The many different courts in the United States and their roles in the criminal justice system can be confusing. Here is a quick overview of the numerous courts, including municipal courts, county, state and federal courts and the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court.
An appellate court is one where an appeal may be heard, although prosecutors cannot appeal a verdict handed down in a losing case. An appellate court judge may decide that a case needs to be retried, and if this occurs, the trial will take place in the original jurisdiction. “Appellate judges present written explanations for their decisions, and these opinions of the court are the basis for a great deal of the precedent in the criminal justice system.” (Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.194)
Within the state court system, there are some with limited jurisdiction. These courts may be the venue for pre-trial hearing and minor offenses, and a judge will make his decision without a jury. General jurisdiction courts are used for trials, and usually cover the full area of the county in which they are located. Some of these courts are known as circuit courts, although the names can change according to each state.
The state court of appeals is similar to an appellate court, although it is generally the highest court in the state with the final say. Occasionally, a federal court can intervene but only if there is a violation of constitutional law. The federal court judges are nominated by the President of the United States, and must be reviewed and approved by the Senate before they take office. Other Judges are elected through a voting process (Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.198).
The federal court system has more than one dozen courts of appeal. All courts except one are bound by jurisdiction; the thirteenth court of appeals operates like an appellate court where a government agency is the defendant (Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.199). The only court higher than the courts of appeal is the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reviews and passes laws according to its interpretation of the constitution. Most cases never reach the Supreme Court, “if the justices do not feel the case addresses an important federal law or constitutional issue” (Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.200).
Although the court system seems well devised, there will always be confusion over matters of jurisdiction and constitutional rights. The higher courts of appeal can resolve most cases for the last time, although many appeals to the highest court in the land are often delegated to lower courts for that final decision.
The United States court system is very interesting, and having an understanding of the basics of each court, its jurisdiction and its role in the community can be useful, particularly when pondering career choices.
Gaines, L. & Miller, R. L. (2006). Criminal justice in action: The core (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. ISBN: 0-495-00305-4.