The U.S. court system is complex. Its organization reflects the way the country is governed. Just as there are federal, state, and local governments, there are federal, state, and local courts. Governments at all levels pass laws and ordinances that prohibit certain acts, including felonies and misdemeanors. When a federal criminal law is violated, the case goes to a federal court. When a state criminal law is violated, the case is tried in a state or local court.
Each state runs its own system of courts; no two are exactly alike. In addition, the federal government operates the federal courts. A person who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, and commits a crime in that city can be prosecuted in either a Nebraska state court or the federal court, or both, depending on which laws he or she broke.
The vast majority of criminal cases begin and end in the state courts. In addition to criminal matters, these courts handle the bulk of legal business concerning probate of estates, marital disputes, land dealings, and commercial contracts. The typical state court system is pyramid‐shaped.
At the bottom, the broadest section of the pyramid, are the lower courts, which are located throughout a state and in municipal areas. The overwhelming part of the caseload of the lower courts consists of misdemeanors such as traffic violations and public intoxication cases. These courts go by various names: justice of the peace courts, traffic courts, police courts, municipal courts. Many are specialized. For example, juvenile courts handle matters involving children—those who have not yet reached the majority age.
Lower courts sometimes are the sites of trials in misdemeanor cases. They can impose fines and jail sentences. In some states, lower courts handle preliminary matters in felony cases. They hold arraignments, bail hearings, and preliminary hearings. Felony cases are transferred to higher courts for motions on pleas, trials, and sentencing hearings. The quality of justice in the lower courts is uneven. Cases are processed informally and expeditiously. Municipal courts have especially large caseloads and dispense assembly‐line justice in minor cases.
Courts of general jurisdiction
The next level of the pyramid is made up of courts of general jurisdiction—the trial courts of the state systems. These courts hear both civil and criminal cases. They handle cases of serious crime—not drunkenness or indecent exposure, but murder, rape, and burglary. There are fewer of these courts, but they operate more professionally and formally than do the lower courts. No one name is used for these trial courts. In some states, for example, they are called district courts; in others, circuit courts. Only a small percentage of the criminal cases that are filed ever go to a full trial in these courts; over 90 percent are settled out of court through plea bargaining.
Courts of appellate jurisdiction
If there is a trial, the loser can appeal. To appeal means to take a case to a higher court—an appellate court, higher up in the pyramid of courts. Suppose, for example, someone is tried for robbery and the jury finds the defendant guilty. In order to have legal grounds for an appeal, the defendant must find some error—something done wrong at the trial. The defendant might assert that the judge should have excluded certain evidence from the trial. The appellate court will consider such a question, but it will not retry the case.
In states with a small population, the loser in a trial can usually appeal directly to the state's top court, the supreme court. In middle‐sized or big states, an intermediate appellate court stands between the trial courts and the supreme court. Most appeals go to the middle level. The top court in a state system has a substantial amount of discretion in deciding which cases to hear and which ones to reject. Judges choose what they consider to be important cases.