Courts in the United States

I INTRODUCTION

Courts in the United States, judicial organs of government, comprising two principal systems: the federal courts, referred to as United States courts, and the state courts. The federal courts were provided for in the US Constitution on the grounds that the judicial power of the federal government could not be entrusted to the states, many of which were jealous of the powers necessary for a strong national government. Thus, Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution provides: “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 these provisions, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, organizing the US Supreme Court and establishing a system of federal courts of inferior jurisdiction.

The states were left free to establish their own judicial systems subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts, and to Article VI of the Constitution declaring the judges of the state courts to be bound by the Constitution and the laws and treaties of the United States.

II FEDERAL COURTS

The jurisdiction of the federal courts is defined in Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution, as extending in law and equity to all cases arising under the Constitution and federal legislation; to controversies to which the United States shall be a party, including those arising from treaties with other governments; to admiralty and maritime cases; to controversies between states; to controversies between a state, or its citizens, and foreign governments or their subjects; and to controversies between the citizens of one state and citizens of another state. The federal courts were also originally invested with jurisdiction over controversies between citizens of one state and the government of another state; the 11th Amendment (ratified February 7, 1795), however, removed from federal jurisdiction those cases in which the citizens of one state were plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. However, the amendment did not disturb the jurisdiction of the federal courts in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state, the defendant. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction in patent and copyright cases; and by congressional enactment in 1898, federal courts were vested with original jurisdiction in bankruptcy cases.

The courts established under the powers granted by Article III, Sections 1 and 2, of the Constitution are known as constitutional courts. Judges of constitutional courts are appointed for life by the president with the approval of the Senate. These courts are the district courts, tribunals of general original jurisdiction; the courts of appeals (before 1948, circuit courts of appeals), exercising appellate jurisdiction over the district courts; and the Supreme Court.

Other federal courts, established by Congress under powers held to be implied in other articles of the Constitution, are called legislative courts. These are the Claims Court, the Court of International Trade, the Tax Court, and the territorial courts established in the federally administered territories of the United States. The special jurisdictions of these courts are defined by the US Congress. Except in the case of the territorial courts, which are courts of general jurisdiction, the special jurisdictions of these courts are suggested by their titles.

III STATE COURTS

Each state in the United States has an independent system of courts operating under the constitution and laws of the state. Broadly speaking, the state courts are based on the English judicial system as it existed in colonial times, but as modified by statutory enactments; the character and names of the courts differ from state to state. The state courts as a whole have general jurisdiction, except in cases in which exclusive jurisdiction has been vested in the federal courts. In cases involving the federal Constitution or federal laws or treaties, the state courts are governed by the decisions of the Supreme Court and their decisions are subject to review by that Court.

Cases involving the federal Constitution, federal laws, or treaties may be brought to either the state courts or the federal courts. Ordinary civil cases not involving any of those elements can be brought only to the state courts, except in cases of diversity of citizenship between the parties, in which event the case may be brought to a federal court. By act of Congress, however, cases involving federal questions or diversity of citizenship may be brought to the federal courts only when the controversy involves US$10,000 or more; all such cases involving a smaller amount must be brought to the state courts exclusively. In accordance with a congressional enactment, a case brought to a state court that could have been brought to a federal court may be removed to the federal court at the option of the defendant.

(Bearing in mind that any statement about state courts purporting to give a typical description of them is subject to numerous exceptions, the following information may be taken as general comprehensive statements of their jurisdictions and organization.)

County courts of general original jurisdiction exercise both law and equity jurisdictions in most of the states; a few states maintain the system of separate courts of law and equity inherited from the English judicial system. Most states also maintain separate criminal and civil courts of original jurisdiction. In some states, the same courts of original jurisdiction deal with both civil and criminal cases; these courts usually have two levels, one handling misdemeanours and civil claims under US$5,000, the other handling felonies and civil claims over US$5,000. There are numerous exceptions and local variations: in North Dakota, for example, justices of the peace have civil jurisdiction where the money at stake does not exceed US$200.

Between the lower courts and the supreme appellate courts, in a number of states, are intermediate appellate courts which, like the federal courts of appeals, provide speedier justice for litigants by disposing of a large number of cases that otherwise would be added to the overcrowded schedules of the higher courts.

Courts of last resort, the highest appellate tribunals of the states in criminal and civil cases and in law and equity, are generally called supreme courts. In New York State, however, the Supreme Court is a trial court; the highest appellate court of New York, as well as of Maryland, is called the Court of Appeals. In most courts of appeal, an appeal only lies against rulings of law, not findings of fact.

The state court systems also include a number of minor courts with limited jurisdiction. These courts dispose of minor offences and relatively small civil actions. Included in this classification are police and municipal courts in cities and larger towns, and the courts presided over by justices of the peace in rural areas.

Reviewed By:
Simon Levene

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