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Criminal Courts

Creating A National Court System

After the American Revolution, the new U.S. Congress adopted the Constitution and immediately passed the Judiciary Act of 1789. The act defined the role of the Supreme Court and its six justices. It also created three federal circuit courts and fourteen federal district courts. Each state had at least one federal district court with one district court judge. The circuit courts did not have their own judges; instead, two Supreme Court justices "rode the circuit," or covered the area along with a local district court judge. Major cases went straight to the circuit courts while district courts heard the lesser cases.

The act gave state courts jurisdiction to hear cases involving federal law issues. If a state court ruled a federal law unconstitutional, then the case could be appealed to a federal court. The act also created the positions of U.S. Attorney, Attorney General, and U.S. Marshals. Marshals were charged with providing security in federal courts and carrying out court orders.

Developments in the court system were limited for the next century. With new states joining the union, the number of federal circuit courts increased to ten by the American Civil War (1861–65). After the war the U.S. court system began changing more substantially. The Removal Act of 1871 expanded federal court jurisdiction over all cases involving federal issues. What had become the controversial requirement that Supreme Court justices sit on circuit courts finally ended in 1891.

In 1789 President George Washington appointed Edmund Jennings Randolph the first attorney general of the United States. (The Library of Congress)

Congress replaced the original circuit courts with nine circuit courts of appeal with their own judges. In 1925 Congress reduced the number of appeals the Supreme Court was required to hear in a year. Establishing a formal screening process, it required petitioners (those wishing to be heard by the courts on some issue) to obtain a writ certiorari, or court order, from the Supreme Court to have their case accepted.

By the late twentieth century federal and state court systems were much more complex including highly specialized courts. Courts held an important position in the criminal justice system. Much of this distinction came following a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s protecting the civil liberties of defendants (persons accused of a crime). Federal and state courts became much more active in supervising procedures used in other parts of the criminal justice system. These included how law enforcement agencies searched properties, seized evidence, conducted interrogations, and even how inmates were treated in correctional facilities. Criminals could be tried in state or federal courts, or both since they could appeal state court decisions to federal courts if federal laws or constitutional issues were involved.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCriminal Courts - Early American Courts, The Constitution And The Courts, Creating A National Court System, Federal Courts - Special state courts