The Judicial Branch
The judicial system, along with the executive and legislative systems, comprise the three branches of the U.S. government. The judicial branch is composedof federal and state courts and the judges who preside in these courts. Thepurpose of the judiciary is to interpret laws and make rulings on legal questions. Additionally, it determines if laws passed by legislatures, on a national, state, or local level, violate the U.S. Constitution. The courts also consider the constitutionality of the actions taken by the executive branch. This process, called judicial review, allows the judiciary to void or nullify any laws or actions that they decide are unconstitutional. In response, the legislative branch may ratify a Constitutional amendment in order to make the legislation lawful. In this way, the judicial branch plays a crucial role in the government's system of checks and balances.
The authority of the federal court system is granted by Article III, Section1, of the Constitution, which states: "The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Article III, Section 2,of the Constitution extends the jurisdiction of the federal courts to cases,in law and equity, that arise under the Constitution and federal legislation,including: controversies to which the United States is a party; such as those originating from treaties with other countries; controversies between states; and controversies between the citizens of one state and citizens of another state. State court systems operate under the laws and constitution of the individual states.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and the court of last resort for the appeal process. It is the final decision-making body regarding constitutionality. The Court is located in Washington, D.C., and startsits term on the first Monday in October.
While the Court is constitutionally mandated to hear the entirety of certaincases, such as those that involve foreign ambassadors or lawsuits between states, the justices have leeway to determine whether or not they will hear other cases that have been brought before them. As a rule, the nine justices usually select cases that they believe address important constitutional questionsor involve contradictory rulings on federal statuatory laws by lower courts.They may uphold or overturn the prior ruling. If the Court declines to review an appeal, however, the lower court's ruling is binding.
Powers of the Courts
The power of the various other federal courts has been established by statutes passed by Congress. The courts hear cases from all 50 states and the U.S. territories. The courts are divided into 12 judicial circuits and from there,subdivided into more than 90 judicial districts. The rulings from the federaldistrict courts may be reviewed by one of the 12 judicial circuits of the U.S. court of appeals, called the circuit courts of appeals before 1948. Thesecourts are limited to hearing matters that are brought before them on appealand usually consist of at least three judges. The only court higher than thecourt of appeals is the Supreme Court. The purpose of the court of appeals isto lighten the burden of the Supreme Court and thus make the judicial process move more quickly for litigants. In 1982 the U.S. Court of Appeals for theFederal Circuit was established. This specialized court handles appeals in which the U.S. government is a party. It reviews cases involving copyright, tax, patent, federal employment law, and claims against the United States for money damages.
There is at least one U.S. district court in each state and the District of Columbia. Each district court has one or more district judges, the exact number is determined by the population of the area that the court serves and is authorized by Congress. In addition, a District Court has a clerk, a U.S. attorney, a U.S. marshall, U.S. magistrates, bankruptcy judges, probation officers, court reporters, and support staff. These federal trial courts try both criminal and civil cases and are the court of origination for cases that arise under the Constitution or U.S. laws and treaties and involve more than $10,000in damages. They also may review federal administrative decisions and rulings made by the bankruptcy courts.
Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution grants Congress the power to "establish . . .uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States." The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, amended in 1984 and 1986, serves as the federal government's bankruptcy legislation. Over ninety percent of bankruptcies are voluntary, meaning that the debtor was not forced to file a bankruptcy petition by creditors. The federal bankruptcy law ensures that thereis equality among creditors and that the debtor's assets are distributed fairly and that the debtor's obligations are discharged as expediently as possible. The law also allows debtors to try a financial reorganization plan in an effort to avoid complete liquidation of assets. The bankruptcy courts are partof the U.S. district courts and try bankruptcy cases with jurisdiction overa debtor's property, regardless of the property's location. Bankruptcy judgesare appointed by the president and serve a 14-year term.
While most federal courts are constitutional in nature, some courts have beenauthorized through legislation and are considered legislative courts. The specialized jurisdiction of these courts has been defined by Congress because the courts were not provided for in the original Constitution. Examples of legislative courts include the U.S. Claims Court, the U.S. Court of International Trade, and the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.
The Federal System of Courts
An appeal is a request to a higher court for a reversal of a lower court's decision. The U.S. Supreme Court is the ultimate appellate court and may reviewthe decisions of lower courts, such as the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Courtof Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and individual state supreme courts. A judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court cannot be appealed. Usually, an appellate court will review the application of law in a trial court. It does not attemptto rule on the lower court's finding of facts. For instance, an appellate court may rule as to whether or not there was an error in the instructions givento the jury and whether or not this error might have been prejudicial to thedefendant's case. The court would not, however, attempt to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
In order for a court to hear a case, it must have jurisdiction, or authority,over the subject matter. For instance, the U.S. bankruptcy courts do not hear divorce actions. Generally, the federal courts handle matters that involvea federal question. A federal question is a legal issue that relates to either the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, or treaties between the United Statesand other countries. However, there are times when federal courts have jurisdiction in state-related cases, such as when the parties are from different states or when the parties in the dispute are a state government and a citizenof another state.
Federal judges are appointed by the president with the advice and consent ofthe Senate. These appointments are for life terms and the judges can only beremoved from their positions for misconduct. There are no stated requirementsin the U.S. Constitutions for any specific qualifications necessary to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice. However, as a rule, most justices have been lawyers and have, in fact, been judges in other court systems. U.S. Supreme Court justices may only be removed from their office by impeachment.
The State System of Courts
The process to become a state judge varies by each state. In many, the governor appoints judges, who may then run for retention every few years. In some states, judges are elected political officers.
The trial courts on the state level are composed of courts that have generaljurisdiction and those with limited jurisdiction. State courts hear cases regarding federal law if the amount in the controversy is less than $10,000. General jurisdiction, or unlimited jurisdiction, trial courts hear cases involving civil and criminal cases. Limited jurisdiction courts are defined by statestatutes and their specific purposes vary from state to state. For example,depending on the state, the Justice of the Peace Courts may try misdemeanors,preside over minor civil and criminal cases, or commit offenders. Justices of the peace may have their authority limited to a city or extended to includean entire state. A justice of the peace also performs administrative duties,such as marriage ceremonies.
Family courts are special courts that deal with legal problems involving family relations. Family courts may handle cases, as defined by statutes, that involve guardianship, child neglect, and juvenile delinquency. Because of the nature of the family courts, the proceedings are sometimes more informal thanin civil or criminal courts. A probate court, or surrogate's court, is another special type of court. It hears cases involving wills and inheritance but also sometimes handles adoptions and competency hearings. Limited jurisdictioncourts operating on a local level deal with cases where the law violations are less severe than those handled by the general jurisdiction courts. Limitedjurisdiction courts include traffic, police, and municipal courts. Small claims courts, or people's courts, are courts where people can go for disputes that involve lesser monetary amounts, usually under a few thousand dollars. The court procedures and rules of evidence in small claims disputes are less formal and claimants are quite often not allowed to have an attorney representtheir case.
Some states offer intermediate appellate courts, which review the decisions of the general jurisdiction courts and the limited jurisdiction courts. From there, an appeal can be brought to the state supreme court. If there is no appellate court, the state supreme court hears appeal cases from the both the general and the limited jurisdiction courts. The state supreme court's decisioncan be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court but only if there is a constitutional question. State supreme courts also regulate the practice of law and often serve as the state's final authority on professional discipline or responsibility. The state supreme courts go by several names, including Supreme Courtof Errors, Supreme Judicial Court, or Court of Appeals.
- Johnson, Daniel. The Consumer's Guide to Understanding and Using the Law. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 1981.
- Reader's Digest Family Legal Guide. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1981.