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Criminal Courts

Early American Courts, The Constitution And The Courts, Creating A National Court System, Federal CourtsSpecial state courts

Federal and state governments each consist of three sections: the legislative branch to make laws, the executive branch to carry out the laws, and the judicial branch or court system to resolve legal disputes and administer justice. The U.S. Constitution developed a delicate balance of power between the three branches so one cannot hold sway over either of the other two.

The three branches, however, did not develop equally after the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787. The court systems, including criminal courts, were the slowest part of the U.S. government to take form. This lag in development can be traced back to the colonial period prior to the American Revolution (1775–83).

Over the next two centuries, the federal government changed a great deal. By the twenty-first century, criminal courts were the centerpiece of a complex U.S. justice system. With federal courts limited to matters involving federal law, including federal crimes and constitutional issues, state courts enjoyed broader jurisdiction and were the location of most criminal trials. State court decisions could be appealed to Philadelphia's first city hall, which held the first Supreme Court of the United States. (© Bettmann/Corbis) federal courts only if they involved questions concerning the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

Criminal courts not only serve to determine guilt or innocence, but also often provide rehabilitation programs and other social services for offenders as well as victims.

District courts

District courts are trial courts for both criminal and original civil suits. Each state has at least one district court, and some—including New York, Texas, and California—have as many as four. No state boundary divides a district court jurisdiction, since they hear both jury trials and bench (where the judge determines guilt) trials. Jury trials make use of a jury formed from members of the public who determine guilt or innocence. Judges make rulings on legal questions that arise during the trial, but otherwise they remain impartial unless it is a bench trial.

During the 1960s crime rates including violent offenses greatly increased. To help with the growing caseload, Congress created magistrate judges to assist district court judges. Magistrates were appointed by district judges for eight-year terms. Each district judge determined the responsibilities of its magistrates. In general, magistrates have issued arrest and search warrants, set bail, conducted pretrial hearings, and heard misdemeanor cases. By the late 1990s, federal district courts were hearing from 295,000 to 320,000 cases per year. About 20 percent, or 62,000 cases, were criminal, which included some 50,000 felony cases and 12,000 misdemeanor cases.

Built in 1772, the Olde Colonial Courthouse, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is the site of the famous protest march of September 1774 held in opposition to the king's court. (© Lee Snider/Corbis)

To assist judges, federal district courts have law clerks, attorneys, marshals, secretaries, and probation officers. Each federal district has a U.S. attorney and a number of assistant U.S. attorneys. The U.S. president nominates the U.S. attorneys and the Senate confirms them. Each U.S. attorney then selects assistant attorneys, and they usually change every time a new president is elected and comes into office. The U.S. attorney is the top federal law enforcement officer in the district and is directly involved in any court cases of which the United States is a party.

Each federal district also has a U.S. marshal, who like U.S. attorneys are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The marshals provide court security, deliver court papers, transport federal prisoners, operate the federal witness protection program, and enforce federal court orders.

Appeals courts

The appellate courts do not hear original cases, they only review lower court decisions. Appeals court judges determine which cases they will accept and how they will proceed, either as full trials or through a more limited review process. Normally a panel of three appellate judges hears a case, and then, after discussion, makes a ruling. There are no juries. Each federal appellate court includes several states. No state is divided between appellate circuits.

The Supreme Court is the last resort in the appeals process. It often makes case decisions, known as landmark rulings, directly affecting how federal and state courts conduct their proceedings. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the last resort in the appeals process. It often makes case decisions, known as landmark rulings, directly affecting how federal and state courts conduct their proceedings. The Supreme Court receives around eight thousand cases a year for review but actually hears full oral arguments for less than one hundred.

Lower courts

Most state courts are lower courts with limited jurisdiction. They deal with both criminal and civil matters that are neither serious nor complex. These courts are less formal, normally do not record their proceedings, rarely have juries, and do not have attorneys involved.

Lower courts hear a high volume of cases including minor criminal cases. These are usually misdemeanors for shoplifting, traffic violations, vandalism (damaging property), and writing bad checks. Lower court judges do not have to be licensed lawyers. Decisions from the lower courts can be appealed to district courts, and in some cases, a new trial will be ordered.

Trial courts

Trial courts frequently have general jurisdiction and hear all cases not reserved for other special state courts with limited jurisdiction. The general trial courts, known as superior courts in many states, hear the more serious criminal and civil cases including most felony criminal cases. In these courts, the judge must be a licensed attorney, court records are kept, the proceedings are formal, and most trials use juries.

Parts of a trial are often recorded by a court reporter on a stenographic machine, seen here. (AP/Wide World Photos)

As in federal district courts, many people assist the judges. Court reporters produce transcripts (a written record) of court proceedings. Court clerks perform such tasks as issuing marriage licenses and automobile registrations. Law clerks work for state court judges and staff attorneys work at larger courts. Bailiffs and court officers maintain order as well as custody of the jury and the prisoners.

Appellate courts

All states have at least one high court or supreme court to hear appeals. Texas and Oklahoma both have separate high courts for criminal and civil cases. State supreme courts have from five to nine members on the bench, with most having seven.

Most states also have appellate courts, though eleven states do not. Like the federal appeals courts, the state appeals courts usually have three judges sit as a panel to hear and decide cases. The number of appellate court judges varies from three in a few states to eighty-eight in California.

In addition to the basic system of lower, superior, appellate, and high courts, states have added special jurisdiction courts through the years. These include juvenile courts, drug courts, and domestic violence courts.

Juvenile courts

Illinois was the first state to establish a separate court system for juveniles in 1899, influenced by social worker Jane Addams (1860–1935). In the following decades other states followed. During this period, the courts and the public favored rehabilitation or treatment over punishment for young offenders. Juvenile state courts became increasingly involved in family issues. The main goal of juvenile courts has always been to do what is best for the child; for this reason the courts are less formal, judges have more flexibility, and the records of juvenile offenders are usually kept confidential or "sealed."

Most juvenile courts have jurisdiction over cases that would be crimes for adult offenders, as well as various other violations. Since most states set the age at which a person becomes an adult as eighteen, juvenile courts are for offenders seventeen and under in most states. An offender's age sometimes becomes a factor depending on the kind of crime committed.

In the 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court issued several rulings to further protect the rights of offenders in adult courts. Many feared juveniles were not receiving the same benefits because of the more informal nature of juvenile courts. By protecting juveniles from the harshness of the adult criminal justice system, young offenders were sometimes denied due process protections as well. As a result, adults had more constitutional safeguards than juveniles yet could endure much harsher sentences, including the death penalty in some states.

By the late 1960s the Supreme Court made three decisions to protect juveniles. The decision gave youthful offenders the right to be informed of charges against them, the right to a lawyer, the right not to incriminate themselves (to withhold information that indicates their guilt), and the right to cross examine witnesses.

Social worker Jane Addams had a strong influence in the development of a separate court system for juveniles. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The courts also increased the level of evidence needed to convict youths in criminal cases, from simply needing a preponderance (a large amount) of evidence to actually being able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as in adult criminal courts. Jury trials, however, were still not required for juveniles. Despite the increased legal protections in juvenile courts, many judges still maintained a less formal process.

As the fear of youth crime increased through the 1980s, many people believed dangerous youngsters were too protected by the juvenile justice system. More and more youthful offenders started being transferred to adult criminal courts. The public was repeatedly exposed to the highly publicized occurrences of tragic school shootings across the country in the 1990s. As a result, the public perception of rising youth crime remained throughout the decade, even though youth crime actually decreased substantially during this period. The result was that juvenile courts were less distinct from adult criminal courts than earlier in the twentieth century.

Drug courts

During much of the 1970s the federal government fought rising drug use in the nation through treatment programs and discouraging drug use among youth. When Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89) entered the White House, however, the emphasis switched from treatment to prosecution. The number of arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonments rose dramatically and continued throughout the 1990s. The number of criminal arrests increased 168 percent from 1980 to 1998, while the number of prison inmates increased 300 percent. Drug cases swamped the criminal courts.

To relieve the high caseload, states created drug treatment courts for nonviolent offenders with no previous criminal record. The first drug court was established in Miami, Florida, in 1989, followed by another in Oakland, California, in 1991.

Drug courts operate with the belief that drug addiction is treatable. In criminal courts, judges cannot address defendants directly; yet in drug courts judges personally supervise their defendants and are involved in their treatment. Judges even check on their defendants during treatment.

Drug courts provide psychological support while helping individuals take responsibility for their own recovery. If an offender relapses back into use, drug courts increase punishment and require additional treatment programs. This can happen several times with a single case. If the offender successfully completes a treatment program, they will not have a criminal record. If an offender fails to complete a treatment program, however, a criminal conviction will go on his or her record. For cases that do end up in criminal court, if the offender pleads guilty and still successfully completes a drug treatment program, the sentence will be reduced.

By 2000 some five hundred jurisdictions had drug courts. Between 1989 and 2000 approximately two hundred thousand drug offenders participated in court sponsored treatment programs. The effectiveness of drug courts has been proven through several studies which found that participants had much lower relapse (falling back into bad habits) rates than those who went through standard criminal courts.

Domestic violence courts

By the late twentieth century domestic violence became one of the major issues facing criminal courts. Domestic violence, or abuse by one's partner, is one of the leading causes of injuries in women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. By the early 2000s domestic violence courts were the fastest growing kind of specialized courts in the United States.

As domestic violence cases multiplied, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The resulting Domestic Violence Task Force assisted state courts in addressing this complex issue and helped raise public awareness of the problem. From 1989 to 1998 domestic violence cases increased 178 percent. Using drug courts as a model, states created the specialized courts to handle the various dimensions of domestic violence cases in a coordinated manner, offering a range of services to both offenders and victims.

Courts monitor domestic violence cases to establish priorities. Social workers are involved to rehabilitate offenders, provide assistance to victims, and make sure children are not placed in dangerous situations. Other aspects such as divorce, child custody and support, drug dependency, juvenile delinquency, and criminal prosecutions are all addressed by the court. Various local organizations such as shelters for battered women and counseling agencies are brought into the legal proceedings.

Judges believed bringing all aspects of a domestic violence case into one court would prove more efficient and less painful for the victim. Offenders were more likely to obey court orders knowing they would face the same judge again if they failed to comply. In addition, judges set up monitoring programs to review offenders and their progress on a regular basis.

For More Information


Baum, Lawrence. American Courts. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Buzawa, Eve, and Carl Buzawa. Domestic Violence: The Criminal Justice Response. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.

Carp, Robert A., and Ronald Stidham. The Federal Courts. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1998.

Carp, Robert A., and Ronald Stidham. Judicial Process in America. 5th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2001.

Mays, G. Larry, and Peter R. Gregware. Courts and Justice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2000.

Patrick, John J. The Young Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Web Sites

"Domestic Violence." U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.usdoj.gov/domesticviolence.htm (accessed on August 19, 2004)

National Center for State Courts. http://www.ncsconline.org (accessed on August 19, 2004).

U.S. Courts. http://www.uscourts.gov (accessed on August 19, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law