The judicial system of the United States government is composed of courts which hear and decide disputes and complaints, both big and small. The judicial branch is part of the American government’s system of checks and balances under which the court system shares power with the legislative and executive branches of government. While most people have some idea of the way the US judicial system works from classes in school and portrayals in television shows and movies, there are popular misconceptions that can be cured with an overview of how the courts actually function in reality.
State and Federal Courts
The nature and impact of the disputes heard by the various courts can vary greatly. The issue may be as personal and local as the exact location of the boundary between neighbors’ land, or as broad and significant as whether a federal law applying to every citizen in the nation is unconstitutional and should be struck down by the court. The state and federal court systems are generally separate to better deal with the different laws and questions of state and national concern. However, there is some overlap, since state courts can interpret and apply federal law in certain circumstances, and federal courts have similar authority with local and state statutes and rules.
The federal courts were created by the authority of Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” By the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 (1 Stat. 73), Congress created the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the country. The separate state court systems are established and operated by the individual states, so there is quite a bit of variation among them.
In order for a court to hear a case, it must have jurisdiction over both the people involved (personal jurisdiction) and the issues at stake (subject matter jurisdiction). Jurisdiction is defined as “the authority given by law to a court to try cases and rule on legal matters within a particular geographic area and/or over certain types of legal cases.” In general, cases can be brought before the federal courts in the US by and against citizens, non-natives and visitors to the United States or an individual state, as long as at least one of the parties is a native, the defendant is present in the geographical area, and the event prompting the suit took place inside the territory. In the state court systems, similar rules apply that usually require citizenship of one or more of the parties, the defendant’s presence, and that the economic or physical injury occurred within the state. Corporations, businesses, organizations and government entities – not just individuals – can also bring or defend against lawsuits.
Proceedings in a Lawsuit
A particular case begins when one party, usually called the plaintiff, pays a filing fee and files a formal paper known as a “complaint” with the court. The complaint should clearly state the facts of the dispute, the law that applies, and the amount of money or other relief requested. The plaintiff is required to also give the person being sued, the defendant, an official copy of the complaint, and the defendant then has a set period of time to respond to it. The defendant’s response, called an “answer,” gives his or her version of the facts that occurred and the legal principles that are believed to apply. The defendant may also submit a counterclaim, which alleges that the plaintiff caused related harm which the court should address. In response to the defendant’s answer or counterclaim, the plaintiff may need to file a “reply” to address any new factual or legal issues brought up by the defendant. In some courts, a different terminology may be applied: for example, the plaintiff may instead be called “petitioner,” the defendant may be referred to as “respondent,” and the complaint is known as a “petition.”
After the initial paperwork is filed, a period of information exchange between the plaintiff and defendant occurs, which is called “discovery.” Under specific procedural rules established by the courts, each of the parties may ask the other (or other witnesses) questions to be answered either in writing or in person at a deposition, or ask that documents or other evidence be produced for examination and copying. When discovery is complete, the plaintiff or defendant may follow the specified procedures to ask the court to hold a hearing to determine certain issues, dismiss the case or decide it outright in favor of one party, all before the trial. These requests presented to the court are called “motions,” and can be made verbally when both parties are present, or in writing. When all of these pretrial matters are finished, one of the parties asks the court to schedule the matter for trial.
Criminal and Civil Cases
In a criminal court case, the state or federal government acts as the plaintiff in filing and prosecuting the lawsuit. The basis for the suit is that a law or “statute” forbids certain actions as being against public welfare, and the defendant has harmed or endangered the public by engaging in such behavior. Civil cases are different in that imprisonment is not one of the possible punishments the court can apply to a guilty defendant; instead, money is usually awarded to the plaintiff to help compensate for the damage. Another distinction is that the prosecutor in a criminal case must typically prove that the defendant intended his or her actions, while civil law more frequently holds a person responsible for consequences he or she caused accidentally, such as a car crash.
Trial by Jury
In a criminal prosecution in which the defendant may be imprisoned, both parties have a right to trial by jury, although they can choose to waive or reject it. In the majority of civil trials, evidence will be heard and both the facts and law decided by the judge alone in a “bench trial” with no jury. Even when a jury is present, it is still the judge’s role to decide any questions of law arising from a trial; juries are limited to questions of fact, which means determining what actually happened. Specific courts have their own rules to determine when a jury trial may be requested, which is not an absolute right in civil cases. Further, the fact that trial by jury may require paying additional fees, and can cause delays and complications, results in few actual cases being decided by juries, despite what is depicted in fictional courtroom dramas.
After the trial court reaches a final decision in a case, either party may challenge an unfavorable ruling by filing an appeal with a higher court. In both the state and federal court systems, there is typically a trial court with the smallest physical area of authority, a group of intermediate appellate courts which cover larger territories, and then the highest court with authority over the entire domain. In actual practice, few cases receive appellate review, as a party does not have the absolute right to an appeal. The appellate courts have limited resources, so they must choose which cases to accept based on factors such as which seem to involve the most important issues and which appear the most likely to have been decided wrongly. For a case in the state courts, a party may be able to appeal beyond the state’s highest court if there is an issue that involves federal law, including statutes passed by Congress and the US Constitution.
Government bureaucracies may often act very similarly to courts in hearing evidence and deciding disputes regarding their administrative rules, decisions and actions. However, they are actually under the authority of the executive branch of the U.S. government, rather than part of the judicial system. Actions taken by administrative agencies must, of course, comply with state and federal law, so final decisions can often be challenged in the courts, and will be overturned if they are held to violate applicable laws.
While this overview of the judicial system of the US government is not intended to be comprehensive, it offers a basic summary of some of the key characteristics of the American legal system. Armed with this information about the structure of the system and a sense of the way the courts work in reality, readers may be assisted if they ever find themselves as a party to a lawsuit. At the least, you may have learned some new facts that will let you judge the accuracy of the next courtroom battle you read about in a best-selling novel or see on the screen!