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СодержаниеOrganization of the Federal Court System
Text 2The Supreme Court
Supreme Court Jurisdiction
How Cases Reach the Court
Writ of Certiorari
The State Courts
Criminal and Civil Cases
The Organization of the State Courts
The Federal Court
The Federal Court Jurisdiction The federal courts deal with three types of law. These three types include civil law, criminal law, and constitutional law.
Civil Law Most of the cases tried in the federal courts involve civil law. Civil law concerns disputes between two or more individuals or between individuals and the government. The plaintiff is the person who brings charges in a civil suit. The person against whom the suit is brought is the defendant. The plaintiff in a civil suit usually seeks damages—an award of money—from the defendant. If the court decides in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant must pay the damages to the plaintiff. Usually the defendant is also required to pay court costs. If the court decides in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff must pay the court costs.
In another type of civil case, the plaintiff sues to prevent a harmful action from taking place. Such a case is called a case in equity law. Equity law is a system of rules by which disputes are resolved on the grounds of fairness. In an equity case, a plaintiff may ask the court to issue an injunction, a court order that forbids a defendant to take or continue a certain action. For example, suppose a company plans to build a factory next to a residential area. Citizens believe that the factory would pollute the air. They take the factory owner to court and argue that residents would suffer serious health problems if the factory is constructed. If the citizens win this suit in equity, the judge issues an injunction ordering the company not to build its factory.
In another equity case, the plaintiff may ask the court to order a person or persons to do something. A court order requiring a specific action is called a writ of mandamus (man●DAY●muhs). Suppose someone has a new stereo receiver that stops working, but the manufacturer refuses to repair it. Because the stereo is guaranteed, he or she takes the company to court. If the court decides for the plaintiff, it issues a writ of mandamus ordering the company to repair the stereo.
Criminal Law In a federal criminal law case, the United States government charges someone with breaking a federal law. In criminal cases the government is always the prosecution, bringing charges against the defendant. A federal criminal case might involve such crimes as tax fraud, counterfeiting, selling narcotics, mail fraud, kidnapping, and driving a stolen car across state lines. If the court finds a person guilty, the judge may order the defendant to serve a term in prison, to pay a fine, or both.
By far, most crimes committed in the United States break state laws and are tried in state courts. The number of criminal law cases that come before federal judges, however, has been increasing markedly in recent years as the crime rate has risen.
Constitutional Law The third category of cases heard in federal courts involves constitutional law. Constitutional law relates to the meaning and application of the United States Constitution. For the most part, cases involving constitutional law decide the limits of the government's power and the rights of the individual. Cases may deal with either civil or criminal law.
All federal courts try cases involving constitutional law—they decide whether a law or action conflicts with the Constitution. If a lower court decision is appealed, the Supreme Court makes the final ruling.
Article 3 of the United States Constitution created the federal court system. In 1789, Congress passed the Judiciary Act, which provided for 13 district courts. Later, other district courts were added.
Today, the federal court system has three main divisions—the district courts, the appellate, or appeals, courts (including the United States Supreme Court), and a number of special courts.
The district courts The district courts are the federal trial courts. They are placed around the country in 91 districts. Each state has at least one district court, and the larger states have three or four. The District of Columbia has one, as does Puerto Rico. Each district court has one judge or more, depending upon the number of cases that are heard each year.
District courts are generally known as courts of original jurisdiction because most federal cases begin there. Such cases include criminal suits involving counterfeiting or kidnapping, or civil cases involving bankruptcy or copyright laws.
Decisions are made in the district courts by either a judge or a jury. A jury is a panel of citizens, usually 12, who come to a verdict (decision) of guilty or not guilty based on the evidence presented to them during a trial.
The appeals courts The appeals courts are said to have appellate jurisdiction because they hear cases appealed from the district courts or other courts. There are no juries in appeals cases. It is common practice for three judges to review a case. The judges reach a decision by vote. In the process of review, the judges look only for errors of law that may have happened during the original trial. Errors of law occur when rules of trial procedure are not followed correctly. The refusal of a judge to allow any witnesses to testify in behalf of a defendant would be an example of an error of law. Another would be the failure of a court to allow a defendant to question his or her accuser.
The United States is divided into 11 judicial districts, or circuits. Several district courts are assigned to every circuit. For each circuit there is a court of appeals. There is also one appeals court for the District of Columbia. The final court of appeals in the United States is the Supreme Court. It is the highest court in our land.
These courts are called ''special'' because they hear only particular types of cases. The special courts include:
U.S. Claims Court. Persons wishing to sue the United States may do so in this court. Suits against the government arise for a variety of reasons. An example would be damage to a person's property by an Air Force plane or a truck of the Postal Service. When money must be paid for the damage, Congress has to approve of the amount. Usually, approval is given as a matter of course. There are 16 judges assigned to the claims court.
U.S. Таx Court. This court- handles only civil cases involving disputes over how the tax laws are to be applied. For example, if the heir to a family fortune felt that the federal inheritance tax was figured incorrectly, the case could be taken to this court. There are 19 judges assigned to this tax court.
U.S. Court of International Trade. This court handles cases involving imports. For example, the decision of a customs agent to classify imported ceramic dishes as works of art rather than as ordinary plates might be challenged in this court. All cases involving "dumping" are also handled by the Court of International Trade. Dumping is a practice in which one country ships products to another country and offers them at a price below the current market price. Dumping is unfair because it makes it difficult for local producers of the product to compete in the marketplace. The court has a chief judge and eight judges, not more than five of whom may belong to any one political party.
U.S. Court of Military Appeals. This court reviews court-martial (military trial) convictions in the Army, Navy, or other armed services. Its jurisdiction is limited to criminal cases. The court consists of three civilian judges appointed by the President. Since it is usually the final appeal of cases under military law, the court is sometimes called "the soldier's Supreme Court."
Territorial Courts. These are courts located in the United States territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The work of these courts is similar to that of local courts in the 50 states.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court stands at the top of the American legal system. Article III of the Constitution created the Supreme Court as part of a coequal branch of the national government, along with Congress and the President.
The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in all questions of federal law. It has final authority in any case involving the Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties with other nations. Most of the cases the Supreme Court hears are appeals from lower courts. The decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on all lower courts.
Nomination to the Supreme Court today is a very high honor. It was not always so Several of George Washington's nominees turned down the job. Until 1891 justices earned much of their pay while riding the circuit or traveling to hold court in their assigned regions of the country.
Today the Court hears all its cases in the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., in a large first-floor courtroom that is open to the public. Nearby is a conference room where the justices meet privately to decide cases. The first floor also contains the offices of the justices, their law clerks, and secretaries.
The Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution sets the Court's original jurisdiction. It covers two types of cases:
(I) cases involving representatives of foreign governments
(2) certain cases in which a state is a party.
Congress may not expand or curtail the Court's original jurisdiction.
Many cases have involved two states or a state and the federal government. When Maryland and Virginia argued over oyster fishing rights, and when a dispute broke out between California and Arizona over the control of water from the Colorado River, the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court's original jurisdiction cases form a very small part of its yearly workload — an average of fewer than five such cases a year. Most of the cases the Court decides fall under the Court's appellate jurisdiction.
Under the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction, the Court hears cases that are appealed from lower courts of appeals, or it may hear cases from federal district courts in certain instances where an act of Congress was held unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court may also hear cases that are appealed from the highest court of a state, if claims under federal law or the Constitution are involved. In such cases, however, the Supreme Court has the authority to rule only on the federal issue involved, not on any issues of state law. A state court, for example, tries a person charged with violating a state law. During the trial, however, the accused claims that the police violated Fourteenth Amendment rights with an illegal search at the time of the arrest. The defendant may appeal to the Supreme Court on the constitutional issue only. The Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to rule on the state issue (whether the accused actually violated state law). The Court will decide only whether Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.
Congress sets very complex rules for appealing a case to the Supreme Court. A few cases start at the Court because they fall under its original jurisdiction. The vast majority of cases reach the Court only as appeals from lower court decisions. These cases come to the Supreme Court in one of two ways—on appeal or by writ of certiorari.
On Appeal Certain types of cases are said to go to the Court on appeal. Most are cases in which a lower federal court or the highest state court has ruled a law unconstitutional. Some are cases in which the highest court of a state upholds a state law against the claim that it violates federal law or the Constitution. The Court is required to at least consider all cases involving the constitutionality of a law.
Only about 10 percent of the Court's cases arrive on appeal, and most are dismissed because they do not raise an important constitutional issue. When a case is dismissed, the decision of the lower court becomes final. Dismissal also has other legal consequences. Lower court judges are supposed to note that the Court believes similar types of cases do not involve a basic conflict with federal laws or the Constitution.
^ The main route to the Supreme Court is by a writ of certiorari (suhr●shee●uh●RAR●ee) — an order from the Court to a lower court to send up the records on a case for review. Either side in a case may petition the Court for certiorari, or "cert," as lawyers call it. Such petitions must argue that the lower court made a legal error in handling the case, or they must raise some serious constitutional issue.
Because these appeals do not involve the constitutionality of a law, the Court is free to choose which cases it will consider. More than 90 percent of the requests for certiorari are rejected. Denial of certiorari does not necessarily mean that the justices agree with a lower court's decision. They may see the case as not involving a significant public issue. It may involve a question the Court does not want to address, or it may not be the best case for ruling on a specific issue. Regardless of the reason, when the Court denies certiorari, the lower court's decision stands.
Selecting Cases Justice William O. Douglas once railed the selection of cases "in many respects the most important and interesting of all our functions." When petitions for certiorari come to the Court, the justices' clerks identify cases worthy of serious consideration and the Chief Justice puts them on a "discuss list" for the justices to consider. All other cases are automatically denied a writ unless a justice asks that a specific case be added to the list.
Almost two-thirds of all petitions for certiorari never make the discuss list. At the Court conferences, the Chief Justice reviews the cases on the discuss list. Then the justices—armed with memos from their clerks, other information on the case, and various law books — give their views. In deciding to accept a case, the Court operates by the rule of four. If four of the nine justices approve, the Court will accept the case for decision.
When the justices accept a case, they also decide either to ask for more information and oral arguments from the opposing lawyers or to rule quickly on the basis of written materials already available. Cases decided without further information are announced with a per curiam (puhr KYTJR●ee●ahm) opinion — a brief unsigned statement of the Court's decision. Slightly less than half the cases the Court accepts are handled this way. The remaining cases go on for full consideration by the Court.
The Work of the State Courts
Each state has its own system of courts. The purpose of each of these court systems is defined in a state's constitution. From state to state, the names of the courts that make up the system are different, but the basic pattern of justice is the same in all states.
State courts hear almost all the same kinds of cases that federal courts hear. However, certain cases cannot be heard in state courts. A dispute between two citizens of two states, for example, must be heard in the federal courts.
^ . State courts hear criminal and civil cases. In a criminal case, a person is tried for committing a crime. Criminal cases involve two kinds of crimes—misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is a minor criminal offense, such as speeding, petty theft, or disorderly conduct. The punishment for a misdemeanor may be a fine or a short jail sentence. Serious crimes are called felonies. Some examples are kidnapping, robbery, murder, and arson (deliberately setting fire to a building). The punishment for a felony may be a long prison sentence or even death.
State courts also hear civil cases. Civil cases are disputes between two or more persons or between citizens and governments. A civil case might involve a store owner suing for payment of a bill, a person seeking a divorce, or the victim of an accident suinig for payment of medical bills. Most civil cases result in the payment of money to one of the parties involved.
Courts influence public policy Deciding legal issues between two parties is only one part of the work of the judges in state courts. The rulings of these judges also often have a strong influence on public policy. Consider the use of local property taxes to pay for the public schools. In some states, schools are supported almost entirely by these taxes.
In 1971, the California State Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to depend only on local property taxes to pay for education. Because the people living in some school districts paid high property taxes, the schools there would be better than schools where property taxes were lower. The education of students in different districts would be unequal. This went against the equal rights guarantee in the Constitution. Other state courts have made similar decisions.
In 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled differently in ^ (Texas) School District v. Rodriguez. This ruling said that the use of local property taxes to pay for public schools does not go against the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court said that the local property tax could be used as the chief way of paying for public schools.
State court decisions can also affect public policy on the use of nuclear power. In recent years, groups of citizens have sometimes stopped the building of nuclear power plants by means of court decisions. Arguments against the building of such plants have been based on possible dangers to people who live nearby or to the environment.
^ The higher state courts have the power of judicial review. In using this power, the courts review a state law to see whether it conflicts with the state constitution. Laws which conflict with the constitution are declared null and void (not binding).
Workload State courts are extremely busy places. California has about 256 state courts and about 1,200 judges, more than the total number of judges in the entire federal court system.
It is very difficult for state courts to keep up with their heavy workloads. In one large city, the average waiting period for a civil case to come to trial is two years. The delay for criminal trials still may be four to six months. Studies of criminal cases show that some persons have waited for more than a year before their cases came to trial.
The long delays have many causes. Some trials take several weeks. The increasing crime rate adds to the number of criminal cases in the courts. Individuals also go to court to protect their rights. A conservation group sues to stop construction of a nuclear power plant or a dam. Workers sue employers over hiring practices, promotion policies, or working conditions. Automobile accidents, too, result in a large number of lawsuits at the state level.
Relief for the courts Some states are trying different methods for relieving the courts of the great number of auto accident disputes. One method is to turn such cases over to an arbitrator (a person who settles a dispute). The arbitrator is not a judge, but he or she is trained in the law that applies to auto accidents. The hearing takes place in an office. Both sides are present. After arguments are heard, the arbitrator makes a decision that is final.
Some people feel that the only way to reduce the number of cases in state courts is to change our criminal laws. They argue that there are too many laws trying to control personal behavior, such as laws against gambling or public drunkenness. These offenses are sometimes called "victimless crimes" because, it is said, they do not harm other persons.
From state to state, the courts are organized in a similar way. Courts are often described as being lower or higher. You might compare the organization of state courts to a ladder. The supreme court is a state's highest court, and the highest rung on the ladder. Lower courts are the lowest rung on the state court ladder. They have limited jurisdiction.
Justice Courts. These courts are presided over by a justice of the peace. Most justice courts are located in rural areas. The only cases that come to justice courts are minor civil cases and cases involving misdemeanors. Only civil cases involving $100 or less are heard by a justice of the peace. Misdemeanors include traffic violations and charges of public drunkenness. In addition to hearing such cases, a justice of the peace can perform marriage ceremonies and serve as a witness to the signing of public papers. Not all states have justice courts, and even in states that do, their numbers have been decreasing in recent years. One reason for this is that some justices of the peace have not studied law.
^ . The similarity of these courts to justice courts lies in the kind of cases they handle. They are usually located in small cities and towns. Police courts are known as magistrate courts in some areas.
Municipal Courts. These courts are located in the larger cities of the American states. Both civil cases and misdemeanors come within their jurisdiction. One type of civil case is heard in the family court, which deals with divorce suits and child-custody cases. Another type of municipal court is the small claims court, which hears disputes over amounts of money less than a given amount. The amount varies, from $300 in Georgia to $5,000 in Virginia and Tennessee. Misdemeanors are handled in several different kinds of municipal courts. The most common ones are the traffic court, which deals with violations of the traffic laws, and the juvenile court, which hears cases involving young offenders.
Some higher state courts are a rung above the lower courts.
General Trial Courts. These courts are known as district, county, common plea, circuit, and superior courts in different states. Most states are divided into political districts. In each district, there is at least one general trial court.
These courts hear felony cases and civil disputes involving amounts of money over the amount allowed in a small claims case. In many states, general trial courts judges are elected to terms of from four to ten years. Juries are used in both civil and criminal cases.
^ . These courts hear cases on appeal. A person who disagrees with the verdict of a general trial court or a lower court may ask an appellate court to review the case. The appeals court checks to see whether the original trial was conducted according to law. If the original trial judge makes an error, the appeals court can reverse the verdict. Three to nine judges serve on appellate courts. A majority vote of the judges decides the outcome of the case. Juries are not used.
State Supreme Courts
On the highest rung of the state courts ladder are the state supreme courts. These courts review cases appealed from the appellate courts. Three to nine justices make up a state supreme court. Decisions of a state's highest court may be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. It should be remembered, however, that there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will hear an appeal. The United States Supreme Court grants an appeal only if a federal question is involved. The subject matter of the case must be related to some part of the United States Constitution or to a law passed by Congress. If the appeal is refused, the decision of the state supreme court is final.
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