The Courts –
From Top To Bottom
The judiciary branch of government is composed specifically
of a federal court, a state court and in some rare instances, a local court. The first step in considering
legal action is determining which court has jurisdiction over the issue of your dispute.
“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested
in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and
--- Constitution Of The
Jurisdiction: The term jurisdiction refers to the extent of a particular court’s authority to hear
your case and determine its outcome. Courts are either of limited or unlimited jurisdiction.
Limited jurisdiction defines
particular issues a court may decide or how a case can be brought before that court. For example, most small
claims courts are limited jurisdiction courts in that they can decide disputes of up to $5,000 in some
states, while the US Supreme Court is also a limited jurisdiction court in that it decides which cases to
hear, handing down writs of certiorari (“send us your papers”) to lower courts for certain cases it think require its
At the federal and state levels general or
unlimited jurisdiction courts
can hear criminal and civil cases, conduct jury trials, decide some appeals claims and usually proceed at a
slower pace and are more involved than lower limited jurisdiction courts.
Both the federal and state judicial systems are structured
in essentially three-tiered frameworks. The most basic framework is the trial level, where cases are
initially introduced and decided by judge or jury. Jury trials must be requested by one of the parties. If a
jury is not requested – or if the litigants are not entitled to a jury as in some petty cases such as some
divorce or estate dispute cases depending upon the state – the judge will usually decide the case in “bench
Decisions issued from trial courts can then be appealed to
the next level, the appellate courts, which may or may not decide to hear a given case. There is not a new
trial in appeals cases, but rather both sides in a dispute can submit briefs and oral arguments urging the
appellate court to either uphold or overturn a trial court decision. Appellate courts review the materials
filed alongside the trial court’s decision as part of the case “record” and then issues a decision based on
its determination of what the law requires. This is important. Since an appellate court can only consider
material previously introduced at trial and already “on record,” the litigant does not have an opportunity
to furnish fresh evidence at appeal even though it may be germane to the case.
From there, a case can be appealed to the state supreme
court or the US Supreme Court, which may decide that a particular case requires a definitive ruling. These
are the courts of last resort and there is nowhere else to take your appeal once the Supreme Court of the
United States has issued its ruling. Additionally, since these courts agree to hear a relatively small
number of appeals cases, for most disputes, the appellate decision is effectively the ultimate
Most cases are decided before they ever reach trial. A case
can be concluded before trial in one of the following ways:
- Out-of-court settlement is reached between the
- Plaintiff voluntarily dismisses suit
- Default judgment is entered against a party that does
not appear in court
- Summary judgment is rendered when one party has such
clear-cut and compelling evidence that no trial is needed.
- The judge, when asked to rule by a motion from one
side, may assert that a party cannot win the case as a matter of law.