Courts in the United States

Courts in the United States

Introduction to Courts

Courts in the United States, government institutions that resolve legal disputes by trial and that hear appeals from such cases. The United States has a federal system of government in which power is divided between a central (national) authority and smaller local units of government (see Federalism). Correspondingly, it has a dual system of federal and state courts that are independent of one another. Because each state has its own system, there are essentially 52 court systems in the United States (the federal system, 50 state systems, and the court system in the District of Columbia).

The authority of a court to decide a case is called its jurisdiction. Courts have jurisdiction only within geographical boundaries. A city court cannot usually try cases that arise outside the city limits and courts in one state rarely have jurisdiction over events happening or people living in other states. Jurisdiction is also limited by types of cases. A court with general jurisdiction may hear many different sorts of cases. The jurisdiction of other courts is limited to particular types of cases-for example, minor crimes, claims against the government, or child custody.

Trial courts conduct trials, at which the parties present evidence and ask a judge or jury for a decision or verdict. Appellate courts hear appeals from the trial courts-that is, they review the lower court’s decision to see whether a legal error was made.” (1)

Main Topics of Courts and Procedures

This entry in the American Encyclopedia has been organized to address the following topics, among others:

  • Courts and Procedures : Civil Procedure
  • Courts and Procedures : Criminal Procedure
  • Courts and Procedures : Federal Courts and Jurisdictions
  • Courts and Procedures : Juries
  • Courts and Procedures : Small Claims Courts
  • Courts and Procedures : State Courts and Procedures

Courts and Social Change in the United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled COURTS AND SOCIAL CHANGE, ISince the mid-twentieth century, courts in the United States have been involved in many of the most important, difficult, and emotional issues of modern politics. From racial and gender equality to abortion to reform of criminal procedure, court decisions have ordered the landscape of American society.

United States Courts (generally) Legal Materials

For a good introduction to the U.S. court system, see a A Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts. For more information, see the Federal Courts in America section of the Federal Judiciary web site.

Links to Federal Court web sites are available through FindLaw and the Federal Judiciary’s Court Locator.

Citation Notes

The US Supreme Court sits at the apex of the federal court structure. Circuit courts are intermediate appellate courts. Each ‘circuit’ contains a number of ‘districts’. District courts are federal courts of first instance. Districts are sometimes divided into ‘divisions’, the abbreviation of which appears after the district abbreviation (for example, ‘CD Cal ED’ is ‘Central District of California Eastern Division’). It is not necessary to include the division in a citation.


In Legislation

Courts in the U.S. Code: Title 22, Chapter 51, Subchapter II, Part 2

The current, permanent, in-force federal laws regulating courts are compiled in the United States Code under Title 22, Chapter 51, Subchapter II, Part 2. It constitutes “prima facie” evidence of statutes relating to Foreign Relations (including courts) of the United States. The reader can further narrow his/her legal research of the general topic (in this case, Panama and Treaties and International Law of the US Code, including courts) by chapter and subchapter.


Notes and References

  1. Information about Courts in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

  • Appeal
  • Courts Challanges
  • Court System in the United States
  • Appeals
  • Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
  • Court Clerks / Court Houses
  • Docket Sheets
  • Federal Court Rules
  • Judges
  • Judicial Districts
  • Jury Instructions
  • United States Supreme Court
  • Unreported Decisions

Further Reading

Guide to Courts

In this Section

  • Courts Development
  • Federal Courts
  • District Courts
  • Courts of Appeals
  • Supreme Court
  • Courts of Special Jurisdiction
  • Territorial Courts
  • State Courts
  • Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
  • Courts of General Jurisdiction
  • Intermediate Appellate Courts
  • Supreme Appellate Courts
  • Courts Challanges
  • Courts of Appeals

Courts in the Criminal Justice System


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