Law US Court Systems Law and Legal Definition

The Supreme Court of the United States was created by Sec. 1 Article III of the Constitution. Its jurisdiction is set out by statute in Title 28 of the U.S. Code. The organization of the Court is also governed by legislation. The Court develops its own rules governing the presentation of cases. One of the most important powers of the Supreme Court is judicial review.

Judicial review consists of:

  • The power of the courts to declare laws invalid if they violate the Constitution.
  • The supremacy of federal laws or treaties when they differ from state and local laws.
  • The role of the Court as the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution.

State Courts

  • Each state has a court system that are separate from the federal courts. State court systems have trial courts at the bottom level and appellate courts at the top. Over 95% of the nation's legal cases are decided in state courts (or local courts, which are agents of the states).
  • Some states have two appellate levels, and others have only a single appellate court. States vary in the way they organize and name their courts, but they usually give some lower courts specialized titles and jurisdictions. States have special courts for divorce, juvenile, and estate matters. Below these specialized trial courts are more informal trial courts, such as magistrate courts and justice of the peace courts, which hear minor matters such as traffic cases.
  • Cases that originate in state courts can be appealed to a federal court if a federal issue is involved and usually only after all avenues of appeal in the state courts have been exhausted.

Federal Courts of Appeal

When cases are appealed from district courts, they go to a federal court of appeals. Courts of appeals do not use juries or witnesses. No new evidence is presented on appeal. Appellate courts generally base their decisions on a review of the law applied as evidenced in the lower-court records.

There are 12 general appeals courts. Except for the court which serves only the District of Columbia, they serve an area consisting of three to nine states (called a circuit.) There is also the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which specializes in appeals of decisions in cases involving patents, contract claims against the federal government, federal employment cases and international trade.

Between four and twenty six judges sit on each court of appeals, and each case is usually heard by a panel of three judges. Fewer than 1 percent of the cases heard by federal appeals courts are later reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Federal District Court

All federal courts, except for the U.S. Supreme Court, were created by Congress. There are ninety four federal district courts across the country, with at least one in every state (larger states have up to four). There are about 550 federal district-court judges who are appointed by the president with the advice of the Senate. District courts are the only courts in the federal system in which juries hear testimony in some cases, and most cases at this level are presented before a single judge. Federal district courts are bound by legal precedents established by the Supreme Court.

The Bankruptcy Courts

The federal courts have jurisdiction over all bankruptcy cases. Bankruptcy cannot be filed in state courts. The primary purposes of the law of bankruptcy are:

  1. to give an honest debtor a "fresh start" in life by relieving the debtor of most debts, and
  2. to repay creditors in an orderly manner to the extent that the debtor has property available for payment.

Other special courts include:

  • U.S. Supreme Court
  • U.S. Tax Court
  • Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
  • U.S. Court of Federal Claims
  • U.S. Court of International Trade
  • United States Sentencing Commission