of limited jurisdiction. These involve both civil and criminal cases. One judge (often sitting with a jury) usually hears them. In such cases, the judge decides issues of law, while the jury decides issues of fact. A record of the proceeding is made and may be used on appeal. These courts are called by a variety of names, including (1) circuit courts, (2) superior courts, (3) courts of common pleas, (4) and even, in New York, supreme courts. In certain cases, these courts can hear appeals from trial courts of limited jurisdiction.

Intermediate Appellate Courts
Many, but not all, states have intermediate appellate courts between the trial courts of general jurisdiction and the highest court in the state. Any party, except in a case where a defendant in a criminal trial has been found not guilty, who is not satisfied with the judgment of a state trial court may appeal the matter to an appropriate intermediate appellate court. Such appeals are usually a matter of right (meaning the court must hear them). However, these courts address only alleged procedural mistakes and errors of law made by the trial court. They will usually neither review the facts of the case, which have been established during the trial, nor accept additional evidence. These courts usually sit in panels of two or three judges.

Highest State Courts
All states have some sort of highest court. While they are usually referred to as supreme courts, some, such as the highest court in Maryland, are known as courts of appeal. In states with intermediate appellate courts, the highest state courts usually have discretionary review as to whether to accept a case. In states without intermediate appellate courts, appeals may usually be taken to the highest state court as a matter of right. Like the intermediate appellate courts, appeals taken usually allege a mistake of law and not fact. In addition, many state supreme courts have original jurisdiction in certain matters. For example, the highest courts in several states have original jurisdiction over controversies regarding elections and the reapportionment of legislative districts. These courts often sit in panels of three, five, seven, or nine judges/justices.

What Types of Cases do Federal Courts hear? By State Courts?

Note: The definitions for the terms in this section come from Black’s Law Dictionary, Seventh Edition.

Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts

The jurisdiction of the federal courts is spelled out in Article III, Section 2, of the United States Constitution. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction because they can hear only two main types of cases:

1. Diversity of Citizenship
Federal courts can have jurisdiction over a case of a civil nature in which parties are residents of different states and the amount in question exceeds the amount set by federal law (currently $75,000). The federal courts are often required to apply state law when dealing with these cases since the issues concern matters of state law. The fact that the parties are from different states and that the amount in question is high enough is what manages to get such cases into federal court.

2. Federal Question
Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases that arise under the U.S. Constitution, the laws of the United States, and the treaties made under the authority of the United States. These issues are the sole prerogative of the federal courts and include the following types of cases:

    1. Suits between states—Cases in which two or more states are a party.
    2. Cases involving ambassadors and other high-ranking public figures—Cases arising between foreign ambassadors and other high-ranking public officials.
    3. Federal crimes—Crimes defined by or mentioned in the U.S. Constitution or those defined and/or punished by federal statute. Such crimes include treason against the United States, piracy, counterfeiting, crimes against the law of nations, and crimes relating to the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce. However, most crimes are state matters.
    4. Bankruptcy—The statutory procedure, usually triggered by insolvency, by which a person is relieved of most debts and undergoes a judicially supervised reorganization or liquidation for the benefit of the person’s creditors.
    5. Patent, copyright, and trademark cases

(1) Patent—The exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a specified period (usually 17 years), granted by the federal government to the inventor if the device or process is novel, useful, and non-obvious.
(2) Copyright—The body of law relating to a property right in an original work of authorship (such as a literary, musical, artistic, photographic, or film work) fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.
(3) Trademark—A word, phrase, logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.

  1. Admiralty—The system of jurisprudence that has grown out of the practice of admiralty courts: courts that exercise jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.
  2. Antitrust—The body of law designed to protect trade and commerce from restraining monopolies, price fixing, and price discrimination.
  3. Securities and banking regulation—The body of law protecting the public by regulating the registration, offering, and trading of securities and the regulation of banking practices.
  4. Other cases specified by federal statute—Any other cases specified by an applicable federal statute.

In addition, the federal courts have jurisdiction over several other types of cases arising from acts of Congress. For example, the courts have jurisdiction in a wide variety of (1) civil rights, (2) labor relations, and (3) environmental cases. While these laws provide a “floor” for the states, they do not provide a “ceiling.” If states regulate more extensively in these areas than the federal government, then state courts also will have jurisdiction in these areas.

Jurisdiction of the State Courts
The jurisdiction of the state courts extends to basically any type of case that does not fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts. State courts are common-law courts. This means that they not only have the authority to apply or interpret the law, but they often have the authority to create law if it does not yet exist by act of the legislature to create an equitable remedy to a specific legal problem. Examples of cases within the jurisdiction of the state courts usually include the following:

  1. Cases involving the state constitution—Cases involving the interpretation of a state constitution.
  2. State criminal offenses—Crimes defined and/or punished by the state constitution or applicable state statute. Most crimes are state criminal offenses. They include offenses such as murder, theft, breaking and entering, and destruction of property.
  3. Tort and personal injury law—Civil wrongs for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages; a breach of duty that the law imposes on everyone in the same relation to one another as those involved in a given transaction.
  4. Contract law—Agreements between two or more parties creating obligations that are either enforceable or otherwise recognized as law.
  5. Probate—The judicial process by which a testamentary document is established to be a valid will, the proving of a will to the satisfaction of a court, the distribution of a decedent’s assets according to the provisions of the will, or the process whereby a decedent’s assets are distributed according to state law should the decedent have died intestate.
  6. Family—The body of law dealing with marriage, divorce, adoption, child custody and support, and domestic-relations issues.
  7. Sale of goods—The law concerning the sale of goods (moveable objects) involved in commerce (especially with regards to the Uniform Commercial Code).
  8. Corporations and business organization—The law concerning, among other things, the establishment, dissolution, and asset distribution of corporations, partnerships, limited partnerships, limited liability companies, etc.
  9. Election issues—The law concerning voter registration, voting in general, legislative reapportionment, etc.
  10. Municipal/zoning ordinances—The law involving municipal ordinances, including zoning ordinances that set aside certain areas for residential, commercial, industrial, or other development.
  11. Traffic regulation—A prescribed rule of conduct for traffic; a rule intended to promote the orderly and safe flow of traffic.
  12. Real property—Land and anything growing on, attached to, or erected on it, excluding anything that may be severed without injury to the land.

Areas of Concurrent Jurisdiction for Federal and State Courts
In addition to areas in which the states have regulated on a matter more extensively than the federal government, state courts have concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts concerning the following points of law:

  1. Diversity of Citizenship
    In civil cases involving citizens of two or more states in which the dollar amount in question exceeds $75,000, a state court may hear the case if the defendant in the case does not petition to have the case removed to federal court. Furthermore, if a civil case involves two or more citizens of different states but the amount in question does not exceed $75,000, the case must be heard by a state court.
  2. Federal Question: Any state court may interpret the U.S. Constitution, federal statute, treaty, etc., if the applicable Constitutional provision, statute, or treaty has direct bearing on a case brought in state court under a state law. However, by interpreting the U.S. Constitution, federal statute, or treaty, the state is subjecting itself to federal review. This means that after a state supreme court has acted on a case, the U.S. Supreme Court may review it. In such instances, the U.S. Supreme Court is concerned only with reviewing the state court’s interpretation of the applicable federal Constitutional provision, statute, or treaty. It does not review any matters of law that are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the state courts.

FAST FACTS

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