dual court system in the United States. The writer explains the two systems, how they function and then argues that it would not be better to go to a single court system. There were five sources used to complete this paper.
The United States is known worldwide for its judicial system. Not only because it promises speedy trials and the right to face one’s accuser, but also because of the backlog of cases that are waiting to be heard each day. Since the nation’s infancy matters of importance have been divided into two areas, federal and state. This was caused when the initial formation of this country included the breaking up of geographic areas into individual states.
Each state has its own governing body that collects state taxes if applicable, handles school issues and provides its citizens with a court system. In its most simple form the government of the United States provides that states can govern themselves as long as their individual laws and mandates do not fly in the face of something the federal government has mandated. In other words a state can govern itself as long as it does not defy the federal government.
When it comes to court issues the nation has long been governed by a dual court system. The federal and state court system provides clear cut boundaries and divisions about what each is responsible for handling. While this sometimes seems to be a good idea, it can become confusing in that prosecutors and law enforcement officials have to include many other participants when it is a federal case, making the case much more complicated at times. While the courts appear to be duplicating efforts, to restructure the dual court system into a single court system would be in defiance of the very principles that this nation was founded on.
EXPLAINING DUAL COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS
Before one can begin to understand why a single court system would be more efficient and inexpensive than the current dual court system it is important to have an understanding of the dual court system and how it works.
The structure and foundation of the dual court system goes back to the writing of the United States constitution. The United States constitution established something called a system of federalism which meant that the federal government has limited authority over the courts in the land while the balance or bulk of that authority is was left to individual states to handle and decide (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).
Some debates revolve around whether the United States actually has a single court system but according to political experts this is not true.
In reality the “dual court system” is a bit of a misnomer as well.
There is the federal court system, an integrated system divided into numerous geographic units and various levels of hierarchy; in addition, each state has its own court system with a system of local courts that operate within the state (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).”
For simplicity however, the nation’s court system is commonly referred to as a dual court system divided into federal and state courts and jurisdictions.
Within the dual court system the United States Supreme Court is the final voice of authority, which makes the federal system more powerful than any court system in the land. However, if it were that simple it would simply behoove everyone who was not happy with their court outcome to take it to the Supreme Court. Instead jurisdictional issues, points of cause and other issues are necessary to have the Supreme Court hear a case.
The individual states also have Supreme Courts and they are considered the highest court within their state while the United States Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the nation.
When federal constitutional or statutory matters are involved, the federal courts have the power to decide whether the state law violates federal law. The functioning of these systems is complicated by the fact that there are multiple sources of law, and courts of one system are often called upon to interpret and apply the laws of another jurisdiction. In addition, more than one court may have sovereignty to hear a particular case (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).”
To explain how both the federal and the state court systems operate one can consider the shape of a pyramid. Both state and federal courts have a bottom tier of lower level courts. These courts are called to fact find and decide issues based on the facts presented and the law.
The state court issue divided into general sessions and criminal courts. The general sessions court hears most of the misdemeanor cases as well as many of the civil matters within its geographic jurisdiction. In addition the general sessions court hears evidence to decide whether the state has enough reason to prosecute a felony charge. If the court decides there is enough evidence to hold a trial it binds the case over to criminal court. General sessions court judges are limited in what length of sentence they can hand out as well as how large of a civil suit they can preside over.
At the top of each pyramid structure is the court of last resort (at the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court; at the state level, the state supreme court) which has the authority to interpret the law of that jurisdiction. In most states and in the federal system there is also a mid-level court of appeals (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).”
At first glance the federal courts may seem to be more complicated but in reality they are not. The federal court system is also called the Article III court because federal courts have the power and ability to conduct judicial review and have protections under the United States constitution that state courts do not deal with. The federal courts are divided into three tiers. The lowest rung of the ladder or the lowest tier is the District Court. The District Court hears general jurisdiction matters including criminal and civil matters.
All told there are over 90 United States federal judicial districts. There is at least one district court in each state and in the states with the heaviest populations there are several federal district courts. The number of judges assigned to each district is dependent on the population and size of the district but regardless of the number of judges in a district only one judge presides over and hears each individual case.
The U.S. Courts of Appeals, is the intermediate-level federal court.
The courts of appeals are considered the workhorse of the federal court system because the brunt of cases are resolved there. Appeals are taken from U.S. district courts to the U.S. courts of appeals if a losing party feels that the judge in the district court made an error of law. Appeals may not be taken to correct perceived errors of fact, unless there is a clear error of law. Thus, for example, a losing party may argue that the judge erred by admitting a certain document into evidence; but the losing party may not argue that the judge or jury reached a bad conclusion based only on that document (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).”
The United States Court of Appeals is divided by geography into 12 circuit areas. Each circuit is assigned the duty to hear any appeals from courts that are within their geographic circuit area (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).
Each appeals court has three judges that sit and preside over an appeal. First the panel has to decide whether or not to hear the appeal and then if they decide to hear it they listen to the evidence about why the petitioner feels the lower court made a judgment in fact or legal error. If the appeals judges believe that is the case they have the power to overturn the lower courts ruling which can result in a new trial or a dismissal depending on several lower court decisions and factors (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).
The U.S. Courts of Appeals may decide cases on the basis of written briefs submitted by the litigants or may order oral argument. A decision is based on written opinion drafted by one of the judges and circulated to the other two panel members. The opinion of the court also must be signed by at least two panel members (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).Any of the judges on the panel may write a concurring opinion in which the judge agrees with the result reached in the majority opinion but for different or additional reasons. A judge that disagrees with the opinion of the court may instead write a dissenting opinion explaining why he or she has reached a different conclusion (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).Although dissenting and concurring opinions do not have the force of law, they may be highly influential in subsequent court decisions (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).”
The highest tier of this federal system is the United States Supreme Court. This court has nine Supreme Court Justices who are appointed for the term of their life unless they choose to step down. A majority is not needed to win a Supreme Court hearing request. If four of the nine think the case brought before them is worth hearing then the case will be heard.
Below is a list of the typical types of cases that may be heard by a state court. http://www.uscourts.gov/outreach/resources/fedstate_lessonplan.htm
Cases involving the state constitution — Cases involving the interpretation of a state constitution.
State criminal offenses — Crimes defined and/or punished by the state constitution or applicable state statute. Most crimes are state criminal offenses. They include offenses such as murder, theft, breaking and entering, and destruction of property.
Tort and personal injury law — Civil wrongs for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages; a breach of duty that the law imposes on everyone in the same relation to one another as those involved in a given transaction.
Contract law — Agreements between two or more parties creating obligations that are either enforceable or otherwise recognized as law.
Probate — the judicial process by which a testamentary document is established to be a valid will, the proving of a will to the satisfaction of a court, the distribution of a decedent’s assets according to the provisions of the will, or the process whereby a decedent’s assets are distributed according to state law should the decedent have died intestate.
Family — the body of law dealing with marriage, divorce, adoption, child custody and support, and domestic-relations issues.
Sale of goods — the law concerning the sale of goods (moveable objects) involved in commerce (especially with regards to the Uniform Commercial Code).
Corporations and business organization — the law concerning, among other things, the establishment, dissolution, and asset distribution of corporations, partnerships, limited partnerships, limited liability companies, etc.
Election issues — the law concerning voter registration, voting in general, legislative reapportionment, etc.
Municipal/zoning ordinances — the law involving municipal ordinances, including zoning ordinances that set aside certain areas for residential, commercial, industrial, or other development.
Traffic regulation — a prescribed rule of conduct for traffic; a rule intended to promote the orderly and safe flow of traffic.
Real property — Land and anything growing on, attached to, or erected on it, excluding anything that may be severed without injury to the land.
Each state also has a Supreme Court which is considered the highest court in that jurisdiction. State courts are also shaped like a pyramid in structure. The lower courts hear criminal and civil matters. The next tier up handles and hears appeals from the lower courts and the supreme court of each state hears the appeals from the middle tier court decisions.
As in the federal court system, trials are presided over by a single judge (often sitting with a jury); entry-level appellate cases are heard by a three-judge panel; and in state supreme courts, cases are heard by all members of the court, which usually number seven or nine justices (HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS (http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm).”
SINGLE COURT SYSTEM
At first glance it would appear that moving to a single court system would work. If one examines both the federal and state court systems they appear to have a lot in common.
They are each built on a structure that is shaped like a pyramid. Each one has a lower court system, an appeals court level that is above it and a Supreme Court system that is considered the highest court in the land for that particular jurisdiction. For the most part each court system in at the state level is extremely similar to the court system at the federal level.
When one first takes the systems and examines their components they do appear to be identical in structure and form, which could easily lead one to believe that a single court system would work just as well and save time and money by dismantling the complicated federal court system.
When one takes off the top layer however, and examines all that it would entail to have a single court system one can see that it would not be the most efficient way to run the nation’s judicial system.
If the nation were to decide to dismantle the court system that is currently in place and go to a single system it might work for a very short while. After all the basic premise is the same for both court systems, however there is a major difference between the two.
The federal system is designed to hear not only federal issues but also hears the problems that come up between two or more states.
If the nation went to a single court system there would be no jurisdiction for the times when federal laws had been broken.
Individual states provide their residents with individual state laws that must comply with the federal law but can be more strict or prudent than the federal law is. If the nation went to a single court system the states would all have to fall in line with each other and would no longer have the ability to fully govern themselves as they would have to all be in compliance so that the single court system would be able to work.
Each state for instance, provides its own DUI law2s. While there are federal mandates in place the states that decide to place harsher laws in their jurisdiction have done so with the blessing of the federal government.
If the nation were to go to a single court system how could the different DUI laws be applied?
Different states have implemented may different laws including in the civil court system. States have varying limits on which courts can hear which suits while some states have done away with the deep pocket abilities of civil matters.
Going to a single court system would take an enormous amount of effort to change individual state laws.
The final problem with going to a single system is the federal court’s duty to hear problems between states. If the nation goes to a single court system there will be no “supervisor” to oversee problems that occur between states.
If none of the other reasons are reason enough to maintain the dual court system that is currently in place the United States Constitution is reason enough.
The nation was founded on the constitution and the constitution protects the right to have a federal court system as well as a state court system. Regardless of whether it is a state court or a federal court the bottom line for every court in America is that they are duty bound to uphold the constitution. If the court system is dismantled and the nation goes to a single court system it is in direct violation of the very constitution it is bound to uphold.
While there are problems with the current dual court system within the United States it is the best system that has been developed thus far. In addition it complies with the United States constitution which is the cornerstone of strength for America. While the dual courts in America do have many elements in common they each serve a purpose and to dismantle that system would be to defy the constitution that the nation was built on.
A from the trial-level court directly to the supreme court, which decides whether to hear the case itself or to have the appeal resolved by the intermediate appeals court. Under either of these scenarios, the state supreme court generally reviews cases that involve significant matters of state law or policy.
Specialized state courts are trial-level courts of limited jurisdiction that only hear cases that deal with specific kinds of legal issues or disputes. Although these courts vary from state to state, many states have specialized courts for traffic matters, family law matters, probate for the administration of decedents’ estates, and small claims (for cases involving less than a specific sum of money). Rulings of these specialized courts are subject to appeal and review by state courts of general jurisdiction.
Each of the 50 states is divided into localities or municipalities called cities, counties, towns or villages. Local governments, like their state counterparts, have their own court systems, which are presided over by local magistrates, who are public civil officers possessing judicial power delegated under the local governing laws. This may include the power to rule on laws relating to zoning authority, the collection and expenditure of local taxes, or the establishment and operation of public schools.
One of the elements of the U.S. legal system that makes it at once so complex and so interesting is the fact that both the federal government and each state has its own judicial system. Each judicial system is marked by differences in function and operation. Moreover, the fact that there is overlapping jurisdiction and that any court may hear issues of federal and state law complicates the functioning of these systems further. At bottom, all court systems in the United States are similar in most fundamental respects. U.S. courts are, for the most part, courts of general jurisdiction. In addition, each system is in the hierarchical form of a pyramidal structure, allowing review and — if necessary — revision by upper-level courts.
Courts in the United States http://www.lectlaw.com/files/jud01.htm
The United States has 51 separate court systems. They include the federal court system, established and maintained by the national government, and the courts of the 50 states. Because of the separate state and federal systems, the United States is said to have a dual court system.
The federal court system is more limited in size and purpose than are the state courts. Federal courts have jurisdiction over five basic kinds of cases. They hear: (1) cases in which the United States is a party; and (2) cases involving foreign officials. In civil matters, if more than $10,000 is involved, they may also hear (3) cases with parties from different states, and (4) cases involving the CONSTITUTION of the UNITED STATES and federal laws. Federal courts also hear (5) “federal specialties,” cases involving patents, copyrights, or bankruptcies.
State courts share jurisdiction with federal courts in categories (3) and (4), and they exercisesole, or exclusive, jurisdiction in all other cases, mainly those involving state law. Only those state court decisions that involve the U.S. Constitution and federal law may be appealed to the federal courts.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest appellate court for cases within federal jurisdiction. The Court agrees to decide only about 150 of the 4,000 to 4,500 cases appealed to it each year;
the other federal courts decide approximately 330,000 cases a year, and the state courts, far more than that. The Supreme Court’s decisions, however, are binding on all other courts.
Throughout U.S. history, the federal court system has been small. In the mid-1990s there were 179 permanent circuit judgeships in the 13 courts of appeals (see COURT of APPEALS); the 89 district courts (see
DISTRICT COURT) had 610 permanent judgeships in the 50 states plus 15 in the District of Columbia and 7 in Puerto Rico. Three special courts hear cases involving customs duties, patents, and monetary claims against the government. Congress provided (1978) for BANKRUPTCY courts in each district, staffed by bankruptcy judges.
The state court systems are similar in structure, but they vary widely in specifics and nomenclature. The major trial court may be a circuit court in one state and a district court, or superior court, in another. Some courts derive their titles and functions from a past era and are not the result of systematic planning.
Most states have a tier of trial courts with limited or special jurisdiction, such as justice-of-the-peace courts or juvenile courts.
Courts having jurisdiction over cases involving minor criminal offenses may also conduct preliminary hearings for more serious crimes to be tried in higher trial courts. These limited-jurisdiction courts often receive most of their financial support from local governments. Next is a level of general-jurisdiction trial courts that hear the full range of serious cases and often appeals in minor cases from lower courts. Finally, each state has courts with mainly appellate jurisdiction. Every state has a supreme court, although it is not always called by that name; about half of the states have intermediate appellate courts below the level of their highest courts.
There are about 7,600 judges in state courts of general jurisdiction and over 1,000 judges in state appellate courts. Additional thousands of judges serve in special state courts. Historically, state judges were popularly elected, but increasingly states are adopting a judicial selection system in which the governor appoints judges from list submitted by a commission composed of judges, lawyers, and representatives of the public.
The court systems of the United States and England share historical roots. During the 11th and 12th centuries the English king resolved disputes with the aid of his “court,” as his advisors were called.
Formal courts of law gradually developed to apply the king’s law for him. During the 16th and 17th centuries the concept developed that the monarch should be subject to the law and the courts independent of the monarch. One cause of the American Revolution was the colonists’ complaint that George III did not allow colonial courts the same judicial independence that had been granted in 1701 to English judges.
As the English courts evolved, they began to study their earlier decisions for guidance. The law contained in these decisions came to be known as the COMMON LAW, and its traditions were inherited by other English-speaking countries
COURTS in CIVIL-LAW COUNTRIES
Included among the civil-law countries are most of the nations of continental Europe as well as those elsewhere that have adopted
European law. In this context, CIVIL LAW refers to the complex legal codes that the courts apply. The best known of these is France’s
NAPOLEONIC CODE, drafted at the beginning of the 19th century.
Judges in countries with a civil-law system are not selected from the ranks of practicing lawyers. Instead, at the outset of his or her career, a future judge attends a national school for prospective judges, after which the judge is eligible for appointment to a court.
Civil-law countries have trial and appellate courts, as is true of other court systems. A distinguishing characteristic, however, is the presence of numerous specialized court systems for particular types of cases. An example is the French administrative courts, which are separate from the courts of law.
Another difference is in criinal procedure. In common-law countries the role of the court is to listen to the evidence presented by the parties and make a decision based on that evidence. The civil-law countries operate on the “inquisitorial” system, in which the court itself, through the person of an investigating judge, takes a major role in determining whether a defendant should be tried. At trial, the judge takes an active role in questioning witnesses. Only in rare cases is a jury required.
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The Net’s Finest Legal Resource for Legal Pros & Laypeople Alike. http://www.lectlaw.com
HOW the U.S. COURT SYSTEM FUNCTIONS
Courts in the United States http://www.lectlaw.com/files/jud01.htm
Respecting State Courts: The Inevitability of Judicial Federalism (Contributions in Legal Studies) by Michael E. Solimine and James L. Walker (Hardcover – Dec 30, 1999)
Publisher: Greenwood Press (December 30, 1999)
Battles on the Bench: Conflict Inside the Supreme Court by Phillip J. Cooper (Paperback – Feb 1999)
Publisher: University Press of Kansas; New Ed edition (February 1999)
The History of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 8: Troubled Beginnings of the Modern State, 1888-1910 (Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History… Of the Supreme Court of the United States) by Owen M. Fiss (Hardcover – May 15, 2006)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 15, 2006)
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