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  • The American Judicial System

  • The American Judicial System

    Characteristics of the American Judicial System

    In order to understand the principles of federal and state court jurisdiction, it is essential to have a clear understanding of how the American judicial system functions. The following section will provide a brief overview of the judicial system in the United States.


    The court system in the United States is based upon the principle of federalism. The first Congress established a federal court system, and the individual states were permitted to continue their own judicial structure. There was general agreement among our nation's founders that individual states needed to retain significant autonomy from federal control. Under this concept of federalism, the United States developed as a loose confederation of semi-independent states having their own courts, with the federal court system acting in a very limited manner. In the early history of our nation, most cases were tried in state courts. It was only later that the federal government and the federal judiciary began to exercise jurisdiction over crimes and civil matters. Jurisdiction in this context simply means the ability of the court to enforce laws and punish individuals who violate those laws.

    A dual system of state and federal courts. As a result of this historical evolution, a dual system of state and federal courts exists today. Therefore, federal and state courts may have concurrent jurisdiction over specific crimes. For example, a person who robs a bank may be tried and convicted in state court for robbery, then tried and convicted in federal court for the federal offense of robbery of a federally-chartered savings institution.

    Court system performs its duties with little or no supervision. Another characteristic of the American court system is that it performs its duties with little or no supervision. A Supreme Court Justice does not exercise supervision over lower court judges in the same way that a government supervisor or manager exercises control over his or her employees. The U.S. Supreme Court and the various state supreme courts exercise supervision only in the sense that they hear appellate cases from lower courts and establish certain procedures for these courts.

    Specialization occurs primarily at the state and local level. A third feature of the U.S. court system is one of specialization that occurs primarily at the state and local level. In many states, courts of limited jurisdiction hear misdemeanor cases. Other state courts of general jurisdiction try felonies. Still other courts may be designated as juvenile courts and hear only matters involving juveniles. This process also occurs in certain civil courts that hear only family law matters, probate matters, housing matters, or civil cases involving damages. At the federal level, there are courts such as bankruptcy that hear only cases dealing with specific matters.

    Geographic organization of the American court system. The fourth characteristic of the American court system is its geographic organization. State and federal courts are organized into geographic areas. In many jurisdictions these are called judicial districts and containvarious levels of courts. For example, on the federal level, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has district (trial) courts that hear matters within certain specific boundaries, and an appellate court that hears all appeals from cases within that area. Several studies have been conducted regarding the difference in sentences for the same type of crime in geographically distinct courts. For example, in Iowa the average sentence for motor vehicle theft was forty-seven months while the average sentence for the same offense in New York was fourteen months. This should not be taken as a criticism; rather it may reflect different social values and attitudes within specific geographic areas.

    This information came from a
    US DOJ online article.

    *** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***

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