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The U.S. judiciary is a hierarchical system of trial and appellate courts at both the state and federal levels. In general, a lawsuit is originally filed with a trial court that hears the suit and determines its merits. Parties aggrieved by a final judgment have the right to appeal the decision. They do so by asking an appellate court to review the decision of a trial court.

The structure of state court systems varies by state, but four levels generally can be identified: minor courts, major trial courts, intermediate appellate courts, and state supreme courts. Minor courts handle the least serious cases. For example, municipal courts handle city ordinance violations, such as speeding tickets and parking violations. Cases that involve state constitutional issues, state statutes, and COMMON LAW are dealt with by major trial courts. For example, felony cases, such as murder or rape, would be handled in a major trial court. Trial courts are called by different names in different states. For example, in Pennsylvania they are called courts of COMMON PLEAS.

Intermediate appellate courts, called courts of appeals, review cases that have been decided by trial courts. They do not hear new evidence; they decide whether the lower court (the trial court) correctly applied the law in the case. State supreme courts review cases that deal with state law. The decision of the court is final since the state supreme court is the ultimate arbiter of state laws and the state constitution. Supreme courts are called by various names depending on the state. For example, West Virginia calls its state supreme court the Supreme Court of Appeals.

Federal cases, including civil and criminal, are handled by federal district courts. There are 94 district courts, with at least one in each state, as well as a district court for the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The number of judgeships appointed to each district is laid out in Title 28, Section 133 of the U.S. Code, which is a compilation of the permanent laws of the United States.

The 94 districts are divided into 12 regional circuits. Each of these circuits has a U.S. court of appeals, also called a circuit court. U.S. courts of appeals were created by the Evarts Act of 1891 (28 U.S.C.A. § 43); the central location of each court is determined by statute (28 U.S.C.A. § 41 [1995]). Each federal appellate court has jurisdiction over a certain geographic area, and may hear appeals only from federal district courts within that jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, however, has nationwide jurisdiction to handle certain kinds of cases, including patent cases and those that involve trade with other countries.

The Supreme Court is the nation's highest appellate court. It is sometimes called the "court of last resort" because once the Court reviews a case, and renders a final judgment, further appeals cannot be made. The nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court review cases that begin at either the federal or state level. These cases usually focus on important issues involving the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The Supreme Court receives its authority from Article III, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "[t]he 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."

Special Courts Not all lawsuits begin in an ordinary court. Both the state and federal governments have established SPECIAL COURTS that are expressly designated to hear specific types of cases. For example, at the federal level, the U.S. Court of International Trade handles cases involving foreign business dealings, and the U.S. TAX COURT handles disputes between taxpayers and the INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE (IRS). Examples at the state level include special courts that hear cases involving juveniles (i.e., juvenile court) or cases involving domestic issues (i.e., family courts). Specialized courts have also been created to hear appeals. For example, the Court of Military Appeals was established in 1950 to review COURT-MARTIAL decisions.

Alternative Dispute Resolution and Administrative Agencies In certain areas of law, litigants are prohibited from beginning a lawsuit in an ordinary trial court unless they first exhaust other methods of dispute resolution through an administrative body. Since the mid-1930s, state and federal governments have created elaborate administrative systems to dispose of certain legal claims before a lawsuit may ever be filed. For example, at the federal level, administrative agencies have been created to oversee a number of disputes involving LABOR LAW, ENVIRONMENTAL LAW, ANTITRUST LAW, employment discrimination, SECURITIES transactions, and national transportation.

Administrative agencies are created by statute, and legislatures may prescribe the qualifications for administrative officials, including ADMINISTRATIVE LAW judges, who are appointed by the executive branch; courts of law; and heads of government departments. These agencies are charged with the responsibility of establishing, developing, evaluating, and applying policy over a given area of law. The body of rules, principles, and regulations promulgated by such agencies and their officials is known as administrative law.

Laws created by state and federal administrative bodies, including adjudicative bodies, are considered no less authoritative than laws enacted by legislatures, decreed by the executive branch, or issued by the judiciary. However, litigants who first exhaust their administrative remedies through the appropriate agency and are dissatisfied with a decision rendered by an administrative law judge, may appeal the decision to an ordinary court of law.

State and federal governments have passed formal rules that set forth the procedures that administrative bodies must follow. The rules governing federal administrative adjudication are provided in the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 551 et seq. [1988]).

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