Legal Research | Section 2.1

Fundamentals of Legal Research by Adam J. McKee

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The Structure of the U.S. Courts

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In the United States, both the federal court system and the systems of the various states are hierarchical in nature.  Case law originates with the appellate courts that are at the top of the court hierarchy.  This is because appellate courts are called upon to resolve specific legal disputes centered on specific legal questions.  How the court ruled and why it ruled as it did are preserved in written opinions.  A small fraction of the cases litigated every year in the United States result in a written opinion.  As a rule, the higher a court is in the hierarchy of courts, the more likely a case heard before it will result in a written opinion.

The lowest courts in most state court systems are courts of general jurisdiction.  This is the level of courts where trials (both civil and criminal) take place.  The primary job of trial courts is to serve as finders of fact.  As a rule, the appellate courts will not hear appeals based on matters of fact unless there was a procedural problem with the way the facts were derived.  Appeals courts only hear matters of law.

In most jurisdictions, parties not satisfied with the ruling of a trial court judge can appeal the decision to an intermediate court of appeals.  These courts are usually composed of three or more judges that vote on the legal issues raised after careful consideration and debate.  When the losing party to an appellate case still believes that justice has not been served, there is often the option to appeal the matter to a still higher court.  The highest court in any jurisdiction is known as a court of last resort because there is no possibility of appeal beyond it.  On the federal level, as in most states, the court of last resort is known as the Supreme Court.  The rulings of these highest courts are binding on all lower courts in that jurisdiction.

An Overview of the Appeals Process

Because all case law comes from appellate courts, it is important to understand the appeals process and how it works.  An appeal usually begins when one party to a trial is dissatisfied with the result of the case.   In civil cases, both parties generally will have the right to appeal.  In criminal matters, the right to appeal by the defendant is usually available.  The right of the state to appeal the decision of a trial court is severely limited by the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution.   The appeals process is often very technical, and it is rarely automatic.  The individual seeking an appeal must appear before the appellate court by some legal means.  Common methods are a petition for a writ of mandate and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.   The petition for a writ of mandate is a request to the higher court to force the lower court to either do something or refrain from doing something.  The petition for a writ of habeas corpus is a request to the appellate court to force the person holding a prisoner to bring the prisoner before the court and justify the detention.

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  06/13/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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