Judicial Organization

Judicial Organization in the United States

The United States has a dual court system with multiple courts in each. That is, we divide the judicial functions between the federal government and the states. Within both the federal and state court systems, jurisdiction—a court’s power to act—is divided among several courts. The federal and state systems do overlap geographically, but the courts of each system are strucTura The kinds of

cases a court may hear is governed by its jurisdiction. Jurisdiction defines whether a case should be heard by federal or state courts. The area of overlap between federal and state courts is small.

The separation of courts into federal and state systems has some noteworthy consequences. Each system has its own structure and operates based on rules established by its own constitutions and statutes. The existence of fifty-one sovereign entities, each operating its own court system, creates some diversity of rules and substantive policy. This autonomy carries over to personnel, and each system has its own court staff. Further, cases do not mow oue system to another. Generally, when a case is commenced in a particular court, the courts of that system carry the case through to disposition.

The jurisdiction of a court is defined by federal and state law. Jurisdiction generally assigns power to courts to hear cases based on subject matter, the parties to a suit, the residency of the parties, or the ‘ location of sTpSSYKlatMfiident- The overall jurisdiction of the federal courts extends to essentially three kinds of cases. First, federal courts can hear cases deriving from the U.S. Constitution, from federal statutes, or from treaties. This category of jurisdiction is based on the substantive legal question. Second, federal courts possess jurisdiction for any case involving the federal government or one of its officers or agencies. Third, federal courts may hear diversity cases or conflicts involving citizens of different states or foreign nations. Any issue not fitting these categories falls within the jurisdiction of state courts.

As a general pattern, the court system divides courts into one of two functional categories, trial and appellate. The trial courts deal with questions of fact while the appellate courts review the actions of lower courts and examine questions of law or procedure. By comparison to the state judicial systems, the organization of the federal Judiciary (U.S.) is fairly straightforward. The principal trial court in the federal system is the district court. Each state has at least one federal district court, with some having more depending on case demand and population. The district court possesses general jurisdiction, which means the docket contains a wide range of cases. Certain very narrow categories of issues go to a small number of specialized federal courts such as the Court of International Trade.

Structurally sitting atop the district and specialized courts are two levels of federal appellate courts. The intermediate court is the Court of Appeals, which is typically the court providing the first appellate review. The courts of appeals are divided into twelve geographic units known as circuits. All but the circuit for the District of Columbia are made up of several states. A particular court of appeals hears the cases originating in the district courts located in the states of its geographic circuit. The Supreme Court is the other appellate court of the federal system, although it does possess original jurisdiction in certain special cases. The Court has national geographic jurisdiction and may also review cases from the state courts if the cases pose a substantial federal question.

The configuration of courts at the state level varies widely, but a general pattern does emerge. Like its federal counterpart, a state system divides courts between the trial and appellate functions. While some states have as many as ten trial courts, there are usually two basic types. The first is a court of general jurisdiction, which hears a broad range of cases. Typically, these cases involve felony or serious misdemeanor-level criminal charges or civil cases having substantial value at stake. The second category of trial court is the more specialized or limited jurisdiction court. These courts respond to the great numbers of less serious conflicts or focus on a particular area such as money claims against the government, domestic relations, or matters involving juveniles.

Many states have a two-tier appellate process much like the federal system. The intermediate appeals courts provide a first and often final round of review for cases arising from the trial courts. These courts are usually distributed across a state and review cases from the trial courts of their discrete geographic areas. Only a small proportion of cases go beyond these intermediate courts to the courts of last resort, commonly called supreme courts. Some states permit direct appeal to the supreme courts for at least some case categories, while other states first require a ruling from an intermediate court. States that use intermediate appellate courts for screening purposes restrict bypass possibilities and usually allow the supreme courts to set their own dockets; that is, the state supreme court must agree to review the cases that appear before it. Cases not reviewed remain as decided by the intermediate court. In some of the small states, there are no intermediate level appellate courts, and all appeals are routed through the supreme courts. The federal and state systems do converge at the top where the U.S. Supreme Court may review cases from state systems. Any state case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, must meet the threshold jurisdictional requirements for a federal case.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Judicial Organization from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Judicial Organization: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Judicial Organization. This part provides references, in relation to Judicial Organization, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Judicial Organization by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Judicial Organization and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Judicial Organization or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Judicial Organization and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Judicial Organization. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Judicial Organization should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Judicial Organization when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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