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The U.S. has a dual court structure. To be exact, we have a federal judiciary system and the systems that are operated by each of the states. This dual court structure is a unique feature of the American judicial system. Although most cases are tried in state courts, the federal court is playing a larger and larger role in finding resolutions to disputes. Partly, this is because congress in recent years has enacted a range of new laws that grant citizens access to federal courts.
Most of the nation’s litigation, as I’ve said before occurs at state level. When a person has a grievance, he or she can be assured that there is a state court that will consider his case. Although federal courts play an increasing role in the whole litigation picture, they are limited as to the cases over which they can exercise jurisdiction. In order for a federal court to exercise jurisdiction over a case one of the following conditions must be met: Either there must be diversity of citizenship, or the case must involve a federal question.
Diversity of citizenship, by the way, refers to a dispute involving citizens of different states, or a government or citizen of another country. The amount in question, in order for diversity to be applied, must be at least $75,000. That is even though a case may involve citizens of different states, the plaintiff must claim at least $75,000 in damages in order for a federal court to hear the case.
For example, a very common case in federal court involves product liability. Suppose someone from Glen Ellyn is injured by a product manufactured in Michigan. Although there is no federal law governing product liability, this would be normally a matter for state courts, but since diversity applies (assuming the claim is over $75,000), the case may also be tried (but not necessarily) in federal court. If the plaintiff files in his or her own state court, the defendant would have the right to remove the case to federal court in order to get a fairer trial and escape local prejudice.
In addition to escaping local prejudice, there are some other reasons why an attorney may decide to remove the case to federal court: Crowded state calendars and possible advantages in court procedures are a few examples. Slightly more then a quarter of all cases heard in federal court involve diversity; that is, they would be otherwise tried on a state level were it not for the fact that the parties are from different states.
The other basis for litigating a case in federal court, as mentioned earlier, is knows as ” federal question” jurisdiction. That means that an action alleging a violation in federal law (according to the U.S. Code), may be filed in federal court. For example, a person claiming that his or her civil rights are being violated (such as the right to freedom of religion), may bring his or her case to federal court. For some cases alleging violations of federal statutes federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction, for others, the plaintiff has a choice of state or federal court.
The number of cases filed in federal court has increased in the past two decades. This is in part due to an increase in new cases filed in traditional areas of federal litigation, like the unfair labor, antitrust, unfair trade and securities. The increase is also due in part to new statutes being enacted, including environmental statutes, equal housing, equal employment, discrimination, and pension reform.
As described in the constitution, the legislative branch is the vaguest of the three branches describe. In fact, the only court mandated by the constitution is the Supreme Court. The congress, however, empowered by the necessary a proper clause granted to it by the Constitution, has established the various other U.S. courts, such as the U.S. appellate and district courts, as well as other special courts. Our court system looks somewhat like a pyramid. At the top is the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. On the next level are the 13 U.S. courts of appeal, a.k.a. U.S. circuit courts of appeal. On the next level are the U.S. district courts, which are trial courts of general jurisdiction. They hear cases involving all kinds of issues, trials happen there and testimony is taken.
Also, there are special federal courts, which are there for a specific purpose, such as Tax courts, Territorial courts, Bankruptcy courts and Federal Regulatory Agencies. Within the system, lawsuits generally begin in the district courts, or one of the special courts. The case will be initially tried and decided by a federal district court, or a specialized court, it may be appealed to one of the courts of appeal. The next, final level of appeal is the U.S. Supreme Court. A party may petition the Supreme Court to review an appeals court decision. This is knows as a “petition for certiorari”, however, the court is not obligated to hear the case, in fact only a small percentage of such petitions are granted.
The highest court in the land is the United States Supreme Court. It consists of nine justices, all nominated by the president of the United States and approved by the Senate. The court meets on the first Monday in October, and continues in session until June. It hears upwards of 5000 cases a year. In most of them, they refuse certiorari, that is, refuses to further look into the matter. In about 150 cases a year, the court accepts certiorari, hears arguments on the issues involved, and hands down a written opinion. Since the Supreme Court only accepts a small percentage of cases filed before it, it tries to accept those issues of great national importance.
Four Supreme Court justices must vote to accept certiorari before the full court can hear and decide the case. If fewer then four accept, then the lower court opinion stands. Usually, the Supreme Court does not hear any evidence; the court’s consideration is based on records, abstracts and briefs. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and sometimes Thursday, attorneys are allowed to present oral arguments. They are tape-recorded along with the justice’s questions. The justices then hold meetings and conferences to discuss and vote on the case. A majority opinion is needed for a ruling that is five justices need to agree.
In a nutshell, the U.S. federal court system is like a three- tire pyramid, with district and special courts on the bottom, courts of appeal in the middle, and the Supreme Court on top. Most legislation starts out in the lower court (if they have jurisdiction over a particular case), then that decision can be appealed to one of the 13 appellate courts, and progressively the Supreme Court. (If they choose to hear it) Most state judicial systems, by the way, are modeled in the same manner.
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