Have you ever wondered how the court systems of various countries were structured and how it differs from your own? This ongoing series aims to explore the various judiciary systems in place around the world. In this article, we will explore the different courts of the US, and how they interconnect.
The US court system is based on the English Common Law System, where the basic idea is that there are 2 sides to every case – the plaintiff and the defendant – who will present their sides of the dispute before an impartial judge. In criminal cases, the prosecutor will act on behalf of the citizens or the state. It is then the judge’s duty to render a decision based on evidence presented and how these fit with the laws of the land. This is all done with the aim of coming to a just decision.
There are more than 51 different interpretations of this basic model within the United States. Each of the 50 states has their own rules and procedures. While there are times when laws may be understood differently in different parts of the country, they are for the most part very similar.
In general, the court system of the US is a three-tiered one. Unless in exceptional circumstances, cases will first be heard at the lowest level, a District or Trial court. Once the case has been heard at this level, and a decision made, one of two things will happen. Either both parties will agree to the decision and abide by its terms, or, if one of the parties can prove that a legal error was made which led to an unfavorable decision, they can decide to appeal to a higher court to have the decision rescinded.
This higher level is called an Appellate Court or Court of Appeals. Here, there is usually a panel of three judges who will hear arguments of either side. It’s important to remember that Appellate judges can only decide on matters of law. What this means is that they will consider all facts in the trial record to be true and will not accept new evidence being submitted. There are three outcomes possible with any appeal. Firstly, the panel of judges might deem that there was indeed a legal error and overturn the decision. Alternatively, it may decide that there was an error and send the case back to the lower court for the judge to change – this is called a remand. Lastly, the panel can agree with the initial decision from the lower court and uphold it.
If either party still disagrees with the decision and can prove that the Appellate court has made a legal error, there is still one last court they can appeal to. This is the Supreme Court, and all 50 states and federal courts have some version of this entity. The Supreme Court is presided over by a panel of 9 judges, and much like the Appellate Court, will only decide on matters of the law. However, there is no higher court, making all judgements by the Supreme Court final.
While all American court systems, or “jurisdictions,” follow this basic structure there are many differences among them and all have exceptions to this generalization. However, it is important to stress that they all do follow the same basic structure.
This is just a broad overview of the structure of the American legal structure. Did you find it educational? Be sure to share your views in the comments section below. The next part of this series will cover the Canadian Legal System. We hope to see you there.