A Brief Introduction to the American Legal System

A Brief Introduction to the American Legal System

The U.S. Constitution guarantees federalism. To put it succinctly, federalism means that the government is neither centralized nor decentralized, but a combination.

Every state has its own laws, and the central government, known as the federal government, also formulates laws.

This duality applies to taxation, trade, crime, and a multitude of other sections.

In effect, the USA is 50 smaller nations united by the U.S. Constitution. This is quite different from most European nations, which have a single thesis of criminal law, taxation law, etc.

Let us study the American Court system in greater detail.

U.S. Judicial System Structure

At both the state and federal levels, the judicial system has multiple tiers. This means the verdict of a trial can be appealed. Usually, the appeal can proceed through at least two stages.

Federal Judiciary in the United States

District Courts

All federal courts can be identified by the prefix “The United States” e.g. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

There are 94 federal judicial districts in all. Each district has at least one courthouse.

Unlike the Supreme Court, which was established as a part of the Constitution (under Article III) in 1788, the federal court system came into effect due to a Congressional act in 1789.

A federal judge is appointed by the President of the United States, and then approved by the U.S. Senate. This is important, since each president has some degree of freedom to choose nominees who share their political and social worldview, and can exercise the same from the bench.

In most courts, the judge is appointed for life. This is a peculiar characteristic of the U.S. court system, where one can routinely find an 80-year-old on the bench. Judge Wesley Ernest Brown, a district judge in Kansas, was nominated by President Kennedy in 1962 and served until 2011. He was 104 years old when he last sat on the bench.

Circuit Courts

The appeal of a lower court verdict is heard in circuit court. There are 13 circuit courts, 11 for states, and one each for Washington DC and Federal Circuit.

Each circuit court hears appeals from the states that fall in its zone or jurisdiction.

For example, the 9th Circuit hears cases from federal district courts in Hawaii, California, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington State.

The official name of the 9th circuit is The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The same nomenclature exists for all 13 districts.

Circuit courts have to mandatorily hear an appeal. They can’t reject the review of a judgment by the lower court.

Supreme Court

The apex federal court is the Supreme Court of the United States, often referred to as SCOTUS.

The size of the court currently stands at nine people. It is unclear if the number of serving justices can be increased. The Constitution does not contain any provision about the number of active Supreme Court justices.

The president nominates a Supreme Court justice when a seat falls vacant. The Senate confirms or denies the appointment. This provides the ruling party with considerable power to mold the outcome of SCOTUS for decades, since the justices serve until death, or retirement at a very old age.

State Judiciary in the United States

The above structure is more or less preserved at the state level as well.

However, the nomenclature might vary considerably. Alabama names its lower courts as The Alabama Circuit Court, whereas Delaware names them The Delaware Superior Court and The Delaware Court of Chancery.

Trial Court

These are the lowest courts in a state. They do not have any jurisdiction over federal law, and can only pass judgment about state law.

A trial has several stages.

After an arrest, the accused is arraigned (first appearance before a judge). The prosecution has to show prima facie causes for the arrest. The judge asks the accused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

Following this, there are bail hearings and various pretrial motions.

Both sides face each other in court and make opening statements.

First, the prosecution presents its evidence through witness testimony. Each witness can be cross-examined by the other side.

Thereafter, the defense presents its case through witnesses and contradicting evidence.

There are closing arguments that summarize each party’s point of view.

An overwhelming number of cases are tried by a jury consisting of 12 members. They are ordinary civilians from the same electoral region (e.g. county).

The jury has to reach a verdict. If the verdict is guilty, the judge decides the quantum of the sentence in further hearings.

Many civil cases are also tried by jury. These include defamation, liability, and misdemeanors, among others.

The steps of a civil case are more or less the same, except there are no arraignment and bail hearings.

Appeal Court

In most states, the first appeal is at an intermediate court of appeals.

Barring exceptions, no fresh evidence can be introduced at this stage. The lawyers can only argue the merits of the judgment of the lower court, application of precedents, and if due process was followed.

Therefore, the appellate court reviews a judgment, and has nothing to offer otherwise.

State Supreme Court

If unsatisfied, the aggrieved party can proceed to the State Supreme Court.

Texas and Oklahoma have different supreme courts for criminal and civil matters. In Utah, appeals of civil cases are heard directly by the State Supreme Court.

In these exceptions, we can discover the strong federalism of the U.S. Many of us gloss over the words “United States of America” without ever understanding what it represents.

Local Practice of Law

One has to understand an important feature of the U.S. court system. A lawyer in the US has to take individual bar exams for every state to practice locally. This does not apply to federal law, which requires one to clear a bar exam from anywhere in the U.S.

If an attorney from the state of New York wants to appear in a court in Michigan, they have to employ local counsel.

This has also given rise to large law firms in the USA. While a team of attorneys decides the strategy, a trial lawyer presents it to the judge.

The back-office lawyer, located in Austin, Texas, who has seldom appeared in court and could have taken the bar exam in Massachusetts, prepares research for a divorce suit in Florida.

The presentation to the court in Tampa, Florida, is by an attorney of the firm who has passed the Florida bar exam.

These quirks and eccentricities of the U.S. legal and judicial system are quite hard to comprehend.

Special Courts in the USA

There are a variety of specialized courts for very narrow domains. They are technically known as Article I and III tribunals, and are part of the federal district court system.

  • United States Tax Court – Established in 1924, these courts hear matters of tax deficiency and disputes with the Internal Revenue Service.
  • FISA – You may have heard the acronym often in media. It stands for the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. These are courts that hear matters related to national security, especially issuing of wiretaps and similar snooping warrants.
  • Bankruptcy Court – These govern the rules spelled out by the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. They oversee proceedings of individual and corporate bankruptcy, asset management, and protect the creditor’s interests.

Several other tribunals deal with patent law, international trade disputes, deportation, and other federal legal issues.

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