Distinguished court systems
The American states have very different court systems. For the most part, their features are explained by the historical conditions for the formation of the judicial system in this state. At times, newly formed states borrowed the scheme of judicial organization from neighboring states.
Most often, the states use two- and three-tier systems of general courts, as well as various courts of limited or special jurisdiction. The two-tier system of general courts, which includes only the courts of first instance and the highest judicial body, is usually characteristic of states that are small in size and population, and the three-tier system, with courts of intermediate, appellate jurisdiction, is characteristic of larger states, in whose courts a large number of civil and criminal cases.
The court that leads the judiciary in a state is most often called the supreme court, but in some states it is called the court of appeals. They consist of five to nine judges, one of whom is appointed by the chairman of the court.
The Supreme and their respective state courts are primarily concerned with appeals against decisions of lower courts. In most states they only deal with appeals against judgments that concern questions of law, in others they also deal with questions of fact.
In most states, it is up to the supreme courts to decide whether or not to hear appeals and appeals other than death sentences, appeals against which are subject to mandatory trial in the state supreme court. In some states, there is a rule according to which the supreme court is obliged to consider all complaints received before it without exception.
As a court of first instance, these courts most often issue only writ when directly appealed to them, for example, with a complaint of unlawful detention (habeas corpus), and in some cases take cases related to the issuance of writ to their proceedings, if they are particularly complex.
The role of state supreme courts is especially great in interpreting constitutions and evaluating state legislation in connection with court cases considered by them or complaints against decisions of administrative bodies.
The importance of this function has increased significantly over the past decades, when in some states the supreme courts began to pursue a line more decisive than in the decisions of the US Supreme Court, protecting the rights of citizens.
Intermediate jurisdiction courts (the term “intermediate” is sometimes included in their official name) have been established in a number of states to hear appeals against sentences and decisions of trial courts and other judicial institutions.
They have various names, but they are most often referred to as courts of appeal. Sometimes the states create a separate criminal appellate court, in some cases the courts of intermediate jurisdiction function as appellate divisions of the state supreme court.
They consist of 10 to 50 judges. Cases are usually heard by panels of three judges. In some states, appellate courts hear at first instance, including jury trials, certain categories of civil and criminal cases. In this case, the process is conducted by a single judge.
The main link in the judicial system of the states is the courts of general jurisdiction.
They go by a variety of names, such as New York state’s supreme courts, California’s superior courts, but are most commonly referred to as district courts. There are very significant differences in their organization and quantitative composition.
As a rule, they try at first instance criminal cases for all crimes under the laws of the corresponding state, except for minor criminal offenses, and civil cases for any amount of claim, except for those categories of cases for which special courts are established in this state.
In some states, district courts can only hear criminal cases for crimes that can be punished with imprisonment for up to five years, or even only up to one year, which greatly expands the prerogatives of the court of appeals of this state as a court of first instance.
At the same time, the district courts act as a higher instance in relation to the courts of limited jurisdiction, since they have the right in some cases to consider complaints against their decisions.
Cases in district courts are heard either by single judges or by judges with the participation of jurors. Currently, the number of jurors in American courts of all instances, including in the federal court system, is 12 or less in criminal cases, but not less than six jurors, in civil cases – most often six, unless the parties require increase in the number of juries.
Most states require a jury to reach a unanimous verdict for a defendant to be found guilty. The appointment of a defendant with punishment, as a rule, is within the competence of the judge alone, however, in some states, the jury must also decide on punishment issues (on the admissibility of the death penalty, etc.) by their verdict.
In addition to these parts of the general system of courts, each American state has courts of limited jurisdiction, which are trusted to hear cases of petty crimes punishable by fines or, as a rule, only short-term imprisonment, as well as civil cases with a small claim amount, most often up to $ 1,000.
They bear the names of municipal city, police courts, sometimes – county courts, courts of general sessions, etc. Cases in them are heard by magistrates or magistrates, who do not necessarily have professional legal training.