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United States Court System

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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There is a national system of courts as well as separate court systems for each state. National social, political and economic activity has increased the number of federal cases, but they are still outnumbered by state cases. Judges apply rules (precedents) from prior decisions (judge-made or common law) and interpret legislative acts via statutory construction. This gives judges a policy role.

Jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear and decide cases. However, it is worth noting that most lawsuits are settled out of court. Federal courts have jurisdiction:

  1. if a case involves a federal question;

  2. if the case involves diversity of citizenship;

  3. individuals bringing the case must have standing (have suffered harm or are in danger of suffering harm).

Cases enter the national judicial system via the 94 federal district courts. Federal district courts hear criminal cases involving violations of federal law, civil cases brought under federal law, cases in which the federal government is the plaintiff or defendant, and civil cases between citizens of different states when more than $75,000 is at issue.

Appeals may be carried from federal district courts to one of the thirteen appeals courts. Appeals courts each judges sitting in panels of three. These judges write published opinions about cases they hear. These opinions establish legal precedents. These legal precedents (judge-made law) use stare decisis to establish continuity and stability.

Relatively few cases are brought to the Supreme Court, so lowers courts usually issue the final decision on a case. This decentralization of the court system allows individual judges in district or circuit courts to interpret laws differently. This lack of uniformity can cause conflict, which is then resolved by a Supreme Court decision.

America's federal courts are built on a three-tiered system of U.S. District Courts hearing civil and criminal cases. Civil law requires the offender to compensate the victim; criminal law requires the offender fined, jailed or executed. Each state has at least one federal district court, and participants can appeal decisions. An appeal sends the case to the U.S. Courts of Appeals; appellate courts review decisions of U.S. District Courts within their circuits. Cases are not retried, only reviewed for faults or errors.

Decisions of U.S. Courts of Appeals are nearly always final, with the rare exception of appealed cases which reach the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has original and appellate jurisdiction -- meaning it can choose to hear new cases or cases being appealed. Nearly all of its cases are appellate cases.


Judicial ReviewThe power of the Supreme Court to reject laws it deems unconstitutional.
Criminal CaseA case where, if found guilty, the offender is fined, imprisoned or executed.
Civil CaseA case where, if found guilty, the offender must compensate the victim.
Plea BargainA defendant admitting guilt in exchange for lesser punishment.
Common Law
(Judge-Made Law)
Legal precedents from previous judicial decisions guiding future decisions.
U.S. District CourtsCourts dealing with federal civil and criminal cases.
U.S. Courts of AppealsCourts which review U.S. District Courts decisions for foul play.
PrecedentA judicial ruling that is the basis for a subsequent ruling in another case.
Stare DecisisDecision-making according to precedent.
Original JurisdictionAuthority of a court to hear a case before any other court does.
Appellate JurisdictionAuthority of a court to hear cases tried, decided or reexamined in other courts.
Federal QuestionAn issue concerning the U.S. Constitution, national laws or U.S. treaties.
DocketA court's agenda
Rule of FourFour Supreme Court justices must agree to hear a case for it to be brought to the Supreme Court.
Solicitor GeneralThe executive officer who represents the national government before he U.S. Supreme Court.
Amicus Curiae BriefA brief filed by permission of the court by an individual with an interest in a case but who is not a party.
Judicial RestraintWhen a judge interprets laws and precedents without personal preference.
Judicial ActivismWhen a judge interprets laws and precedents with personal preference.
argumentA decision's logical content
senatorial courtesy
class action