In the United States, a person who is charged with a crime has the benefit of being considered innocent until proven guilty. As a result, he or she has the right to a trial in a court of law. Depending on the crime, the trial may take place in one of two court systems, the state court system or the federal court system. The federal court system differs from the state system in that it is related to laws passed by the federal government. When a person understands how the federal court systems works, he or she will better understand how the United States justice system works.
The Branches of the Federal Government
The federal government of the United States consists of three branches, or parts. They are the Executive branch, the Judicial branch, and the Legislative branch. The Executive branch of the government is the branch that houses the President of the United States. The Legislative branch of the government is called Congress. The Senate and the House of Representatives are the parties that make up Congress. It is the responsibility of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass the laws that affect the United States. The Judicial Branch of the federal government is third branch. It is under this branch that the court system is found.
Understanding The Judicial Branch
The Judicial Branch was established by the United States Constitution. It is the federal court system which includes three different types of courts, one that is of the highest level, and two lower level court systems. The courts in the Judicial Branch include the Supreme Court, district courts and the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court is the highest level of the three courts. The nine Justices are the judges of the Supreme Court. The head Justice is the Chief Justice, followed by eight Associate Justices. The district courts are the lowest level courts. There are 94 district courts, including courts located in Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia, the virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. They may include single or multiple judicial districts, depending on the state. The Court of Appeals is the mid-level court system of the Judicial Branch. There are 13 courts of appeals, one in each of the judicial circuits. The number of judges per circuit varies. In accordance with the Constitution, the judges for all federal courts must first be nominated by the President of the United States. They are then approved by the U.S. Senate. The job of each of the courts is to interpret the laws and make the decision on legal cases based on the law.
Types of Cases Heard by the Federal Courts
Typically, federal court cases involve federal laws passed by Congress. Cases of bankruptcy are also heard in federal court, as are cases that involve diplomats from other countries. In some instances, cases involving crimes that violate state laws may be heard in federal court. When this happens the parties involved are generally from different states.
Types of Cases Tried by the State Court System
State courts are courts that have been established by either the city, county or the state itself. The types of cases that are tried in state court differ from federal court cases. This is because these courts deal with laws that have been passed at the state level, while federal courts primarily deal with federal laws. It is also the responsibility of the state court system to handle traffic and parking violations within the state. Petty crimes, family disputes and certain minor civil cases are also tried in the state court system.
The Purpose of the Federal District Courts
In the federal court system, district courts are the trial courts. It is here that most federal cases are tried. Cases heard in federal district courts may be held in front of a jury, or in front of a judge only. A trial that is held without a jury is called a bench trial. Trials held in district courts may be civil or criminal in nature.
Purpose of the Court of Appeals
The court of appeals handles cases that have already gone through the district court system. These are cases where either party is dissatisfied with the verdict of the district court. However, a not guilty verdict in a criminal case cannot be appealed in the court of appeals. It is the responsibility of the court of appeals to review the facts of the case to determine if the verdict was just according to the law. Based on that determination, it then has the ability to overturn the previous conviction.
Purpose and Responsibility of the Supreme Court
If a person is dissatisfied with the decision of the court of appeals, or certain state supreme court rulings, he or she may attempt to further appeal their case to the Supreme Court. This is done by filing a petition to the Supreme Court called the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. Not all cases move forward into the Supreme Court, however. In fact, only approximately 200 appealed cases actually make it to the Supreme Court. It is the Supreme Court's responsibility to determine if the verdict was made in accordance with the Constitution. If a case does not comply with the Constitution, the court has the ability to overturn state and federal laws if necessary.
The People Involved in the Court Room Process
During a trial there are certain people who are present when the case is presented. One of these people is the judge. The judge presides over the trial and gives the final verdict in a case. The defendant is the person who is charged with a crime and is on trial. The defendant is represented by a defense attorney. The defense attorney presents a defense against the charge against his or her client. He or she does this by countering accusations and witness testimony presented by the prosecutor. The prosecutor is an attorney who is tasked with proving the guilt of the defendant. He or she provides the court with evidence and witness testimonial that support the claims against the defendant. Witnesses are people who can either support the prosecution or the defense. The witnesses are sworn in prior to testifying by the courtroom clerk. The courtroom clerk sits besides the judge. He or she is an officer of the court. The evidence and testimony are given before twelve jurors. These twelve jurors are members of the public who have been picked to determine the defendant's guilt or innocence based on the information presented to them during the trial. They are unable to discuss the trial with family, friends, or anyone until the trial has concluded. Other people who are typically found in the courtroom include the court reporter who documents everything that is said in the courtroom, and the bailiff who is charged with maintaining order in the courtroom. Members of the public may view the case, but are unable to comment or provide any input. Members of the public may be family or friends supporting the defendant or supporting the victim or accuser.
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