Federal v. State Courts
The United States is at the forefront of modern democracy. Its unique three branched system allows the government to operate under a quasi-idealistic form of checks and balances. As outlined by the U.S. Constitution, the judicial branch of government serves as the interpreter of the law and is “one of the most sophisticated judicial systems in the world.”1 This complexity is a product of balance and structure in the form of a judicial hierarchy, with the Supreme Court at the top and local courts at the bottom. Further distinctions between federal and state courts include the selection of judges and types of cases addressed by each court. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, generally overhear cases that affect federal constituents while local or state courts address more specialized cases. “Although the state and federal judicial systems are separate, federal and state courts can both rule on the same case,”2 as exemplified by Gideon v. Wainwright. When evaluating the distinctions between federal and state courts, one must first analyze court structure and its significance. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the United States judicial system. The Supreme Court, “consisting of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices,”3 is the highest court in the land. It serves as the final interpreter of the law and can overturn any decision made by a lower court. Below the Supreme Court lie various circuit courts which are “organized regionally, with ‘circuits’ made up of three or more states,”4 thus, forming the Court of Appeals. These appellate courts are specialized in addressing district court cases within a certain circuit, with the exception of the Federal Court of Appeals which generally hears cases in the District of Columbia as well as administrative cases. The ninety four district courts serve as the “primary trial courts of the federal judicial system.”5 Most federal cases are heard and resolved in district courts, which “exercise no discretion over the cases they hear.”6 When analyzing this federal judicial structure, one comes to the conclusion that federal cases are efficiently addressed, with only the most important matters needing the attention of the Supreme Court. Ultimately, this level of organization and specialized jurisdiction is mirrored in state courts, with some apparent distinctions. Similarly to the federal court system, the state court system contains a Supreme Court, Intermediate Court of Appeals, and various trial courts. These trial courts differ from federal trial courts primarily in the form of jurisdiction. Not only do they hear state specific trials, but most states “operate two sets of trial courts: courts of limited jurisdiction and courts of general jurisdiction.”7 Limited jurisdiction trial courts address criminal and civil cases of a minor degree, while general jurisdiction trial courts hear cases involving major criminal or civil charges. This two set trial court system is nearly ubiquitous among all states, but the diversity in state court systems is a more significant factor to analyze. Each state has a specialized court system that adheres to its inhabitants. Factors such as geography, population, and case topics largely determine the formation of specialized courts in each state. Colorado, for instance, has a specialized Water Court that hears cases involving the drainage systems and water rights of the state. Furthermore, states can adjust their court systems to meet new demands that are produced by factors such as urbanization and socioeconomic growth. Therefore, “in contrast to the federal court system, whose basic structure was largely established in 1789, many state court systems reflect the continuing pattern of demand and response that occurred in the state.”8 An additional factor to consider in comparing federal and state courts is the judge selection process. According to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, the...
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