The American judicial system, reflecting the overall decentralized nature of its government, comprises a large number of federal and state courts.
The federal and the state judicial systems are each constructed like a pyramid. Entry-level courts at both the state and federal levels are trial courts, tn which witnesses are called, other evidence is presented and the fact-finder ( ajury or sometimes a jujdge ) is called upon to decide issues of fact based on the law.
At the top of each pyramid structure is the court of last resort, which has the authority to interpret the law of the relevant jurisdiction. In most states and in the federal system there is also a mid-level court of appeals.
Along with certain federal crimes ( such as terrorism or drug trafficking across state lines ) , federal courts hear non-criminal or civil cases only if they are premised on a question about the meaning of a federal statute or application of the Constitution; if the parties are citizens of different states, or if one is a citizen of a foreign country, and more than $75,000 is at stake; or if the federal government itself is a party to a suit. For example, if a company is accused of violating a federal environmental law, the suit may be brought before a federal court.
In theory, a party to a federal judicial proceeding has access to three levels of decisions: it may appeal the decision of the trial court to a U.S. Court of Appeals, and, if it is dissatisfied with the appellate court’s decision, it may seek further review of that decision by the United States Supreme Court. In practice, however, the Supreme Court agrees to review only a small number of cases each year that it considers to be of national signigicance.
Each of the fifty states has its own set of courts having an overall structure that parallels that of the federal court system. These state courts hear the overwhelming majority of criminal and civil cases. State trial courts initially hear civil and criminal cases; decisions can then be reviewed by courts of appeal, and finally, a case may be reviewed by the state court of last resort, which, in most cases, is called the supreme court of the state. States also have different kinds of specialized courts dealing with such matters as juvenile and family relations, probate, tax, or trade and commerce. Many states and localities have small claims courts in which people can file claims for small sums of money directly, without attorneys, following simplified and relatively quick procedures.
Federal judges, whether in district courts or the nine-member Supreme Court, are nominated by the President and subject to approval by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. To ensure their impartiality and to remove outside political pressures as much as possile, they are appointed for life, subject to removal only after impeachment for and conviction of a crime.
At the state and local level, judges may be appointed or elected to specific terms of office. Elected or appointed, judges at every level must be seen as impartial arbiters of the law, not as partisan politicians. They cannot be removed before the end of their term for minor complaints or unpopular decisions. Like the federal court judges, they can be removed from office only through the process of impeachment and conviction.
In civil and criminal matters, courts operate under the principle known as stare decisis, Latin for let the decisions stand. In other words, courts rely on the precedents established by previous court decisions in deciding current cases of similar legal issues and facts. Stare decisis does not mean that courts cannot, and do not, overturn principles established in previous decisions. However, reliance on precedents gives the law a measure of stability and predictability, and allows the parties to enter into relationships and regulate their conduct with reasonable assurance of the governing rules of law. Stare decises, in the words of one Supreme Court justice, is the strong tie which the future has to the past.