The United States Court System

Posted: November 30th, 2013


The United States Court System





Major Court Systems in the United States

The Federal Judicial System

The United States court system provides a platform for fair fact-finding and decision-making in disputes. Moreover, it imposes punishment in the event of proven guilt. The United States constitution gives distinct powers to the Federal/ National government. All the judicial power not delegated to the national government stays with the various states.

The judicial branch of the federal government has the power to interpret and apply laws created by the legislative branch. It also has the power of judicial review whereby a court can declare legislative or executive acts invalid if inconsistent with the national or state constitutions. A court must have jurisdiction (the power to speak the law) over a case before making any kind of ruling (Gaines & Miller, 2012). The federal courts only have exclusive jurisdiction over certain types of cases. These include cases of conflicts between states, involving federal laws, and those concerning foreign governments. There are three tiers in the federal judicial system. These are the Supreme Court, the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the United States District Courts.

The Supreme Court gives audience to appeals from the National Circuit courts of appeals. It also hears cases from the supreme state courts involving the constitution of the United States or Federal law. The justices of the Supreme Court and other federal judges are appointed by the President of the United States for life. Their nominations must be approved by a majority of the senate. They can only be removed via impeachment in a trial presided over by the senate with the House of Representatives making charges. In reality, impeachment of these judges is very rare, and they exercise great autonomy that protects them from political or other influences. The Supreme Court justices have discretion over which cases they hear. The opinions of this court usually act as precedent for all other courts in the country. This is because this court has the final word in interpreting the United States Constitution.

The United States circuit courts of Appeal are below the Supreme Court. There are thirteen circuit courts of appeal in different regions of the United States. Twelve of these hear appeals from the district courts in their respective regions. The thirteenth circuit court hears cases that have the Government of the United States as a defendant. Three judge panels hear appeals to decisions made in the district courts. They also have jurisdiction over appeals made in regards to federal administrative agencies decisions and from some courts of limited original jurisdiction (Schneider, 2006).

The first tier in the federal system is the United States District (trial) courts. Each state in the country has a minimum of one district court. Currently there are ninety-four judicial districts nationwide. These courts have magistrate judges, bankruptcy judges and district judges to try cases. Juries assist in giving final court decisions. The number of judicial districts varies over time primarily owing to population changes and corresponding caseloads. These courts have jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases involving federal laws.

Federal specialty courts

They usually deal with application of the law in the federal channel. They have limited jurisdiction over several cases. For example, the tax court deals with tax case while bankruptcy courts only deal with bankruptcy suits. The Indian Tribal court has jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases in Native American reservations. The United States Claims Court is another specialized court that handles disputes involving government contracts and other claims against the federal government (Jennings, 2012). A specialty court called the United States court of Appeals for the federal circuit hears appeals from specialty trial courts in the federal system.

The Illinois Court System

The Judicial Article of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Article VI) provides for a unified, three tiered judiciary, comprising of the circuit courts, the appellate courts, and the highest court in the state, the Illinois Supreme court. There are no overlapping jurisdictions. The Supreme Court is responsible for the administration of the whole system under the direction of a chief justice elected by the Supreme Court judges. Cases from the appellate court are passed to the Supreme Court. However, when a circuit court gives a death sentence, one can appeal directly to the Illinois Supreme court thus skipping the appellate court.

The Illinois Supreme court, as directed by the law of Illinois, has exclusive mandate in legislative redistricting and vetting Governor’s office. In addition to this, it has discretionary jurisdiction in cases relating to State revenue, prohibition or habeas corpus and writs of mandamus. This court is made up of seven justices who represent the various districts in the state. A case is decided by a minimum vote of four. The Illinois Supreme Court judges are elected to office in ten-year terms (Nowlan, Gove & Winkel, 2010). The decisions of the Illinois Supreme court are final and can only be overruled by the United States Supreme Court.

The Illinois Appellate court has five judicial districts. The first district is based in Chicago, the second in Elgin, the third in Ottawa, The fourth meets in Springfield and the fifth in Mt. Vernon. The appellate court hears appeals from the trial courts. All people have a right to appeal a decision made at the trial court. To decide on cases on appeal, they are examined for the presence of errors in law application made during trial in the Circuit court. Cases are not retried here hence; there are no witnesses or testimony as lawyers argue before a panel of three judges on the possibility of errors. To decide a case, a majority of two out of three votes from the appellate judges is required. The decision of the trial court is usually affirmed if there is no error made in the application of the law. The same happens if the error is so small as to have no impact on the trail outcome. In the event that an error is found, the appellate court reverses the decision of the trial court and recommends further processing.

There are twenty-two judicial circuits in Illinois each of which is made up of one county or more. Trial or circuit courts are set up within each judicial circuit. The Illinois circuit courts are general jurisdiction courts. This means that they have original discretion in all matters except those over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction. The circuit court caseload includes both civil and criminal suits such as juvenile cases, small claims, and damages over $30,000, mandatory arbitration and murder.

The judges of the Illinois Supreme and Appellate courts are known as justices while those of the circuit courts are known simply as judges. They are all elected to office via partisan elections held after nominations at primary elections or petitions. In Illinois, an elected judge needs 60% of votes to stay in office. The circuit courts have circuit and Associate judges. The Circuit judges are elected every six years from their county of residence or across the circuit, and thereafter need circuit wide votes every six years to retain their position. The circuit judges elect a chief judge annually to provide leadership in the circuit administration. They then appoint Associate judges based on merit every four years. Associate judges may not hear felony cases except when authorized by the Supreme Court (Nowlan, Gove & Winkel, 2010). Illinois also has an alternative dispute resolution mechanism that allows parties to settle their differences outside courtrooms. Arbitration panels have three lawyers who act as impartial third party advisers of the applicability of the law in relation to facts in the various cases.


Friesen, E. (1992). Commentary on “Planning for the State and Federal Courts”: A Need for Effective Communication. Virginia Law Review, 78. Retrieved from

Gaines, L. & Miller, L. (2012). Criminal justice in action. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Godbold, J. (1992). Commentary on “Commentary on “Planning for the State and Federal Courts: the Limits of Planning. Virginia Law Review, 78. Retrieved from

Jennings, M. (2012). Business: its legal, ethical, and global environment. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Nowlan, J., Gove, S. & Winkel, R. (2010). Illinois Politics: A citizen’s guide. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Schneider, S. (2006). The Everything Guide To Being A Paralegal: Winning Secrets to a Successful Career! : Avon, Mass.: Adams Media.

Expert paper writers are just a few clicks away

Place an order in 3 easy steps. Takes less than 5 mins.

Calculate the price of your order

You will get a personal manager and a discount.
We'll send you the first draft for approval by at
Total price: