5.1 The State Court System
Despite differences in structure and jurisdiction, all the states possess an integrated system of courts including superior courts, appellate courts and a state supreme court. The state courts play an important role, as they handle around nine - tenths of the total litigation in the U.S.
5.1a Superior Courts
Such courts function at the county level. These
(superior, district or circuit) courts are the main courts of original
jurisdiction, both for criminal and civil cases. Original jurisdiction
is a courtís power to hear and determine cases in the first
instance itself. They are also given exclusive jurisdiction in several
cases such as those of divorce or those involving land titles. Criminal
cases cover crimes including murder, armed robbery, rape, and
also non-violent crimes like fraud. In most criminal cases, the
defendant (who is charged with the crime), makes a plea bargain,
thus pleading guilty to a lesser change in order to receive a less
severe sentence. The plea bargain helps to save judicial time
and money, as many criminal cases need not be brought to trial.
Indictment is done by grand jury and trial by petit jury in criminal
cases, for which the procedure is in accordance with what has been
laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
States are divided into judicial circuits, each having several counties. The judge of a superior court is generally elected by popular vote. He moves from one county to another, within his circuit, and holds court in each county.
Civil cases may be divided into two categories:
one, in which the U.S. government is one of the litigants and in
the other case, both are private parties. Disputes regarding property,
money, and contracts on personal well being such as malpractice,
libel and personal injury lawsuits. In such cases the plaintiffs
(who bring the suit), demand compensatory damages, financial
aid to cover losses, and punitive damages, to prevent the defendant
from engaging in such practices again. Class-action suits
may also be termed as civil cases, in which compensation is distributed
among a large number of people, who may be affected by asbestos
products or products of tobacco companies, automobile manufacturers,
or insurance companies for instance.
5.1b State Appellate Courts
Appeals from trial courts are taken to intermediate
courts of appeal or to the state supreme court. These higher state
courts are called appellate courts, as they generally do
not posses original jurisdiction, and deal with the legal procedures
or matters of law from the lower courts. The final judgment depends
upon the majority vote. Thus appellate jurisdiction is the courtís
power to review and decide cases on appeal, after they have been
dealt with by inferior courts. A panel of five or seven judges instead
of a jury are required to be present for the hearing of the cases.
These judges are either elected, chosen by the legislature or appointed
by the governor. In the appellate court, the original verdict can
be reversed, or left to stand, or a new trial can be called for.
However only a few cases are brought before the appellate courts.
5.1c State Supreme Courts
Regardless of the outcome at the appellate court
level, the defendant may appeal to the state supreme court. Therefore
this court is often referred to as the state court of last resort.
The decisions of the state supreme court justices, have become the
highest law in the state.
5.1d The Election of State Judges
The judges of the trial, appellate and state supreme
courts are generally elected. The municipal and county judges
hold office for a term of four years, while judges of the higher
courts have eight to twelve-year terms. This enables judges to remain
independent of political influence.
Several states have established administrative
offices to give more efficient assistance to state chief justices
and supreme courts. Interstate associations of trial judges, chief
justices and court administrative officers continuously work towards
improving the state judicial machinery and procedures.
5.1 The State Court System
5.2 The Federal Court System 5.3
The Supreme Court in Operation