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Court System



  • There are about 30,000 state court judges in the US

  • Selected in four ways:

  • Popular election (most states)

  • Election by the legislature

  • Appointment by the governor

  • Combination of appointment and popular election.

  • Terms: limited terms


  • Most legal cases in the U.S. are resolved in state courts

  • Crimes under state laws

  • Family law, inheritance, personal injury, property, traffic,

  • State constitutional issues

  • And most cases involving federal law


  • Decide cases involving local law (like littering or parking)


  • State courts decide cases of state law

  • Criminal, family, contract, juvenile law

  • Three types of state courts

  • Minor courts (justice courts, municipal courts, magistrate courts, inferior trial courts)

  • Specialized to deal with specific types of legal issues

  • Family courts, traffic courts, small claims courts, probate courts (inheritance)

  • General trial court (superior court, county court, district court, court of common pleas)

  • Civil or criminal

  • Appeals Courts (state supreme court)




  • Article III gives Congress the power to create lower courts including federal district courts, federal courts of appeals and US Court of International Trade.

  • "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."


  • Federal courts have limited jurisdiction

  • They hear cases with questions about federal law or federal constitution

  • Sometimes here cases that deal with state law if parties are from different states and large amount of money is in question.

  • Disputes between states

  • Treaties with foreign nations

  • Bankruptcy

  • Admiralty and maritime

  • Antitrust

  • Banking regulation

  • Foreign diplomats

  • Handle more than 375,000 cases a year and more than 1 million bankruptcy petitions.


  • There are 852 federal judges in the US

  • Federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate

  • Serve for life (unless they resign, retire or are impeached)


  • There are 94 federal judicial districts

  • Some states have one (like Wyoming, Kansas, Minnesota etc.)

  • Others have many (like California, Texas, Oklahoma etc.)

  • They handle both criminal and civil cases

  • Also bankruptcy and tax courts


  • Each district has at least one US District Judge

  • Appointed by President, confirmed by Senate for a life term.

  • There are over 670 district judges nationwide


  • Trial courts are grouped into 12 regional circuits

  • First: Maine, NH, MA

  • Second: NY, CT, VT

  • Third: PA, NJ, DE

  • Ninth: Largest, WA, MT, ID, OR, NV, AZ, AK, HI


  • Each circuit court has multiple judges (First = 6, Ninth = 29)

  • Appointed by president, confirmed by Senate, serve for life.


  • Appeals to Circuit Court first handed by a panel (3 circuit court judges)

  • Parties file "briefs" to the court arguing why trial court's decision should be "affirmed" or "reversed"

  • After briefs are filed, the court will schedule "oral argument" - lawyers make arguments and answer judge's questions.

  • Each has a federal court of appeals (U.S Circuit Court)

  • Handle appeals from within the circuit to decide whether the law was applied correctly.

  • Also special Court of Appeals that hear particular topics

  • International trade, patent law, money claims against fed. govt., veterans issues.




  • Justice for armed services


  • Article 1, Section 8 gives Congress authority to "make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces."

  • Overseen by the president as commander in chief of armed forces.


  • Regulation called Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)

  • Similar to criminal codes in states but also has punishment for specific military conduct (like failure to perform an official duty or refusing to obey a lawful order)


  • Violations of UCMJ heard in proceedings called courts-martial trials

  • Trials consist of judges and attorneys drawn from legal officers of military branch in which violation occurred


  • US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

  • Panel of five civilian judges appointed by the president for 15 year terms.

  • Cases from this court can be appealed to the Supreme Court




  • Operate on Native American reservations

  • Broad range of criminal and civil cases involving both Native Americans and non-Native Americans

  • Jurisdiction is based on location of offense (on or off reservation) status of plaintiffs and defendants (Native American or not)

  • Federal courts have jurisdiction over many felonies committed by Native Americans on the reservation


  • Limited to imprisonment for less than a year

  • And fine less than $5000

  • Tribal courts cannot prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on the reservation.




  • Primary function is to resolve disputes about the meaning of federal law and the Constitution.

  • Must make sure federal law is uniform

  • Power of Judicial Review (deciding whether federal and state laws are constitutional

  • Right given in 1803 by Marbury v. Madison

  • Also decides what a federal law means

  • Must wait for a trial to decide


  • Article III, Section 2


  • Appeal

  • Almost 9,000 cases are appealed to Supreme Court every year.

  • Only 80 are decided each term (less than 1%)

  • Cases where the courts have decided the same issue in different ways

  • Cases where the decision will have a national impact (abortion, privacy, death penalty etc.)

  • Business cases that involve billions of dollars.

  • More than 1/2 are people appealing criminal convictions when raises a question about federal law or the U.S. Constitution and answered differently by lower courts.

  • How cases are decided

  • Petitioners ask for appellate court to grant a writ of certiorari

  • Writ of certiorari = Supreme Court requests records from inferior court

  • Rule of Four - If four of the nine justices agree to hear the case then the petition for certiorari is granted and case is schedule

  • Original Jurisdiction

  • Cases involving representatives of foreign governments

  • Certain cases in which a state is a party

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