The Law and Federal, State and Local Courts

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 Role of Law in Society

Under 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 with citizens.

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.

Besides 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 Courts

Today 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 courts.

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 Courts

Despite 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 domestic relations.

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.

Unlike federal 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.

Federal district 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 policy.

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.