The American court system is a very important part of the country’s fabric, but it is also a very complex network of separate, but related institutions. The courts can be divided into categories based upon a number of different factors. There are federal and state courts, which are divided based upon responsibilities and jurisdiction. There are criminal and civil courts, which can be either federal or state, and they handle their own matters. Likewise, within both the federal and state court system, there are different levels of courts, from the trial level up to the appellate level, each with special responsibilities and duties according to the law. Some believe that the courts are too political in all areas, as they argue that this goes against the design of the courts, which was originally to serve as a non-political check on government influence. In all, the courts are highly important but quite controversial, and they are somewhat difficult to understand for those without intimate experience within the courts.
Article III of the Constitution provides the authority for the Supreme Court (Pfander). It is a relatively vague proposition that authorizes the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of American disputes, but it does not set the number of justices that might be on the Supreme Court, establishing, instead, a “chief justice” and leaving the rest open to congressional mandate. In addition, Article III provides congress with the ability to create lower courts. Congress has taken it upon itself to do so. Currently, there are federal district courts that handle issues at the trial level. Above them are federal Courts of Appeals. These are broken into circuits which cover multiple states in some instances. These courts review what took place at the trial level to make sure that the court and its parties followed the law in going through with the trial. Appellate courts do not review the facts of the case. Rather, if there has been a problem with the case, they remand the case back to the trial court to correct the error.
The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution provides the states with all powers that are not specifically given to the federal government by the constitution. What this means, then, is that states have the power to establish their own courts, including criminal and civil courts. While many states differ on their arrangements, most have state level courts that handle misdemeanor and felony crimes. Some will then have appellate courts that handle appeals in criminal cases. In states like Texas, the courts of appeals handle both criminal and civil appeals, while other states separate their appellate courts. Many states also have a supreme court that serves as the last review of an issue within the state.
One of the most interesting things about the interplay between state and federal courts has to do with how civil cases are heard. Criminal cases are quite simple when it comes to jurisdiction – if a person is charged with a state crime, he goes to state court. If he is charged with a federal crime, he goes to federal court. In the civil system, a plaintiff gets to choose where to file a case. Generally speaking, when the parties to a lawsuit are from the same state and the amount in controversy is not all that much, then state courts will hear issues of state law. In cases where there is a lot of money at stake and one of the parties is from a different state than the other, then the federal court will hear the case, applying state law (Gunther). If the issue is one of federal law, then federal courts will hear it. Where to file can be a major strategic decision, as most plaintiffs like to be in state court, where the juries tend to award more in damages if they happen to win.
At the higher levels, the Supreme Court and federal courts are largely engaged in the business of checking government power. Since Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court has had the ability to conduct judicial review of laws (Marshall). This allows the court to assess whether a law passes constitutional muster. The idea is to ensure that congress or the president are acting within their authority under the law. Courts do not simply get to offer advisory opinions, though. They have to hear actual cases, and their rulings have to deal directly with the facts of those cases.
One of the primary criticisms of the higher federal courts is that they are too political. Justices and judges are appointed by presidents. While they are appointed for life and they do not have to face re-election, they are generally partisan in some way. Many feel that the Supreme Court splits on ideological lines rather than actually applying the law. Since this body is meant to be one that checks government power and simply operates based upon legal principle, many people are troubled when the court appears to be acting with political motives rather than trying to uphold the law. This can undermine the quality of decisions for the Court, and it also undermines public confidence in the Court’s capacity to do its job. While the Court often plays an important role in ensuring that peoples’ rights are protected and the Bill of Rights is not violated, they can be subject to political pressures and gamesmanship, which goes against the spirit of the Court’s purpose.