One of the fundamental principles of the
U.S. government is a commitment to the rule of law. Law, a body of
legal rules and obligations, provides an essential tool by which all
nations seek order and stability. The United States is committed to
a just society in which all citizens are equal under the law. In
practical terms this concept means that society must be governed by
laws that are made by elected officials and are enforceable through
the courts. Without a court system, the government would be unable
to enforce laws.
The Law and Federal, State and Local Courts
The Role of Law in SocietyUnder the rule of law, the United States
is bound by regulations that govern various interactions among
individuals, groups, and governmental bodies. These regulations are
ideally applied to all without favoritism. Laws can be changed only
through a formal, established system of new legislation or
amendments to state or federal constitutions. In contrast to the
procedures followed by some undemocratic governments, individuals or
groups cannot arbitrarily change accepted laws and ways of dealing
In framing and
ratifying the Constitution, Americans adopted the idea that theirs
was a government of laws, not men. The rule of law promised
predictability in American lives by placing limits on the power that
the government exercised. By applying checks and balances to prevent
one branch of government from gaining too much power, the Founders
tried to ensure that laws were fairly created and enforced. Thus
while in earlier societies the state had made law, in the United
States the law—in the form of the Constitution—created the state.
Types of Law
In the United States, one of the most
important types of law is what is called constitutional law. Under
constitutional law, the courts review the actions of the state or
federal government in relation to specific clauses of the
Constitution. In Article VI of the Constitution, the Founders
established that the Constitution “and the Laws of the United
States…shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every
State shall be bound thereby.” Hence state laws as well as federal
statutes and executive actions must conform to the Constitution as
the courts interpret it.
constitutional law, many other types of law exist. Certainly for the
writers of the Constitution, the concept of natural law was
essential. They agreed with the ideas expressed by 17th-century
English philosopher John Locke. He believed that all individuals are
equal and independent, and that they create an organized government
in order to protect their collective right to a stable, secure
society. Hence any individual’s claim to the authority to create a
military force or serve as a police officer has been surrendered to
government. But individuals retain other “inalienable” rights such
as life and liberty. Neither government, nor law, nor elected
officials can interfere with these privileges. Some of the rights
retained by individuals are described in the Bill of Rights, which
limits the powers of Congress, for example, to establish a religion,
abridge freedom of speech, or subject Americans to unreasonable
searches and seizures.
Common law consists
of the customary practices created by past judicial decisions. After
a court makes a decision, that decision becomes a precedent that can
be applied to similar cases. Based on precedents and their
application to new cases, judicial reasoning proceeds by analogy
from one case to another and accumulates to form the basis of common
law. Today common law is relevant mostly to areas of family law and
disputes over contracts and property.
Administrative law involves disputes regarding the authority of
administrative agencies that are part of the executive branch and
whether their procedures are legal. Thus regulations established by
federal agencies—such as decisions by the Forest Service on logging
operations on public land or the Food and Drug Administration’s
regulations for more testing of a new medicine—may be contested by
private individuals and corporations. These agencies are not elected
bodies, and yet they have emerged as independent policy-makers. The
rise in importance of these administrative agencies challenges the
rule of law because officials who are appointed, not elected,
exercise a great deal of power. As a result, their rules and
procedures have been questioned. At issue is whether the authority
of these agencies is abused and whether their actions are within the
jurisdictions delegated to them by Congress.
The most prevalent
form of law today is statute law enacted by a legislative body at
the federal, state, or local level. Statute law pertains to either
criminal law or civil law. Civil law, which governs the relations of
citizens among themselves, involves disputes between citizens and
between government and citizen where no crime is alleged. Criminal
law deals with public law and public order and mostly covers acts of
violence, theft, and fraud. The government—at the federal, state or
local level—prosecutes criminal cases and imposes jail sentences,
fines, or other forms of punishment on people who are found guilty.
The federal government prosecutes comparatively few criminal cases,
but it defines crimes, assists in investigations, and helps
determine sentencing guidelines.
The Federal CourtsToday the federal judiciary is based on
a three-tiered hierarchy of courts. On the bottom are the 94 U.S.
District Courts in the 50 states and the U.S. dependent territories.
These courts have jurisdiction to hear only those cases allowed
under the Constitution and by federal law. These include cases where
crimes have been committed that violate federal laws, and disputes
between citizens of different states. The next tier above the
district courts contains the 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal. These
courts can hear only cases where the ruling of a district court has
been appealed (contested) by one of the parties involved. The
circuit courts, like other appeals courts, cannot question the facts
of a case, they can consider only questions of law and legal
interpretation. The top of the pyramid is the United States Supreme
Court, which is the highest court in the country. Rulings of the
circuit courts may be appealed to the Supreme Court, but in practice
the court hears only cases of important constitutional significance.
Congress is responsible for creating and maintaining the federal
Federal judges serve
for life, although they can be removed by congressional impeachment.
These lifetime appointments insulate the federal
judiciary—especially the Supreme Court—from the whims of popular
opinion, which can influence the legislative and executive branches.
On the other hand, because its members are not popularly elected,
the federal judiciary is less accountable to the people than are the
other two branches of government. In this way, the life tenure of
federal judges epitomizes a tension between a democracy of the
people and a powerful institution that is not directly accountable
to the people. This tension is significant because judicial rulings
determine the scope and meaning of the law. Thus, in a very real
sense, the courts do make laws. Court rulings, for example, have
been responsible for limiting industrial monopolies, determining the
pace of racial integration, and protecting individuals from the
abuses of government. Some people have criticized the fact that
federal judges can issue such far-reaching rulings without fear of
being voted out of office.
In addition to the
district, appeals, and Supreme courts, the federal judicial system
includes various courts with jurisdiction over specialized cases.
For example, the Tax Court handles cases that arise out of enforcing
the tax code, and the Claims Court considers disputes about property
taken for public use. A Customs Court handles complicated issues
arising from seizures of and taxes on imported goods, while the
Patent Court, also with a specialized jurisdiction, deals with
controversies about registering patents. The Court of Veterans
Appeals reviews decisions regarding veterans benefits made by the
Department of Veterans Affairs.
State and Local CourtsDespite their high visibility, the
federal courts deal with only one percent of the nation’s judicial
business. The state and local courts—the latter usually at the
county, municipal, and township level—hear most of the judicial
cases. Annually over 25 million cases enter state and local systems;
every year, one in nine Americans is directly involved in some sort
of litigation or court proceeding.
At the state level,
courts are assigned what are called police powers over the health,
morals, and safety of their citizens. Thus, by the authority of its
health power, a state legislature may require all schoolchildren to
be vaccinated; any challenge to this law would be considered in
state court. To protect community health in the late 19th century,
state courts approved a controversial quarantine of immigrants
before they entered the United States. The states’ authority in
these matters can be found in the Tenth Amendment to the
Constitution, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal
government to the states. At the same time, many state constitutions
include their own Bill of Rights, which limits the power of states
over the people.
By constitution or by
statute, state governments create the local courts that have
jurisdiction over minor state offenses and the violation of local
ordinances, such as those involving zoning or disturbing the peace.
Some local courts have specialized jurisdiction over juveniles and
Like those at the
federal level, state court systems are arranged into a three-tiered
system of trial, appellate, and supreme courts. Decisions by the
state supreme courts can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,
which can overturn state laws. An example of the relation between
state and federal courts occurred in the 1960s. At that time, state
laws that impeded desegregation were overturned because in the view
of the Supreme Court, the laws violated the due process and equal
protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.
judges, who are appointed by the president with the Senate’s
approval, state judges come to the bench in a variety of ways. Some
judges are appointed by state governors and, after a period of time,
stand for elections. Other judges are elected from the beginning.
Sometimes these elections are contested and partisan; often they are
not. In recent years states have tried to improve the quality of
state and local judges by creating panels of qualified lawyers from
which state governors choose the judges they appoint.
Current Trends and Issues
The judicial system is challenged by a
tremendous volume of cases. The use of the system has escalated
because the U.S. population has increased from 122 million in 1930
to 290 million in 2003. In addition, Americans have become more
likely to settle any dispute, no matter how minor, in court.
The caseload has also
increased because the courts have developed new categories of
constitutional rights, mainly as a result of rulings in important,
high-profile cases. Examples of this are the right to privacy
established in the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v.
Connecticut and the legal rights guaranteed defendants by
Miranda v. Arizona in 1966. The court has expanded the
legal rights of defendants in matters such as pretrial criminal
procedures and protections to prisoners in the state and federal
prison systems. Changes in technology, such as the development of
the Internet, are also new areas that require judicial response.
Inevitably such new developments lead to new laws, new kinds of
disputes, and new judicial interpretations.
courts heard 87,000 cases in 1961; in 1996, 320,000 cases were
commenced. Circuit court judges heard 51,500 cases in 1996. The
Supreme Court, which decides the cases it hears, considered 7,602 in
the same year, and of these only 140 were given full review. Still
this is a burdensome amount. A challenge for the Supreme Court is to
keep control over the number and type of cases it accepts so that it
can reserve its decisions for those that help determine high-level
There are many
problems that state and local judiciaries face. Among these are long
delays for defendants coming to trial, the slowness of the trials
themselves, unequal access to justice between the rich and the poor,
and difficulties in obtaining jury pools.