Section 5.1: State and Federal Courts

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The United States has a unique legal system divided between federal and state governments. This division is known as dual federalism and is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. This means that the federal government and each individual state have the power to create and enforce laws. As a result, there are different courts for federal and state cases.

The federal court system is responsible for handling cases involving federal laws, such as interstate commerce, taxation, or constitutional rights. These cases are tried in federal courts, which are located in every state. Each federal court is presided over by a federal judge appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

In contrast, state courts are responsible for handling cases involving state laws, such as traffic violations, property disputes, or criminal cases within state borders. Each state has its court system, usually structured similarly to the federal court system, with trial courts at the bottom and appellate courts at the top.

Most criminal cases in the United States are tried in state courts. This is because most crimes violate state law rather than federal law. For example, murder is generally considered a state crime, while drug trafficking might be considered a federal crime. If a crime violates state and federal law, the defendant may be tried in both state and federal court, but they cannot be punished twice for the same crime.

The U.S. court system can be complex and challenging to understand, especially for those unfamiliar with the legal system. However, understanding the differences between federal and state courts and the types of cases each court handles makes it possible to understand better how the system works.

Lower Courts

The court system in the United States has a hierarchical structure, with lower courts at the bottom. These courts usually deal with less serious cases, such as traffic violations and misdemeanors. They may have different names, such as municipal courts, police courts, or traffic courts. There are also specialized courts, like juvenile courts, that handle cases involving minors.

Although these courts handle less serious cases, they still have the power to sentence violators to incarceration and impose significant fines. Some of these courts also handle preliminary matters in criminal cases, such as arraignments and preliminary hearings, before the case is transferred to a higher court for trial.

However, many people, especially those who have to appear in these courts, are critical of the process. Some municipal courts are known for providing assembly-line justice, where cases are quickly processed with little consideration for the individuals involved. This can make the court experience feel impersonal and unfair.

Despite the criticisms, these lower courts play an essential role in the justice system. They handle a large volume of cases, which helps to keep the higher courts from becoming overwhelmed. They also allow people to resolve minor legal issues without going through a lengthy and expensive trial.

Courts of General Jurisdiction

In the court system, lower courts typically handle minor offenses like traffic violations, minor drug charges, and misdemeanors. These cases are usually resolved quickly and informally, and the punishment can include fines, community service, or a short jail sentence.

Courts of general jurisdiction are the next level up from lower courts and are responsible for hearing a wide variety of civil and criminal cases. These courts are often called “trial courts of record” because they are the first to hear the case and create a written record of the proceedings. Higher courts use this record if the case is appealed.

The cases heard in courts of general jurisdiction can include contract disputes, personal injury cases, and more serious criminal cases such as murder, robbery, or rape. These courts tend to be more formal and professional than lower courts, and judges must follow strict procedures to ensure that both sides have a fair trial.

When a case is brought to trial, the prosecutor presents evidence to convince the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will sentence them to a punishment that may include fines, probation, or imprisonment.

However, most criminal cases prosecutors file never go to full trial in these courts. Instead, the majority of cases end in a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence or reduced charges. This helps to speed up the legal process and can save time and money for both the prosecution and the defense.

It’s important to note that plea bargains can lead to injustices, as defendants may be pressured to accept a plea deal, even if they are innocent, to avoid the risk of a harsher sentence if they go to trial. As a result, defendants must have access to legal representation and be fully informed of their rights and options throughout the legal process.

Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction

If a party is unhappy with the outcome of a trial, they can request an appeal to a higher court. These higher courts, known as appellate courts, are higher in the hierarchy. Their primary function is to review cases appealed from lower courts.

The number of levels of appellate courts can vary depending on the state’s population. In smaller states, the losing party at trial may appeal directly to the state’s highest court, the state supreme court. In larger states, an intermediate appellate court may hear cases before the state supreme court hears them. This intermediate court helps to lighten the workload of the state supreme court.

The state supreme court typically has broad discretion in deciding whether to hear a case. The judges are free to determine which cases are important enough to be heard by the court. They may hear cases with significant legal or social implications or cases that present a novel legal issue.

It’s important to note that appellate courts do not hold new trials or hear new evidence. Instead, they review the legal decisions made by the lower courts to determine if any errors were made. Appellate judges consider the arguments presented by both sides and then issue a written opinion that explains their decision.

Appeals courts play an essential role in the legal system by ensuring that lower courts follow the law and make fair decisions. They also help to ensure that the legal system is consistent and that similar cases are treated similarly.

The Federal Court System

The organization of federal courts is quite similar to that of state courts, although there are some differences due to the different types of cases that they handle. Federal courts have a more streamlined system because their subject matter jurisdiction is generally more focused than state courts.

Federal courts have limited jurisdiction, which means that they can only hear cases that involve federal law or matters in which the parties are from different states, and the amount in dispute is over a certain threshold. This focus on federal law cases means federal courts are more specialized than state courts, which may have broader subject matter jurisdiction.

U.S. District Courts

In the United States court system, trial courts of general jurisdiction are typically located near the bottom of the hierarchy. At the federal level, these courts are known as the U.S. District Courts, and there are 94 of them across the country. Every state has at least one district court, and some states have several (U.S. Courts, 2022).

According to the Judicial Business of the United States Courts (2021), the number of criminal cases filed in district courts decreased by 19% to 49,057 in 2020. Drug offenses accounted for the most significant percentage of these filings, with approximately 28% of all criminal cases related to drug offenses. Immigration and firearms-related crime comprised most of the remaining cases (U.S. Courts, 2022).

In recent years, there has been a decline in federal prosecutions for marijuana-related offenses due to shifts in enforcement strategies (U.S. Department of Justice, 2021). However, the number of criminal cases filed in district courts can vary yearly depending on various factors, including changes in law enforcement priorities and other external factors.

Overall, the U.S. District Courts play a vital role in the legal system by handling a wide range of cases, including criminal cases and civil cases. They are the first stop for many legal disputes and help ensure justice is served fairly and efficiently (U.S. Courts, 2022). 

U.S. Courts of Appeal 

The U.S. Courts of Appeal are positioned above the federal district courts in the federal court hierarchy. Their primary function is to hear appeals from the district courts. When deciding cases, appeals judges do not sit alone but sit in panels of three judges. In rare and significant cases, all of the judges in that circuit may hear the case together. This is known as an en banc hearing.

Unlike the Supreme Court, the appeals courts do not have discretion over which cases they hear. Instead, their docket is determined by the number and types of appeals filed. According to the Judicial Business of the United States Courts (2021), filings in the 12 regional appeals courts decreased by 14% to 47,704 in 2020. There were decreases in filings of criminal appeals, civil appeals, and administrative agency appeals. On the other hand, there was an increase in filings for bankruptcy appeals, prisoner petitions, and original proceedings.

Appeals courts play an essential role in the legal system by ensuring that lower courts follow the law and make fair decisions. They also help to ensure that the legal system is consistent and that similar cases are treated similarly. The panels of judges in these courts review legal decisions made by lower courts to determine if any errors were made. They consider the arguments presented by both sides and then issue a written opinion that explains their decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court (USSC)

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest in the United States and is positioned at the top of the court hierarchy. Its primary function is to hear appeals from both federal and state courts. Unlike the lower courts, the Supreme Court can exercise certiorari power. This means that the justices get to decide which cases to review and which to pass over.

When a lower court makes a decision, a party can petition the Supreme Court for certiorari. However, the Supreme Court receives thousands of such petitions yearly, and only a tiny fraction are granted. The cases they select tend to have broad national implications and can often be controversial. The Court carefully selects cases they believe are important for the country as a whole, then deliberates on those cases to arrive at a final decision.

The Supreme Court has only nine justices, far fewer than the lower courts. This means that the workload of the Supreme Court is hefty, and the justices must work tirelessly to hear and decide on cases. Additionally, the Supreme Court’s decisions are final and significantly impact the legal system and society as a whole.

The Supreme Court’s primary function is to interpret the law and uphold the Constitution. Its decisions can shape the direction of the country for decades to come. When a case is affirmed, it means that the lower court’s decision was correct and should stand. When a case is reversed, it means that the lower court’s decision was incorrect and must be overturned.

An information graphic depicting the information presented in the above text.
Federal Court Structure – Image by Lilly C. McKee

Problems with the Courts

One of the most significant challenges facing the courts today is the high volume of cases they must process. For instance, in 2020, the combined filings for civil cases and criminal defendants in the U.S. district courts totaled 324,910 (Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2021). According to the Court Statistics Project, over 8.3 million cases were processed in state trial courts in 2019 (the last year for which data is available) (National Center for State Courts, 2021).

Reducing Caseloads

The high volume of cases is primarily due to various factors, including stricter sentencing laws and increased enforcement efforts, which have increased criminal cases. As a result, most state courts are perpetually behind on hearing cases. This has led to a growing interest at both the state and federal levels in finding ways to reduce caseloads and speed up the flow of cases.

Courts have tried various approaches to address this problem. For example, some have implemented alternative dispute resolution programs such as mediation and arbitration, which aim to resolve cases without going to trial. Other courts have employed technological solutions, such as electronic filing systems and videoconferencing, to streamline the legal process and reduce the need for in-person appearances.

One of the most popular efforts to reduce caseloads in the United States has been the implementation of drug courts. These courts differ significantly from regular courts in that they tend to sentence nonviolent, first-time drug offenders to drug treatment rather than probation or prison. The primary goals of drug courts are to reduce recidivism and alleviate the backlog in traditional courts.

Empirical research suggests that drug courts are more effective at reducing recidivism than traditional probation or prison sentences. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice, researchers found that drug courts reduce recidivism rates by an average of 8 to 26 percent, depending on the offender type and the follow-up length (National Institute of Justice, 2019).

Drug courts employ a collaborative approach to addressing drug addiction and criminal behavior, bringing together judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, treatment providers, and probation officers to address the underlying causes of drug addiction and reduce the risk of reoffending. By addressing the root causes of drug addiction, drug courts aim to reduce the burden on traditional courts and help offenders successfully reintegrate into their communities.

While drug courts have shown promise in reducing recidivism rates and alleviating caseloads, they are not a panacea. Some critics have raised concerns about the potential for unequal treatment and the potential for coercive treatment, particularly in cases where offenders are mandated to participate in drug treatment programs as a condition of avoiding incarceration. However, drug courts remain a popular and promising approach to addressing the complex issues of drug addiction and crime in the United States.

Despite these efforts, reducing the courts’ caseloads remains a significant challenge. The high volume of cases can lead to delays in the legal process and backlogs that can take years to clear. However, courts are continually seeking new ways to address this problem and ensure that justice is served promptly and efficiently.

Speeding Up Court Processing

When there are too many cases to process, the speed at which cases are resolved can slow down, sometimes significantly. This is particularly problematic in criminal courts, where defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. When the legal process becomes long and drawn out, the public may become dissatisfied.

To address this issue, there have been efforts at both the federal and state levels to ensure that cases are resolved more efficiently. At the federal level, the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 sets time standards for two stages of the legal process. The law requires that the prosecutor arraign a suspect within thirty days of their arrest and that the trial takes place within seventy days of the indictment (18 U.S.C. §§ 3161-3174).

Every state has followed the federal government’s example by enacting speedy trial laws. However, the specifics of these laws can vary by state, and the implementation and enforcement of these laws can be complex. In some cases, speedy trial laws may allow for certain delays or extensions, particularly in cases where the defendant requests more time to prepare their defense or when the court experiences a backlog of cases (Huang, 2021).

The Role of Judges

The role of a trial court judge is crucial throughout the criminal court process. Starting from the time of arrest, judges make critical decisions that profoundly impact the accused and the case. They evaluate probable cause and issue search and arrest warrants, which are crucial before the arrest. Once the offender is arrested, the judge decides whether to grant bail and how much, rules on pretrial motions made by both the prosecution and the defense, hears pleas, referees trials, and passes sentences. At each stage of the legal process, judges must balance the rights of the accused with the public interest. This can be a difficult task, as they must ensure justice is served while protecting the accused’s rights.

In contrast, appeals court judges have different responsibilities from trial judges. Appeals court judges do not act as referees in the adversarial battle between prosecution and defense. Instead, they serve as legal scholars by researching, clarifying, and writing opinions on legal issues. They review decisions made by trial court judges to ensure that the law was applied correctly and fairly in the case. Appeals court judges also help to establish legal precedents, which is essential for future cases. By clarifying the law, they help ensure the legal system is fair and consistent.

Federal Judges

When we say that federal judges are the “cream of the crop,” we mean that they are considered the most outstanding individuals in their field. These judges are responsible for interpreting and upholding federal laws, which apply to the entire country rather than just one state or region. Federal judges are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

Many federal judges come from families with a tradition of serving the public somehow. This could include working in government, volunteering in the community, or serving in the military. These families often value public service and encourage their children to pursue careers in law, government, or other fields where they can make a difference in the world.

State Judges

State-level judges are typically selected based on the political party with the most power in that particular state. The selection process varies depending on the state’s laws. In some states, candidates for judgeships participate in partisan elections, where they run as members of a particular political party. Other states hold nonpartisan elections, where candidates run without any political affiliation. In some states, judges are appointed by the governor, while in others, they are appointed by the legislature. A few states, like Missouri, use a merit system to select judges.

In a partisan election, candidates for judgeships run under the banner of a specific political party. This means that they are affiliated with a particular political party and receive support from party members. In nonpartisan elections, candidates do not have a political affiliation and do not receive support from political parties. Instead, they must rely on their qualifications and experience to win the election.

In states that use an appointment system, judges are selected by either the governor or the legislature. The governor or legislature chooses the judge based on their qualifications, experience, and other factors. In a merit system, judges are selected based on their qualifications, experience, and ability to perform their duties effectively. A committee or commission evaluates the candidates and selects the most qualified.

Judicial Decision Making

As a judge, you have to make crucial decisions that can significantly affect the lives of the accused individuals. Trial court judges have to make quick decisions on the spot, while appeals court judges have more time to carefully consider complex issues and seek advice from their colleagues and staff.

When judges make decisions, they are guided by the doctrine of stare decisis, which means that previous legal rulings influence their decisions. In other words, most judges follow legal precedent when available and try to apply legal principles from past cases to guide them when encountering new legal questions. Judges may also consider political values when making decisions, although these values are less prominent than legal tradition.

Judicial Misconduct

Judges have a significant amount of power that can sometimes lead to corruption. Like other professionals in the criminal justice system, judges can act in unethical and illegal ways. These actions can damage the public’s trust in the judiciary and lead to unfair outcomes.

Each state has its own system in place to address instances of judicial misconduct by judges. At the federal level, judges can only be removed from their position through a process called impeachment, which the Senate oversees.

It’s important to note that most judges are honest and ethical individuals who take their responsibilities seriously. However, the power that comes with their position can sometimes lead to misconduct. When this happens, it’s crucial to have mechanisms to ensure judges are held accountable for their actions. By doing so, the public can have confidence in the judicial system’s integrity.

Judicial Independence

The United States’ founding fathers believed that the courts should be independent of the other branches of government.  This is often called judicial independence. This separation of powers has several important reasons. The primary reason is to allow judges to make fair and impartial decisions in court cases. Additionally, the courts serve as a check on the power of the executive and legislative branches.

However, it’s important to note that the judiciary is not entirely independent. The other branches of government can influence the judiciary in various ways. For example, the executive branch can appoint judges, while the legislative branch controls the courts’ budget. These powers, while significant, are limited. Federal judges, for instance, are appointed for life tenure, which means they cannot be fired once appointed by the executive.

The founding fathers created the government in this way because they understood that judges who feared losing their job could not be neutral and unbiased magistrates who could rule against the legislative or executive branches. Therefore, judges must be protected from any political pressure that may influence their decisions. By ensuring their independence, the judiciary can uphold the principles of justice and fairness, and the public can trust that their cases will be decided fairly and impartially.

Juveniles Courts

The courts significantly impact the juvenile justice system, just like the adult criminal justice system. This influence is present at both the juvenile court level and the appellate level.

Juvenile court judges play a crucial role in the juvenile justice system. In many jurisdictions, they oversee the operations of the juvenile court and the juvenile probation departments. They may even be responsible for managing the court’s finances and probation departments in smaller jurisdictions. The beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of juvenile judges can profoundly impact other criminal justice agencies and the entire community.

For example, judges who do not effectively address juvenile delinquency in schools can create a disruptive and lawless learning environment. On the other hand, judges who are too harsh in their decisions may violate the doctrine of parens patriae, which requires the state to protect the child’s best interests.

Juvenile court judges must balance a variety of factors when making decisions. They must ensure that all processes and decision-making are carried out fairly and unbiasedly. Additionally, they must ensure that all decisions balance the best interests of the juvenile, the victim, and the community.

They must also uphold the constitutional rights of all parties involved. Although the juvenile justice system differs from the adult system, due process protections must still be maintained in juvenile proceedings. This requirement can create a complex conflict between the adversarial process and the child’s best interests.

Overall, the role of juvenile court judges in the juvenile justice system is vital. They must ensure that all parties are treated fairly and that decisions are made in the best interests of everyone involved. Their decisions can have far-reaching consequences for individuals and communities, so they must approach their responsibilities with care and consideration.

Juveniles and the Supreme Court

Historically, cases involving juvenile proceedings rarely reached the U.S. Supreme Court. However, starting with the Warren court in the 1960s, the Supreme Court issued several landmark decisions that significantly impacted the structure and function of the juvenile justice system.  A small sample of those cases is described below:

Kent v. United States (1966) was a crucial case that held that juveniles are entitled to due process rights in court proceedings. This decision ensured that juveniles have the same rights as adults regarding the legal system.

In re Gault (1967) was another landmark decision that held that juveniles accused of crimes must be afforded many of the same due process rights as adults. This decision was a significant step in ensuring juveniles are treated fairly and justly in the legal system.

Breed v. Jones (1975) was another critical case that held that finding a child delinquent in a juvenile court and then trying the child in adult court amounts to double jeopardy. This decision ensured that juveniles were not subjected to excessive punishment for their actions.

Schall v. Martin (1984) was a case that held that the preventive detention of a juvenile does not necessarily violate due process. This decision was important in ensuring that juveniles deemed a threat to society could be detained for public safety reasons.

Doe v. Renfrow (1981) was a case that upheld a lower court’s decision that a search of schoolchildren for narcotics by a drug dog is not a violation of their rights. This decision set an important precedent for using search and seizure practices in schools.

New Jersey v. TLO (1985) established the evidentiary standard for searches of students by school officials at reasonable suspicion. This decision ensured that students were afforded reasonable protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Qutb v. Strauss (1993) was a case that held that curfew laws were constitutional because they were designed to protect the community. This decision was important in ensuring that curfew laws can be used to maintain public safety, particularly in high-crime areas.

Overall, these landmark decisions by the Supreme Court have significantly impacted the juvenile justice system. They have helped to ensure that juveniles are treated fairly and justly in the legal system and that their constitutional rights are protected.

Job Outlook: Judges

The job outlook for judges at both the state and federal levels is generally favorable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of judges and hearing officers is projected to grow by 1% from 2020 to 2030 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). This growth is expected to result from increasing caseloads due to population growth and the need for additional judges to handle the increased demand.

At the state level, the job outlook for judges varies depending on the location. Some states have seen increased demand for judges due to population growth, while others have experienced decreased demand. Many states also have mandatory retirement ages for judges, which can create openings for new judges to fill vacancies (National Center for State Courts, 2022).

At the federal level, the job outlook for judges is generally positive due to the increasing caseloads in federal courts. However, the appointment process for federal judges can be lengthy and political. Federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and the process can take several months or even years. Additionally, the appointment process can be influenced by political factors, such as the current administration’s priorities and the balance of power in the Senate (Federal Judicial Center, 2022).

Despite these challenges, the job outlook for judges at both the state and federal levels remains positive. The demand for judges is expected to grow, and many states and the federal government are taking steps to ensure enough judges to handle the increased caseloads. For individuals interested in pursuing a career in law, becoming a judge can be a rewarding and fulfilling path.

Key Terms

Affirmed, Assembly Line Justice, Certiorari Power, Courts of General JurisdictionDoe v. Renfrow (1981), Judicial Independence, Judicial MisconductKent v. United States (1966), Lower Courts, Municipal Court, New Jersey v. TLO (1985), Police CourtsQutb v. Strauss (1993), Reversed, Speedy Trial Act of 1974, Traffic Court, U.S. Courts of Appeal, U.S. District Courts

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Last Updated:  06/07/2023


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