The first area of the American court system that needs to be explored is that of the dual system of courts (federal and state courts) that exists in the U.S. The jurisdiction of these courts is mandated by state and federal statutes. This dual system of courts was the result of the federal system of government created by our “Founding Fathers.
In their attempt to strengthen our central government and maintain state sovereignty they had recourse to a two-court system. Separate courts were needed to judge and interpret federal and state statutes. The state court systems were already in place when the federal court system was created by Article III of the U.S. Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789. How these two court systems operate and interact with one another will be discussed later in the unit.
Before going any further an examination of civil law and English common law must be made. For they formed the basis from which these courts operate.
Random House Dictionary of the English Language
the Unabridged Edition
defines civil law as the body of laws of a state or nation regulating private matter. The courts use these laws in administering justice and formulating decisions.
One source which influenced American civil laws was the Roman Justinian Code. This code was developed in the sixth century A.D. It spread throughout the European continent. The Justinian Code was transported to the colonies by the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch, where it was modified so as to be useful and applicable to situations encountered by early American settlers. Another source of American civil laws was the Napoleonic Code which also has its basis in Roman law. In fact the Napoleonic Code still plays a part in the Quebec and Louisiana legal system. As our country developed it gave rise to fifty-one individual codes of civil laws. They were established by federal statutes and the state statutes of the fifty states. If someone wanted to know what the law pertaining to alcohol was in the U.S., they would have to examine the federal statutes and the state statutes of every state in the union concerning alcohol.
A solution was built into the U.S. Constitution to help federal and state courts deal with conflicts which arise when state statutes are in direct conflict with federal statutes. The solution is the ‘Supremacy Clause’ found in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution which states:
This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance therof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
What makes Article VI effective is the fact that all public officials, federal and state, are bound by an oath to support the U.S. Constitution which is administered prior to taking a public office.
Prior to the development of civil law in the U.S. the court systems relied on English common law. Common law is defined as the unwritten law, especially of England, based on custom or court decisions, distinct from statute law. After the Revolutionary War the American courts became detached from the English court system. Each colony began to develop its own distinct common laws. As time passed, U.S. Law developed from a combination of English common law and American statutes. It must be emphasized to students that common law develops from the decisions of judges over a period of time.
There still exists a common thread between English and American common law that could not be cut and that was “stare decisis.” ‘Stare decisis’ is the legal rule that past precedents determine the outcome of contemporary legal disputes (Jay Sigler,
An Introduction to the Legal System
, p.12). A person attempts to establish precedent between their case and a case from the past in hopes of receiving a similar verdict. “Stare decisis” still plays a major role in determining the outcome of cases in federal and state courts.
Another aspect of the English legal system adapted by most U.S. legal systems is the grand jury. A grand jury is a body of citizens (chosen in the same manner as jurors) whose responsibility is to determine if there is enough evidence to justify bringing charges against an individual. The grand jury was instigated in order to avoid the official persecution by a prosecutor without just cause. Grand juries are not a part of every state judicial system while a grand jury indictment is necessary for federal prosecution.
Two types of cases are handled by state courts: 1) criminal cases—where it is alleged that a state law has been broken. 2) civil cases—cases involving a dispute between two or more individuals. Criminal cases can be classified as either felonies or misdemeanors. Felonies are the more serious crimes usually involving murder, kidnapping, or burglary. The less serious offenses such as traffic violations, disorderly conduct, or indecent exposure are referred to as misdemeanors.
The organization of state courts varies from state to state. There are three types of courts found in most states. They are a trial court, an appellate court, and a state supreme court. A case is first heard in a trial court. If the decision is unsatisfactory, it may be appealed in the state appellate court. If the case is still unresolved it can be bound over to the state supreme court. There are two courts a litigant can take his case after the state supreme court. They are the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. I have heard many a middle and high school student utter the phrase, “I’ll take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.” Usually the case or problem is petty in nature. Students need to realize that state and federal appellate courts will hear a case only under certain circumstances. They tend to hear cases in which they feel a lower court has handled the case improperly or due process denied. The circumstances in which the Supreme Court becomes involved will be discussed later.
Amendment VI of the U.S. Constitution guarantees every U.S. citizen a speedy and public trial by jury. The state and federal juries are composed of twelve, or sometimes six, individuals chosen at random, usually from the voter registration list. The jury is sequestered while hearing a case and is not allowed to discuss the case with anyone, including other members of the jury. Jurors may discuss the case with the other jurors only during the deliberation part of the trial. Unlike the Athenian jury system, an unanimous vote is necessary for acquittal or guilty verdict in the American court system. In the U.S. a person is innocent until proven guilty and guilt must be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. A tie can result in an acquittal or a new trial.
Judges in the state court system are chosen in a variety of ways. They are:
1) A partisan election, in which the judge is nominated by a political party and runs on that ticket.
2) Election by the legislature.
3) Non-partisan election, in which restrictions are put on political parties in designating candidates.
4) The governor can appoint the judges.
5) The Missouri Plan, in which the governor chooses from a list recommended by a special commission.
In any case the state judge is always beholden to a political party. Judges for the federal courts, on the other hand, are appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate. These judges serve for life. Judges in federal and state courts can overturn guilty verdicts if they feel that the judge in the original trial committed an error or the jury made an error in judgement based on the overwhelming weight of evidence presented.
The major defect in the state court system is court congestion. (Connecticut is one of the worst off in that regard.) This is due to the enormous case load and the fact that every person has a right to a trial by jury, in all but the most trivial cases. This problem of court congestion could lead to the release of a guilty individual on the grounds that the state violated his civil rights by not granting him a speedy trial as outlined in the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The federal court system is made up of U.S. District Courts, U.S. Appeal Courts, the Supreme Court, and several special courts established by Congress.
The U.S. District Courts hear cases involving federal statutes as mandated by the Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789. There are 93 district courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals hears cases in which individuals have chosen to appeal the decision of the district court or a state court. There are eleven U.S. Courts of Appeals. If satisfaction is not achieved at this level, the case may be appealed to the Supreme Court. There are three writs that a lawyer can use to get a case heard before the Supreme Court. The first involves an appeal based on the fact that a state statute is in direct conflict with a federal statute. Or, an appeal can be filed if the federal law in question is alleged to be unconstitutional. The second type of writ that can be obtained is one of “Certiorari”. This writ is issued when four Supreme Court justices feel that a case deserves the court’s attention. The third (rarely used), is a writ of “Certification”, which can be obtained if a lower federal court wishes to have the Supreme Court examine a case in which the lower court is in doubt as to a course of action to take.
The special courts that were established by Congress are as follows:
1) The Court of Claims—cases against the government are heard in this court.
2) The Customs Court—cases involving import taxes or tariffs are heard in this court.
3) The Court of Customs and Patent Appeals—cases appealing the decisions of the Custom Court or the Patent Office are held here.
4) The Territorial Courts—cases of people who live in U.S. territories are held here.
5) The Tax Court—appeals concerning payment of taxes are held here.