Understanding the Judicial System

The United States Judicial System

The federal government and every state government has a judicial system. The judicial system, also known as the judiciary, is embodied in the judicial branch of state and federal governments.

In criminal cases, the judiciary decides whether the executive branch of government can prove the criminal charges it brings beyond a reasonable doubt. If the executive branch meets that standard, the judicial branch chooses an appropriate punishment from the range of punishments authorized by the legislative branch of government.

The judiciary also resolves civil disputes. Most civil disputes involve a private party bringing a lawsuit against another private party, although some lawsuits are brought by or are filed against the government.

Some disputes are resolved by administrative courts that are part of the executive branch of government. Most administrative cases involve the enforcement of regulations that are created by administrative agencies. The judiciary generally has limited authority to review decisions made by administrative courts.

Federal Courts

Federal District Courts are trial courts where federal criminal charges are filed. Some civil cases can also be filed in these courts. The two types of lawsuits that are allowed in federal court include:

  1. Cases that raise a “federal question,” meaning the lawsuit is authorized by a federal statute or the federal Constitution; and
  2. Cases in which the parties reside in different states and the lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages.

When a lawsuit is filed in state court that could have been filed in federal court, the defendant is usually allowed to “remove” the case to federal court. Many defendants do so because they think that federal courts are more favorable to defendants than state courts.

Federal trials in most civil cases can be decided by a jury. The jury in a federal civil trial must return a unanimous verdict. Federal judges can decide how many people will sit on the jury, although there must always be at least 6 jurors but not more than 12.

The final decision of a Federal District Court, whether made by a judge or jury, can be appealed to a Federal Court of Appeals. Each District Court is assigned to one of twelve circuits. And each of those circuits has a Court of Appeals that hears appeals from decisions of District Courts within that circuit.

State Courts

Depending on the state, the names given to state trial courts can vary. Common names include circuit courts, district courts, superior courts, and county courts. Some trial courts, such as juvenile and family courts, may only hear specific types of cases. Other courts might hear a wider variety of civil cases as well as criminal cases.

In civil cases, each state makes its own rules about the number of jurors that must decide the case and whether the jury must be unanimous. When a state does not require a jury to return a unanimous verdict, it usually allows a case to be decided by agreement of 3/4 or 5/6 of the jurors.

In criminal cases, most states require a unanimous verdict by a 12-person jury. Some states allow for smaller juries or criminal verdicts that are not unanimous; however, at some point the constitutional right to a jury in criminal cases is infringed when juries are too small or when small juries are allowed to return a verdict that is not unanimous.

States also have their own system of appellate courts. Some states have only one appellate court (typically called the state supreme court). Many states have created intermediate appellate courts (typically known as courts of appeal).

The losing party in a state trial court usually has the right to appeal. That appeal is taken to an intermediate appellate court if one exists, otherwise, it is taken to the state supreme court. The losing party on an appeal to the court of appeals can ask the state supreme court to review the court of appeals’ decision, but the supreme court usually has discretion to pick and choose the appeals it wants to hear.

Small Claims Court

Every state has a small claims court that hears civil cases of relatively small value (ranging from $2,500 to $15,000, depending on the state). These courts usually only hear specific cases such as evictions.

Small claims cases are usually decided by a judge, magistrate, or court commissioner, not by a jury. Procedures are simplified so that people can handle cases without needing the expertise of a lawyer.

U.S. Supreme Court

You might hear someone every once in a while threaten to take a case “all the way to the Supreme Court.” However, this rarely happens. The Supreme Court can consider cases that were decided by a Federal Court of Appeals. It can also hear cases decided by the highest state court, but only if the case raises federal issues.

For the most part, the Supreme Court has discretion to pick the cases it hears. In most years, the Supreme Court only agrees to decide about 2% of the cases it is asked to review.