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The Courts – From Top To Bottom


The judiciary branch of government is composed specifically of a federal court, a state court and in some rare instances, a local court. The first step in considering legal action is determining which court has jurisdiction over the issue of your dispute.


“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish…”

---  Constitution Of The United States


Jurisdiction: The term jurisdiction refers to the extent of a particular court’s authority to hear your case and determine its outcome. Courts are either of limited or unlimited jurisdiction. Limited jurisdiction defines particular issues a court may decide or how a case can be brought before that court. For example, most small claims courts are limited jurisdiction courts in that they can decide disputes of up to $5,000 in some states, while the US Supreme Court is also a limited jurisdiction court in that it decides which cases to hear, handing down writs of certiorari (“send us your papers”) to lower courts for certain cases it think require its special attention.


At the federal and state levels general or unlimited jurisdiction courts can hear criminal and civil cases, conduct jury trials, decide some appeals claims and usually proceed at a slower pace and are more involved than lower limited jurisdiction courts.


Both the federal and state judicial systems are structured in essentially three-tiered frameworks. The most basic framework is the trial level, where cases are initially introduced and decided by judge or jury. Jury trials must be requested by one of the parties. If a jury is not requested – or if the litigants are not entitled to a jury as in some petty cases such as some divorce or estate dispute cases depending upon the state – the judge will usually decide the case in “bench trial.”


Decisions issued from trial courts can then be appealed to the next level, the appellate courts, which may or may not decide to hear a given case. There is not a new trial in appeals cases, but rather both sides in a dispute can submit briefs and oral arguments urging the appellate court to either uphold or overturn a trial court decision. Appellate courts review the materials filed alongside the trial court’s decision as part of the case “record” and then issues a decision based on its determination of what the law requires. This is important. Since an appellate court can only consider material previously introduced at trial and already “on record,” the litigant does not have an opportunity to furnish fresh evidence at appeal even though it may be germane to the case.


From there, a case can be appealed to the state supreme court or the US Supreme Court, which may decide that a particular case requires a definitive ruling. These are the courts of last resort and there is nowhere else to take your appeal once the Supreme Court of the United States has issued its ruling. Additionally, since these courts agree to hear a relatively small number of appeals cases, for most disputes, the appellate decision is effectively the ultimate ruling.


Most cases are decided before they ever reach trial. A case can be concluded before trial in one of the following ways:


  1. Out-of-court settlement is reached between the parties
  2. Plaintiff voluntarily dismisses suit
  3. Default judgment is entered against a party that does not appear in court
  4. Summary judgment is rendered when one party has such clear-cut and compelling evidence that no trial is needed.
  5. The judge, when asked to rule by a motion from one side, may assert that a party cannot win the case as a matter of law.
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