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How Is the Court System Structured?

The judicial branch of the U.S. Government is a network of federal and state courts, each with distinct jurisdictions and roles. This judicial system handles various legal disputes, from minor legal issues to significant federal matters.

This article looks into the multi-layered structure of the United States judicial system. It details the hierarchies and functions of each court within both state and federal courts.

Understanding Federal Court and State Court

The federal courts and most state courts are structured the same way. However, state and federal courts handle different types of cases, each with its own exclusive jurisdiction and original jurisdiction.

State courts mainly handle cases involving state laws. This includes criminal matters, civil matters such as personal injury claims, matters in family court, probate of wills and estate, and real property issues. 

State courts also have the authority to hear local matters, such as county and city ordinance violations. Although they can also address federal law cases, their primary jurisdiction concerns cases arising under state law affecting individuals within the state's geographic boundaries.

On the other hand, federal courts only decide cases with issues of federal law. This includes constitutional rights, intellectual property, and federal crimes or cases between residents of two different states or countries. This judiciary system also handles disputes, relating to treaties, bankruptcy cases, and admiralty law.

The State Court System

The state court system includes different levels of courts, including Municipal, State, Appellate, and Supreme Court. They operate under varying authorities and jurisdictions, which are subject to specific state law that governs them.

Municipal Courts

Local courts, also known as municipal courts, are courts of limited jurisdiction. It has authority over petty offenses and misdemeanor crimes committed within a particular town or city. The rules that govern municipal courts are those prescribed by state laws. Because of this, the legal procedure varies from state to state.

For instance, in Kansas, municipal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving violations of city ordinances and specific state law offenses such as domestic battery and DUI. Municipal courts in Kansas cannot issue search warrants. 

Meanwhile, in Arizona, municipal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases violating city ordinances and state laws. In addition, Arizona municipal courts also have the authority to issue search warrants.

State Courts

A state court is a court with general jurisdiction within a state. It is a judge of cases involving state constitutions and state laws. It handles legal matters related to family law, probate of wills and estates, contract cases, tort cases, and most criminal cases.

State Appellate Courts

Parties who are not satisfied with a court decision of the state trial courts may file an appeal to state appellate courts. They also hear cases involving interpretations of state laws and state constitutions. Each state has its state appellate court, compared to the U.S. Court of Appeals, with only 13 appellate circuits.

State Supreme Court

State Supreme Court has the authority to hear disputes within the state. It hears cases involving interpretations of the state constitution and state law.

Note that states sometimes have different names for the various levels of state courts. For instance, in New York, the Supreme Court is not the highest. Supreme Court is the trial court, which can be confusing as most states use this term to refer to the highest court in the state. The New York Court of Appeals is the state's highest court.

The Federal Court System

The U.S. Federal Court System involves District Courts, Appellate Courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. These courts hear matters of federal law and constitutional issues.

District Courts

In general, cases begin in the trial courts, also called district courts. They are the courts that first hear cases and make findings of both facts and law. A trial court may hear any criminal or civil case not exclusively within another court's jurisdiction.

In the United States, there are 94 federal judicial districts. Each has its own U.S. district courts that handle various cases. Depending on the size of the jurisdiction, there can be one or multiple district courts in one state.

U.S. Court of Appeals

Congress established 13 U.S. Court of Appeals. These courts handle cases under federal laws, regulations, or the U.S. Constitution. This includes cases involving bankruptcy, federal taxes, patents, and federal crimes. The Court of Appeals also hears appeals from the U.S. Court of Claims and the U.S. Court of International Trade.

It is important to note that courts of appeal are not set up to re-hear cases in their entirety. Instead, it's typical for courts of appeal to address whether a lower court made severe mistakes of law. In addition, an appellate court can take cases from courts of special jurisdiction.

U.S. Supreme Court

The highest court, also called the court of last resort, is the U.S. Supreme Court. It is the final arbiter of cases involving federal constitutional issues and appeals. It is also the judiciary branch that has the final authority to hear cases.

This court is composed of nine Supreme Court Justices: one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. If an appellate court makes an error or the parties believe the case involves constitutional issues, they can appeal from the appellate court to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Small Claims Courts

Small claims courts resolve legal issues involving relatively small amounts of money. It is designed to make these types of cases cost-effective, allowing the parties to resolve legal disputes without extensive legal representation. Depending on state laws, small claims courts handle cases where the amount in dispute falls between $3,000 and $20,000.

In small claims courts, litigants often represent themselves, and the process is simplified compared to regular court trials. The method of resolving these types of disputes was designed to make it more accessible to the general public.

Courts of Special Jurisdiction

The courts of special jurisdiction are set up to hear specific types of cases. This judiciary branch includes the following courts:

These courts often use simplified rules of evidence and procedure designed to expedite the legal process. Court personnel such as court judges, lawyers, and administrative staff often have specialized legal knowledge and training. This enhances the accuracy and efficiency of handling cases under a court of special jurisdiction.

Seek Legal Advice

With its different levels and jurisdictions, the U.S. court system can be confusing. To navigate this intricate legal landscape, it's a good idea to consult with a litigation and appeals attorney. They can provide legal advice and represent your interests. 

Whether you are filing a complaint in municipal court or defending a case in the Supreme Court, litigation and appeals attorneys can guide you. They can provide legal advice and advocate on your behalf. Contact a litigation and appeals lawyer to learn more.

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