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The federal court system has three main levels: U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Each level of court serves a different legal function for both civil and criminal cases.
Let's take an historical journey back in time to learn how the federal court system began. Many years ago, state courts heard legal matters of its citizens. Jurisdiction was defined geographically.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard cases of national attention, and that was only after one of the parties involved in a case felt that their rights had been violated as a matter of law in the state court. In other words, the Supreme Court was considered an appellate court.
As time went on and a young country began to develop and expand, cases involving matters outside of states (and even between states) required a more impartial system of trying a case.
In 1789, a new congress assembled to debate the need for a separate court - a higher court, whose purpose would be to try cases that test constitutional rights. Up for debate was Senate Bill 1 (1789) that posed the question: Should federal claims be first tried in state court? The answer was: yes and no.
Opinions argued by some believed that federal law should be arbitrated in state court first and only move to Supreme Court in cases of appeal. Others argued, out of fear, that litigants from out of state (or even the nation) would not receive a fair trial, and therefore they wanted to create a lower federal court. Two lower courts were then formed, creating three levels of federal court.
The U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over cases involving both civil and criminal actions. Civil actions must arise out of a violation of one's constitutional rights, a violation of law or treaties of the United States or if the United States is party to the suit. Civil maritime cases and cases involving citizens of different states are also heard in district courts.
In criminal cases, jurisdiction to hear a case occurs only if the Unites States if party to the suit or when prosecution is brought on by the United States. Whether it is a civil or a criminal case, a judge determines issues of law and a jury (or a judge) determines findings of facts.
There are 94 U.S. District Courts, with at least one in every state. Each contains 2-28 judges. There is no appellate jurisdiction, meaning this court has no power to hear an appeal from a lower court.
Let's analyze an example of a case brought to U.S. District Court. U.S. v. Jose Hernandez was tried in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, in Miami, Florida because the United States was a party to the suit. The United States claimed that Hernandez borrowed several thousands of dollars in educational loans and did not repay the debts.
The United States filed a motion for summary judgment, meaning a summarized version of a case heard by a judge based only on the merit of a case or a discrete fact.
The United States sought to recover monies owed to the Department of Education and federal Treasury as a result of Hernandez's default on several federally-funded student loans.
The motion was granted to the plaintiff, the United States, making the defendant Hernandez liable to repay the monies borrowed with interest.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resides over cases in where one or both parties are dissatisfied with the judgment in U.S. District Court. The lower court ruling is reviewed by a panel of three judges to determine whether there was an issue with the application of law. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears both civil and criminal cases.
There are 13 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States and is considered one of the most powerful courts. In the country, there are 179 full-time circuit judges in all, but only three judges hear a single case. Because this court hears appeals from the lower court, the judges' decisions often set legal precedent.
Let's analyze a case brought up from U.S. District Court for appeal.
In Bette Midler v. Ford Motor Company, Midler originally sued Ford Motor Company in the U.S. District Court, alleging that Ford Motor Company used a 'sound-alike' to sing one of her popular songs for an ad campaign aimed at attracting nostalgic baby boomers to identify with the song and thereby purchase a Ford vehicle.
In the lower court, it was decided that the media was protected under First Amendment rights. Further, the use of the voice likeness is the issue. If the voice likeness was used as informational or for cultural value, it is permissible. If it is for a different purpose, it is not.
Midler appealed the decision of the lower court, arguing that Ford Motor Company used her voice likeness as a means to profit from auto sales. While no new evidence is brought to light in appellate court, a closer look at the application of law and constitutional rights are reviewed.
In the case of Midler v. Ford Motor Company, the lower court's decision was remanded and sent back for re-trial. This means Midler won her case in appellate court, and it was returned to the lower court to be re-tried.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in a state or in the United States and generally only deals with matters of state or national importance or appeals from the appellate court. This court will take cases from appellate court only if there is an issue with the interpretation of the law or with a constitutional right. It is also the last step in the appeals process. There is no appeals process if either party is not satisfied with the decision.
There are nine judges or justices that decide on cases. In order to have a case brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, one must file a writ of certiorari requesting the court to hear a case. The court generally hears between 100-150 cases of the 7,000 requests made per year. Let's analyze a case brought up from the U.S. Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court for judgment.
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In the original jurisdiction case of Miranda v. Arizona, Ernesto Miranda was picked out of a lineup and arrested for kidnapping and rape. He spent hours in a cell awaiting his charges. He was not read his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney.
After a long and tiresome interrogation, he confessed to the crimes. In the written confession, he eluded that he was aware of his Fifth Amendment right. He was subsequently sentenced to 20-30 years in prison for each count.
In an appeal to a higher state court, the defendant's attorneys argued that Miranda did not, in fact, know of his rights, nor was he informed of his rights at the time of arrest.
Arizona argued that Miranda had been in trouble with the law before and assumed that he was aware of his rights based on past arrests. Arizona won and Miranda's conviction was upheld.
The case was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court and heard again. The panel of justices overturned Arizona's state ruling citing that Miranda's constitutional rights had been violated. His conviction was rescinded. As a result of this case, we now have established Miranda rights, the standard warning given to criminal suspects before they are questioned.
Once Miranda rights are read to a suspect, any statements they make may be used against them in criminal proceedings.
In summary, before 1789, the U.S. Supreme Court was available for only high-profile cases. Congress met and debated the need for a lower U.S. court to reside over cases that were beyond the jurisdiction or scope of the state court. The debate ended with the addition of two lower courts. This is known as the federal court system.
There are three main levels of federal court system. Each level of court serves a different legal function for both civil and criminal cases.
The U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over cases involving both civil and criminal actions. In this court, civil actions must arise out of a violation of one's constitutional rights, a violation of law or treaties of the United States or if the United States is party to the suit. Criminal cases arise only when the United States is party to the suit.
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resides over cases in where one or both parties are dissatisfied with the judgment in the U.S. District Court. The cases are brought up from the lower U.S. District Court.
U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in a state (or in the United States) and generally only deals with matters of state or national importance or appeals from appellate court.
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