Federal and State Courts

As a political science major, you will be expected to possess a thorough understanding of the state and federal court systems in the United States, both today and historically.

The original division of the United States into jurisdictional districts was accomplished by the first Congress of the United States in 1774. In a little over two centuries, the organization of the federal court structure has been slowly modified into the current system in which the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Beneath the Supreme Court are 13 courts of appeals as well as 94 district courts. In addition, there are also two special jurisdiction courts that are solely empowered to rule on very specific types of cases.

While Congress can eliminate or create most federal courts and decide upon how many judges participate in the federal courts system, the power of Congress to abolish courts does not extend to the Supreme Court. The role of the Supreme Court is to hear and rule on issues involving the federal government, disagreements between two or more states, the constitutionality of executive or legislative decisions, and the intentions of the Constitution.

The courts of appeals, also known as circuit courts, hear district court appeals; their decisions can result in legal precedent. They handle most of the 10,000 cases that are originally filed with the Supreme Court on an annual basis; the Supreme Court rarely hears more than 1% of those cases.

On the next level down are the district courts. These trial courts hear cases concerned with federal law as well as civil and criminal lawsuits involving disputes between citizens of different states. Below the district courts are tax courts and bankruptcy courts.

The relationship between federal and state courts is complex. Both federal and state courts have exclusivity in specific types of cases, and both are considered to maintain independence. While most cases involving the laws of a state are heard within that state’s court system, if the litigants are from two different states, the case can be heard in a federal court. At the same time, while most federal issues are addressed in a federal court, there are exceptions that federal statutes have held in reserve for the courts of the states.

Overall, most disputes that affect citizens are heard within their districts; in fact, the 10th Amendment of the Constitution disallows federal execution of power unless that power has been delegated to it by state decision.

All fifty states of the United States have created their own constitutions and operate their own governmental systems, including a court system. There can be a wide range of differences from state to state. For example, not all states elect their court justices. Native American tribes have been designated domestic dependent nations and are permitted to determine their own forms of government, although those forms are bound to the authority of the federal government.

Last Updated: 05/22/2014

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