Unlike most countries in the world, actually, there are fifty-two court systems in America—one for each of the fifty states, one for the District of Columbia, plus a federal system—similarities abound. The state court systems are established according to the constitution of each state. The federal courts are not superior to the state courts; they are simply independent systems of courts, which derives its authority from Article 3, Section2, of the U.S. Constitution. Although state court systems differ, Exhibit3-1 illustrates the basic organizational structure characteristic of the court system in many states. The exhibit also shows how federal court system is structured.
State court System 州法院体系
Typically, a state court system will include several levels, or tiers, of courts. State courts may include (1) trial courts of limited jurisdiction, (2) trial courts of general jurisdiction, (3) appellate courts, and (4) the state’s highest court (often called the state supreme court). Generally, any person who is a party to a lawsuit has the opportunities to plead the case before a trial court and then, if he or she loses, before at least one level of appellate court. Finally, if a federal statute or federal constitutional issue is involved in the decision of the state Supreme Court, that decision can be further pleaded before the Federal Supreme Court.
a.Trial Courts 初审法院
Trial courts are exactly what their name implies, courts in which trials are held and testimony taken. State trial courts have either general or limited jurisdiction. Trial courts that have general jurisdiction as to subject matter may be called county, district, superior, or circuit courts. The jurisdiction of these courts is often determined by the size of the county in which the courts sit. State trial courts of general jurisdiction have jurisdiction over a wide variety of subjects, including both civil disputes and criminal prosecutions. In some cases, trial courts of general jurisdiction may hear appeals from courts of limited jurisdiction.
Some courts of limited jurisdiction are called special inferior trial courts or minor judiciary courts. Small claims courts are inferior trial courts that hear only civil cases involving claims of less than a certain amount, such as $5,000 (the amount varies from state to state). Suits brought in small claims courts are generally conducted informally, and lawyers are not even allowed to represent peoples in small claims courts for most purposes. Another example of an inferior trial court is a local municipal court that hears mainly traffic cases. Decisions of small claims courts and municipal courts may be appealed to a state trial court of general jurisdiction.
Other courts of limited jurisdiction as to subject matter include domestic relations courts, which handle only divorce actions and child-custody cases, and probate courts.
b. Courts of Appeals 上诉法院
Every state has at least one court of appeals (appellate court, or reviewing court), which may be an intermediate appellate court or the state’s highest court. About three-fourths of the states have intermediate appellate courts. Generally, courts of appeals do not conduct new trials, in which evidence is submitted to the court and witnesses are examined. Rather, an appellate court panel of three or more judges reviews the record of the case on appeal, which includes a transcript of the trial proceedings, and determines whether the trial court committed an error.
Usually, appellate courts do not look at the questions of fact (such as whether a party did, in fact, commit a certain action, such as burning a flag) but at questions of law (such as whether the act of flag-burning is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution). Only a judge, not a jury, can rule on questions of law. Appellate courts normally defer to a trial court’s findings on questions of fact because the trial court judge and jury were in a better position to evaluate testimony—by directly observing witnesses’ gestures, demeanor, and nonverbal behavior during the trial. At the appellate level, the judges review the written transcription of the trial, which does not include these nonverbal elements.
An appellate court will challenge a trial court’s finding of fact only when the finding is clearly erroneous (that is, when it is contrary to the evidence presented at trial) or when there is no evidence to support the finding. If a jury concluded that a manufacturer’s product harmed the plaintiff but no evidence was submitted to the court to support that conclusion, the appellate court would hold that the trial court’s decision was erroneous.
c. State Supreme (Highest) Courts 州最高法院
The highest appellate court in a state is usually called the supreme court but may be called by some other names. For example, in both New York and Maryland, the highest state court is called the court of appeals. The decisions of each state’s highest court on all questions of state law are final. Only when issues of federal law are involved can a decision made by a state’s highest court be overruled by the United States Supreme Court.
The Federal Court System 联邦法院体系
The federal court system is basically a three-tiered model consisting of (1) U.S. district courts (trial courts of general jurisdiction) and various courts of limited jurisdiction, (2) U.S. courts of appeals (intermediate courts of appeals), and (3) the United States Supreme Court.
Unlike state court judges, who are usually elected, federal court judges—including the justices of the Supreme Court—are appointed by the president of the U.S. and confirmed by Senate. All federal judges receive lifetime appointments (because under Article 3 they “hold their offices during Good Behavior”).
a. U.S. District Court 美国联邦区法院
At federal level, the equivalent of a state trial court of general jurisdiction is the district court. There is at least one federal district court in every state. The number of judicial districts can vary over time, primarily owing to population changes and corresponding caseloads. Currently, there are ninety-four federal judicial districts.
U.S. District Courts conduct trials concerning federal matters, such as federal crimes and enforcement of federal statutes. Most federal crimes involve crimes against the government or crimes occurring on federal property. For example, one crime, kidnapping, is a federal crime even though it does not occur on federal land. Federal jurisdiction for the crime of kidnapping is based on taking of the victim across state or country lines and the statute provides that the failure to release the victim within twenty-four hours after seizure creates “a rebuttable presumption that such person has been transported to interstate or foreign commerce.”
Moreover, it is possible to sue a federal court even though the claim is based on state law when the plaintiff and defendant are from different states and countries. Diversity of citizenship jurisdiction exists when a plaintiff is a citizen of one state and the defendant is a citizen of another state, or when one party is a foreign country or a citizen of a foreign country and the other is a citizen of the United States. The amount of claimed damages in a diversity of citizenship case must be at least $75,000.
Also, there are other courts with original, but special (or limited) jurisdiction, such as the federal bankruptcy courts and others show in Exhibit3-1.
b. U.S. Courts of Appeals 联邦上诉法院
In federal court system, there are thirteen U.S. courts of appeals—also referred to as U.S. circuit courts of appeals. The federal courts of appeals for twelve of the circuits, including the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, hear appeals from the federal district courts located within their respective judicial circuits. The Court of Appeal for the Thirteen Circuit, called the Federal Circuit, has national appellate jurisdiction over certain types of cases, such as cases involving patent law and cases in which the U.S. government is a defendant. Also heard before this court are appeals from specialized courts (e.g., the U.S. Claims Court and the U.S. Court of International Trade) and claims arising from decisions of federal administrative agencies.
c. The United States Supreme Court 美国联邦最高法院
The highest level of the three-tiered model of the federal court system is the United States Supreme Court. According to the language of the Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution, there is only one national Supreme Court. All other courts in federal system are considered “inferior”. Congress is empowered to create other inferior courts as it deems necessary. The inferior courts that Congress has created include the second tier in our model—-the U.S. court of appeals—–as well as the district courts and any other courts of limited or specialized jurisdiction.
The United States Supreme Court consists of nine justices. Although the Supreme Court has original, or trial, jurisdiction in rare instances (e.g. , in legal disputes in which a state is a party, cases between two states, and cases involving ambassadors), most of its work is as an appeals court. The Supreme Court can review any case decided by any of the federal courts of appeals, and it also has appellate authority over some cases decided in the state courts.
Appeals to the Supreme Court To bring a case before the Supreme Court, a party requests the Court to issue a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is an order issued by the Supreme Court to a lower court requiring the latter to send it the record of the case for review. The court will not issue a writ of certiorari unless at least four of the nine justices approve of it. This is called the rule of four. Whether the Court will issue a writ of certiorari is entirely within its discretion. The court is not required to issue one, and most petitions for writs are denied. (Thousands of cases are filled with the Supreme Court each year, yet it hears, on average, fewer than one hundred of these cases.) A denial is not a decision on the merit of a case, nor does it indicate agreement with the lower court’s opinion. When the Supreme Court declines review of a case, the practical effect is an agreement with the lower court decision, which continues binding the parties.