The United States has two court systems: 1) the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts, established in somewhat vague terms by Article III of the Constitution, and 2) the state courts. The two systems are somewhat parallel. Ultimately, the federal courts may receive appeals from the state courts, and the Supreme Court has final jurisdiction on constitutional questions.
The state court system is organized as a hierarchy and includes superior courts (which act as trial courts) and a state supreme court. Generally, judges in the state courts are elected.
Superior courts usually function at the county level. A judge, who rules on matters of law such as whether a piece of evidence is admissible, and a jury (if the defendant asks for a jury trial) ideally reach a decision on a case based on the evidence presented. Superior courts handle two types of cases: criminal cases and civil cases. Criminal cases involve nonviolent crimes, such as fraud, and violent crimes, such as murder, armed robbery, and rape. Many criminal cases do not come to trial because the defendant (the person charged with a crime) enters into a plea bargain, an agreement to plead guilty to a lesser charge in return for a reduced sentence. Prosecutors may agree to a plea bargain, which saves the judicial system time and money, because the original charge may be difficult to prove.
Civil cases are disputes over property, money, contracts, or personal well-being (malpractice, libel, and personal injury lawsuits). The plaintiff (the person or persons bringing the suit) usually seeks compensatory damages (money in return for the loss or harm done) and punitive damages (a monetary award to make it clear to the defendant not to engage in such actions in the future). Punitive damages may exceed the actual harm caused by a person or company many times over, because juries sometimes treat the legal battle as a popularity contest between plaintiff and defendant — a contest that corporations often lose and individual members of a community often win. Some civil cases are brought as class-action suits. These are cases in which a large number of people have been affected, and the compensation award is distributed to all the victims. Class-action suits often involve health and product liability questions; suits against manufacturers of asbestos products, tobacco companies, automobile manufacturers, and insurance companies have attracted national attention. Critics argue that activists have turned to class-action lawsuits as a way to circumvent the proper channels of influence in American government. They are trying to get rid of products that they oppose, such as cigarettes and handguns, without having to win political support for these goals.
State appellate courts
If a defendant loses at trial and there are questions over legal procedures or matters of law, the case may be appealed to an appellate court. The case is argued before a panel of judges rather than a jury, and the decision is reached by a majority vote. The appellate court can reverse the original verdict, let the verdict stand, or call for a new trial. Of the millions of cases heard by trial courts throughout the country, only a very small percentage is brought to the appellate courts.
State supreme courts
Whatever the outcome at the appellate court, the case may go to the state supreme court, which is a state's appeals court of last resort. Almost all of these appeals come from defendants. Acting as a group, the state supreme court justices hand down decisions that become the highest law in the state.
The election of state judges
Trial, appellate, and state supreme court judges are usually elected. At the municipal and county levels, the term of office is usually four years. Candidates often run unopposed for trial court positions, and the ballot may read, "Shall Candidate x be elected to the Superior Court, Office No. 6?" Voters choose yes or no. The higher courts have 8- or 12-year terms, the length of which is intended to free judges from political influence.