In America we assume much of our oldest traditions were borrowed or adapted from Colonial rule. The court system we have today is a vestige of Colonialism, when settlers here were determined to continue being British subjects. After the American Revolution it made more sense to keep the familiar processes in place than to start anew. The biggest changes to American courts have come with growth: layers of courts were added for convenience and to unburden a centralized system. Re-centralizing or “unifying” courts is the most recent trend as the system moves away from strictly punitive measures and seeks to rehabilitate members of the community or to provide personalized services through juvenile, family, drug and veterans courts.
Our court system is one of Common Law, which grew out of the British system of writs and appeals. It is a system based on reason and precedent in which an individual can seek the opinion of higher authority to confirm or overturn a verdict. Judges in this system call upon the “body of law” to make reasoned decisions.
Other European systems are based on Civil Law, which lays out strict punishments for specific actions. In this system a judge is more of a clerk, applying justice as prescribed by law.
The U.S. Constitution established the courts as the third leg of government, specifically creating the Supreme Court alongside the Legislative and Executive branches. The powers of all inferior courts in the country flow from the Supreme Court and may be appealed to the highest court. Still, many state courts retain some hints of British rule, including courts of Chancery and the use of writs.
When the U.S. established federal circuit courts, Supreme Court justices were required to travel around the country and serve on them. There were originally only three circuits but travel was quite difficult at the time. Now there are 12 federal circuit courts throughout the country. The District of Columbia circuit is considered a feeder for the Supreme Court as three of the eight current Supreme Court justices served on that court prior to being appointed to the Supreme Court. The D.C. Circuit is unusual in its purview over federal agencies, giving sitting justices a unique perspective on constitutional law.
Supreme courts are the highest courts in each state. Supreme Courts automatically hear some types of cases, including those with death penalty sentences. They take requests for appeals selectively, often choosing those of significance or with constitutional questions attached. Supreme courts may also advise legislators on the constitutionality of laws, oversee the state bar including discipline of judges and attorneys, and administer lower courts.
These courts are regional in scope, with U.S. District courts (94 total) handling trials at the federal level and bankruptcy, patents, and maritime law.
U.S. Circuit courts (13 total) are regional appellate courts that hear disputed verdicts from U.S. District courts, to determine if the law was applied correctly. Judges sit in panels of three to review cases and do not rely on a jury.
Local courts may have many different names, but they generally handle the most common minor legal issues, including small claims and traffic violations. These courts rarely hold jury trials, and people bringing cases here do not always use attorneys, but may represent themselves. In these courts of limited jurisdiction cases may not be handled by judges but by magistrates or justices of the peace who have specific authority. If an individual disagrees with a decision made by a judge or magistrate, the case may be appealed to the next level of courts.
Other names for local courts: Magistrate court, district court, municipal court, justice court
Trial courts are found in every state but may have a variety of names. This is where the majority of criminal issues are handled, along with more significant civil cases (lawsuits seeking damages or reparation for a loss). Many cases at this level are decided by juries. These courts generally have separate divisions for handling juvenile, family issues, and probate (settling wills and estates). If an individual disagrees with a verdict reached by a jury or judge, the issue may be appealed to state appeals court.
Other names for trial courts: District court, circuit court, superior court
Appeals courts review decisions made in lower courts by request and by right. Their purpose is to determine if the law was applied correctly by lower courts as well as to answer motions that affect pending cases in lower courts. In many states the Supreme Court assigns cases to the appeals courts. These courts are generally found in many different places in each state, and judges sit in panels of three to hear cases.