General Information

Article III of the Constitution established the judicial branch of government with the creation of the Supreme Court. This court is the highest court in the country and vested with the judicial powers of the government. There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Rather, Congress deemed them necessary and established them using power granted from the Constitution.

Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they violate the Constitution. The latter power is known as judicial review and it is this process that the judiciary uses to provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches. Judicial review is not an explicit power given to the courts but it is an implied power. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison (1803), the courts' power of judicial review was clearly articulated.


A court is an institution that the government sets up to settle disputes through a legal process. People come to court to resolve their disagreements. Did Bill Jones run a red light before his car ran into John Smith’s, or was the light green, as he says it was? Did Frank Williams rob the bank? Courts decide what really happened and what should be done about it. They decide whether a person committed a crime and what the punishment should be. They also provide a peaceful way to decide private disputes that people can’t resolve themselves.

Courts use the adversary process to help them reach a decision. Through this process, each side presents its most persuasive arguments to the fact finder (judge or jury) and emphasizes the facts that support its case. Each side also draws attention to any flaws in its opponent’s arguments. The fact finder then decides the case. American judicial tradition holds that the truth will be reached most effectively through this adversary process.

There are two kinds of courts in the federal court system: the trial court and the appellate court. The trial court's basic work is to resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right. The appellate court's work is to determine whether the law was applied correctly in the trial court.

The work of the courts may affect many people besides those involved in the lawsuit. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, that it was unconstitutional to require white children and black children to attend separate schools, meant not only that plaintiff Linda Brown could enroll in a formerly all-white school, but also that other African-American children could, too. (Of course, this didn’t happen overnight; court orders implementing the decision were not always obeyed.) Court decisions not only tell those involved in the case what their rights are, but also tell other people how the courts would probably decide similar cases. When the decision is made by a court with a broad geographic reach, such as the U.S. Supreme Court or the supreme court of a state, it can provide guidance to people who are considering legal action and may help them resolve their dispute without going to court.

Federal Courts

There are two kinds of courts in this country--federal courts and state courts.

Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. State and local courts are established by a state (within states there are also local courts that are established by cities, counties, and other municipalities, which we are including in the general discussion of state courts).

The differences between federal and state courts are further defined by jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear.

Federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear
-cases in which the United States is a party;
-cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction);
-cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction); and
-bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases.

State courts, in contrast, have broad jurisdiction, so the cases individual citizens are most likely to be involved in--such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes--are usually tried in state courts. The only cases state courts are not allowed to hear are lawsuits against the United States and those involving certain specific federal laws: criminal, antitrust, bankruptcy, patent, copyright, and some maritime cases.

In many cases, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. This allows parties to choose whether to go to state court or to federal court.

Criminal cases involving federal laws can be tried only in federal court, but most criminal cases involve violations of state law and are tried in state court. We all know, for example, that robbery is a crime, but what law says it is a crime? By and large, state laws, not federal laws, make robbery a crime. There are only a few federal laws about robbery, such as the law that makes it a federal crime to rob a bank whose deposits are insured by a federal agency. Examples of other federal crimes are bringing illegal drugs into the country or across state lines and use of the U.S. mails to swindle consumers. Crimes committed on federal property, such as national parks or military reservations, are also prosecuted in federal court.

Federal courts may also hear cases concerning state laws if the issue is whether the state law violates the federal Constitution. Suppose a state law forbids slaughtering animals outside of certain limited areas. A neighborhood association brings a case in state court against a defendant who sacrifices goats in his backyard. When the court issues an order (called an injunction) forbidding the defendant from further sacrifices, the defendant challenges the state law in federal court as an unconstitutional infringement of his religious freedom.

Some kinds of conduct are illegal under both federal and state laws. For example, federal laws prohibit employment discrimination, and the states have added their own laws. A person can go to federal or state court to bring a case under the federal law or both the federal and state laws. A state-law-only case can be brought only in state court.
Appeals for review of actions by federal administrative agencies are also federal civil cases. Suppose, for example, that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to a paper mill to discharge water used in its milling process into the Scenic River, over the objection of area residents. The residents could ask a federal court of appeals to review the agency’s decision.