Criminal Justice | Section 5.1: State and Federal Courts

Criminal Justice

An Overview of the System

ADAM J. MCKEE


Section 5.1: State and Federal Courts


The U.S. court system is very complex due to dual federalism. Each level of government-state, local, and federal-has its own courts. Perhaps the easiest criminal court system to understand is the federal system. When an act violates a federal criminal law, the suspect is tried in federal court. When a suspect violates a state law, it can be tried at the local or state level, depending on the state.

This disparity occurs because each state has its own court system. No two of the fifty are exactly alike. In addition, the federal government operates courts within each of the fifty states. The vast majority of criminal cases are tried in state courts. Most state court systems and the federal court system can be described as hierarchical or “pyramid shaped.”

Lower Courts

At the bottom of the court hierarchy are the lower courts. The majority of cases heard by these courts are traffic violations and misdemeanor cases. The names vary widely, depending on the state. Municipal courts, police courts, and traffic courts are common examples. There are also many specialized courts at this level. Juvenile courts, for example, often exist at this level.

These courts tend to hear relatively minor matters. Many can, however, sentence violators to jail and impose large fines. Some of these courts also deal with preliminary matters in criminal cases, such as conducting arraignments and preliminary hearings. These felony cases are subsequently transferred to a higher court for trial. Many people-especially those appearing in them-are critical of the “assembly line” justice offered by many municipal courts.

Courts of General Jurisdiction

While the lower courts can only hear nonserious matters, this level of the court system can hear felony cases. Courts of general jurisdiction are the trial courts of record of the state court systems. Generally, these courts operate more formally and professionally than the lower courts. There are fewer of them. The name varies depending on the state; in some states, they are called district courts, and in others, they are called circuit courts. This can be very confusing in states that are the reverse of the federal system (where district courts are trial courts and circuit courts are appellate courts). Only a small fraction of cases filed by prosecutors ever go to full trial in these courts. The vast majority end in a plea bargain.

Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction

When a party is dissatisfied with the results of a trial, then they can appeal to a higher court. Appellate courts mostly hear appeals cases and are higher up in the court hierarchy. The number of levels of appeals courts depends largely on the population of the state. In states with relatively small populations, the losing party at trial can appeal directly to the state’s highest court, the state supreme court. In larger states, there is usually an intermediate appeals court that lightens the workload of the state supreme court.

The supreme courts usually have a broad discretion in deciding whether to hear a case or not. The judges are free in many circumstances to decide what cases are important and to only hear those.

The Federal Court System

Federal courts are organized along very similar lines to state courts, although the more general subject matter jurisdiction of federal courts makes them more streamlined that many state systems.

U.S. District Courts

In the hierarchy of courts, the trial courts of general jurisdiction are always near the bottom. At the federal level, these workhorses of the court system are the 94 U.S. District Courts. Every state in the United States has at least one district court, and some states have several. According to an annual report entitled Judicial Business of the U.S. Courts (2014), “filings for criminal defendants (including defendants transferred from other districts) fell 3 percent to 91,266 in 2013. This was the lowest total since 2008.” Drug offenses counted for the largest percentage of these filings at around 32% of all criminal cases. Shifts in enforcement strategies have seen a dramatic decline in federal prosecutions for marijuana-related offenses, with an 8% drop in 2013 over the previous year. Immigration, fraud, and firearms-related crime made up the bulk of remaining cases.

U.S. Courts of Appeals

Above the federal district courts in the federal court hierarchy are the U.S. Courts of Appeal. They serve mostly to hear appeals from the district courts. Appeals judges do not sit alone when deciding cases, but rather sit in panels of three judges. Rare and important cases are sometimes heard en banc, meaning all of the judges in that circuit hear the case together.

These courts lack the discretion of which cases they hear that the Supreme Court enjoys. The docket of the appeals courts is dictated by the number and types of appeals that are filed. Filings in the 12 regional courts of appeals fell 2 percent to 56,475. Decreases occurred in filings of criminal appeals, appeals of administrative agency decisions, and civil appeals. Growth was reported for prisoner petitions, bankruptcy appeals, and original proceedings (Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2014).

The U.S. Supreme Court (USSC)

The U.S. Supreme Court crowns the hierarchy of United States Courts. It hears appeals that come out of both federal and state courts. Considering there are only nine justices, the workload of the Supreme Court is very heavy. The Supreme Court is different than lower level courts in that they exercise certiorari power. This means that the justices get to decide which cases to review and which to pass over. The cases that they do select tend to have very broad national implications. Because the Supreme Court functions mostly as a court of appeals, most of the cases they decide result in a lower court’s decision either being affirmed or reversed.

Problems with the Courts

One of the biggest problems facing the courts today is the high volume of cases. For example, in 2013, combined filings for civil cases and criminal defendants in the U.S. district courts totaled 363,914. According to the Court Statistics Project, over 10.6 million cases were processed in state trial courts in 2009 (the last year for which data is available).

The tough drug sanctions of the recent past caused a steadily increasing caseload for the courts. A majority of state courts are perpetually behind on hearing cases. Accordingly, there has been an increasing interest on both the state and federal level with how to reduce caseloads and speed up the flow of cases.

Reducing Caseloads

Perhaps the most popular effort to reduce caseloads has been the advent of drug courts. A big difference between drug courts and regular courts is that drug courts tend to sentence nonviolent, first-time offenders to drug treatment rather than probation or prison. The main purposes of drug courts are to reduce recidivism and reduce the caseload of the regular courts. The empirical research suggests that drug courts are more effective at reducing recidivism than traditional probation or prison.

Speeding Up Court Processing

When there are too many cases being processed by the courts, the speed at which cases can be processes slows down, sometimes dramatically. This is especially problematic in criminal courts where defendants have a constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial. For this and other reasons, the public is dissatisfied when case resolution becomes a long, drawn-out process.

At the federal level, there has been legislation to force the courts to run faster. The Speedy Trail Act of 1974 sets time standards for two different stages in the federal progression. The law stipulates that the prosecutor has a maximum of thirty days from the time of arrest to arraign a suspect, and an additional seventy days from the indictment to the trial. Every state has followed the federal example by enacting some form of speedy trial law.

The Role of Judges

The many responsibilities of the trial court judge extend throughout the entire criminal court process. From the time of an arrest, judges make critical decisions that have a deep impact on the cases and lives of those accused of crimes. Because they must evaluate probable cause and issue search and arrest warrants, judges are often involved in criminal cases before an arrest takes place. Once the offender is arrested, the judge must decide if bail is to be granted, the amount of bail, rule on pretrial motions made by both the prosecution and the defense, hear pleas, referee trials, and pass sentences. At all stages of the process, the judge must perform a balancing act, protecting the rights of the accused while also protecting the best interest of the public. Appeals court judges have different responsibilities than trial judges. While trial judges are mostly referees in the adversarial battle between prosecution and defense, appeals court judges serve as legal scholars by researching, clarifying, and writing opinions on legal issues.

Federal Judges

Federal judges tend to be the cream of the crop. They tend to come from families with a long history of public service and attend the finest law schools in the world. Some critics argue that those families are also wealthy, and that federal judges are selected from the social and cultural elite and that the process is unfair.

State Judges

State level judges tend to be drawn heavily from whichever political party dominates that particular state. There are a variety of ways that judges are selected, depending on state law. Some states have partisan elections, meaning that candidates for judgeships run under the banner of a particular political party. In other states, judges are elected, but they run as nonpartisan candidates, meaning that they state no allegiance to a particular political party. Some states use an appointment system, where the governor of the state appoints judges. Still, other states select judges by legislative appointment. Some states, such as Missouri, use a merit system.

Judicial Decision Making

The very nature of being a judge requires making important decisions. Judges make decisions that have an enormous impact on the lives of defendants. Trial court judges are often called upon to make decisions in an instant, while appeals court judges have more time to ponder weighty issues and seek input from colleagues and staff.

Because of the doctrine of stare decisis, the decisions of judges are tempered by the existing legal landscape. That is, most judges follow precedent when it is available, and try to use the legal logic of past cases to guide them when novel legal questions arise. Political values often come into play, although these are not as readily recognized as is legal tradition.

Judicial Misconduct

Judges have an awesome amount of power, and this power sometimes corrupts. Judges, like other criminal justice professionals, sometimes act in unethical and illegal ways. These inappropriate activities undermine the public confidence in the judiciary and create injustice. Each state has some sort of mechanism in place to deal with unethical conduct by judges. At the federal level, judges can only be removed by impeachment by the Senate.

Judicial Independence

The founding fathers decided early on that the courts should be independent of the other branches of government. There are several reasons for this separation of powers. Perhaps the most important reason for judicial independence is that it allows judges to preside over cases in a just and impartial way. Another important reason is that the courts serve as a check on the power of the executive and legislative branches.

It is a mistake, however, to view the judiciary as completely independent. The other branches of government have the ability to influence the judiciary. The executive often has the power of appointment over judges. The legislative branch has the power of the purse, controlling the budget of the courts. These powers, while significant, are limited. Federal judges, for example, are appointed for life tenure. That means that once appointed by the executive, they cannot be fired. The founding fathers formed the government in this way because they understood that a judge fearful of losing his job could not be a neutral and detached magistrate that is willing to rule against the legislative or the executive.

Juveniles and the Courts

Just as with the adult criminal justice system, the courts powerfully influence the juvenile justice system. This is true at both the juvenile court level and at the appellate level.

Juvenile Courts

Perhaps the most important member of the juvenile justice system is the juvenile court judge. Juvenile judges have the role of a traditional judge, but this role is greatly expanded when a judge presides over a juvenile court. In many jurisdictions, the juvenile judge oversees not only the operations of the juvenile court but juvenile probation departments as well. In many small jurisdictions, juvenile court judges are responsible for the fiscal management of the courts as well as probation departments.

The beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of juvenile judges can have an incredible impact on other criminal justice agencies in particular, and the entire community in general. For example, judges that do a poor job of dealing with juvenile delinquency in the schools run the risk of creating a disruptive and lawless learning environment. At the other end of the spectrum, judges that are overly punitive in their decisions run the risk of violating the doctrine of parens patriae.

Much of what juvenile court judges do can be described as a balancing act. Juvenile judges must ensure that all processes and decisionmaking are carried out in a fair and unbiased manner. They must make sure that all decisions balance the best interests of the juvenile with the best interests of the victim and community. In addition, they must ensure that the constitutional rights of all parties are upheld. While the juvenile justice system is substantially different than the adult system, constitutional guarantees of due process must be upheld in juvenile proceedings. In practice, this requirement creates an often-uncomfortable conflict of adversarial process versus the best interest of the child.

The Supreme Court & Juveniles

Historically, juvenile proceedings rarely made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Starting with the Warren court in the 1960s, however, the Supreme Court handed down several cases that dramatically altered the structure and function of the juvenile justice system.

Landmark Court Decisions in Juvenile Justice

Kent v. United States (1966) Held that juveniles must be afforded due process rights in court proceedings.
In re Gault (1967) Held that juveniles accused of crimes must be afforded many of the same due process rights as adults.
Breed v. Jones (1975) Held that finding a child delinquent in a juvenile court then trying the child in adult court amounts to double jeopardy.
Schall v. Martin (1984) Held that the preventive detention of a juvenile does not necessarily violate due process.
Doe v. Renfrow (1981) Upheld a lower court decision that a search of schoolchildren for narcotics by a drug dog is not rights violation.
New Jersey v. TLO (1985) Set the evidentiary standard for searches of students by school officials at reasonable suspicion.
Qutb v. Strauss (1993) Held that curfew laws were constitutional because they are designed to protect the community.

Key Terms

Affirmed, Assembly Line Justice, Certiorari Power, Courts of General Jurisdiction, Doe v. Renfrow (1981), Judicial Independence, Judicial Misconduct, Kent v. United States (1966), Lower Courts, Municipal Courts, New Jersey v. TLO (1985), Police Courts, Qutb v. Strauss (1993), Reversed, Speedy Trial Act of 1974, Traffic Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeal, U.S. District Courts


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Last Updated:  6/21/2018