Courts in the United States are divided between the federal court system and the state court system. The systems sometimes intertwine, which can make US courts difficult for US citizens, let alone people from other countries, to understand.
Criminal v. Civil
Both federal and state courts are divided into criminal and civil sections. The basic difference is the punishment. An individual found guilty of a criminal offense can be jailed while an individual found liable for a civil offense can be forced to pay the other party for consequences of the offending behavior.
A criminal proceeding begins when the prosecuting attorney, called the District Attorney in the state system and the US Attorney in the federal system, files a formal charge against the defendant. A defense attorney represents the defendant. The prosecutor must disclose all its evidence to the defense attorney in a process called “discovery.”
Depending on the strength of the evidence, the defense attorney will file motions to dismiss the case or may try to negotiate a plea bargain for the defendant. If these efforts fail, the defendant is entitled to a trial by jury. If the defendant is found not guilty, the prosecuting attorney cannot bring the same charges against the defendant again, even if the defendant admits guilt after having been found not guilty by the jury.
A civil proceeding begins when an individual or organization, called the plaintiff, files a complaint against another individual or organization, called the defendant. The complaint explains why the plaintiff is entitled to relief from the court. The plaintiff can ask the court to order the defendant to stop doing something (like making counterfeit prescription drugs) or ask the court to order the defendant to pay money to the plaintiff (like the profits the defendant made by selling counterfeit Viagra).
In a civil proceeding, discovery works both ways; i.e., each side discloses its evidence to the other side during discovery. Each side can also meet the other side’s key witnesses before trial and ask them questions under oath, as if they were in court. After discovery, as in the criminal case, the defendant will file motions to dismiss the case, or the parties may try to settle the case through mediation. If these efforts fail, the case will be tried before a jury or, if everyone agrees, before a judge.
Trial v. Appellate
The US court system allows the loser at the trial court, called the “appellant,” to appeal the decision to a higher court, called an “appellate court.” This appeal is called an “appeal of right” because the court of appeal cannot decline review; it must review the case, whereas a higher court can decide which cases it will and will not review. The appeal of right guarantees justice to an appellant who got a bad judge or a runaway jury at the trial court level.
Although the right to a review is automatic, the appellate court does not automatically review the entire case. The appellant must file a brief pointing out the mistakes that the judge made over the entire life of the case. The other side files a brief explaining why the appellant is wrong. Lawyers for both sides debate the case in front of a panel of appellate judges, and the judges issue a written opinion sometime after the debate – which is called, by the way, “oral argument.”
Thus, an appellant who asked the judge to dismiss the case before trial, can base an appeal on the judge’s failure to dismiss the case. If the appellate court agrees that the case should have been dismissed at that stage, then the case will be dismissed regardless of the jury’s verdict.
Federal v. State
Most cases take place in the state courts. The only cases tried in the federal courts are criminal cases for violating federal laws, like crimes against the government, and civil cases for violating federal laws, like patent infringement or interstate commerce violations. There is an exception for civil cases where a plaintiff sues multiple defendants who live in states outside the plaintiff’s home state, but only if the amount of money involved in the dispute is more than $75,000.
For example, the foundation of plaintiff’s new house falls apart, causing the internal framing to shift and crack. Plaintiff sues his out-of-state builder and the local sub-contractor that did the concrete work. Plaintiff can bring his case in federal court, because one defendant lives in another state, but only if the value of the damage to the house is more than $75,000.
This is where the US court system can get complicated. Although the case of the failed foundation will be brought in federal court, the judge or jury will decide the case based on state law – in this example, it would be the real estate and contract laws of the state where the house was located. If the federal court judge interprets the state law incorrectly, the appellant cannot go back to his own state court to appeal the case. He must still bring his appeal in the federal appellate system.
This brief overview of how the US court system works barely brushes the surface of the complex US court system. For a deeper dive, read the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure at http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcrmp/, the U.S. Constitution, or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure at http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcp/, .
This overview is not meant to be, nor should it be, taken as legal advice or advice on a particular legal situation. Individuals who wonder how the law applies to their circumstances should consult a licensed attorney in their local area.