The choice of a court is dictated by constitutional rule and statutory law, but still leaves room for political maneuvering.
Four basic characteristics of a case help determine which court has jurisdiction over it: the involvement of the federal government through treaties or federal statutes, the parties to the case, where the case arose, and how serious an offense it involves.
It is very rare for a case to start in one system and end up in the other.
Only when a case in the highest state court is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court can this happen.
Both state and federal courts have jurisdiction over the cases.
There are cases that can come straight to the court without being heard by any other court.
The rules and factors are related to original jurisdiction.
Almost all of the cases heard by the Supreme Court are appealed.
The original jurisdiction of the Court is limited to cases that concern ambassadors and public ministers and to cases in which a state is a party.
The court can decide to hear further appeals or not, after the first one.
The highest court of appeals in the United States is the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is possible that the Court regards the case as frivolous or that it agrees with the lower court's judgement.
Even though the Court agrees to hear a case, it doesn't mean it will overturn the lower court's ruling about 70% of the time.
Sometimes the Court hears a case in order to agree with the lower court and set a precedent that other courts will have to follow.
State courts fall into three tiers.
Major trial courts and courts where less serious offenses are heard are the first layer.
The courts may be called county and municipal courts at the minor level or superior or district courts at the major level.
Here cases are heard for the first time, under original jurisdiction, and most of them end here as well.
A case can be appealed to a higher body.
More than three-fourths of the states have intermediate courts of appeals that hear cases from the lower trial courts.
The courts of appeals vary greatly from state to state.
On rare occasions, the minor courts as well as the major trial courts hear appeals directly from the major trial courts.
Each of the fifty states has a supreme court.
Since they are appeals courts, there are no juries.
Rather, a panel of five to nine justices, as supreme court judges are called, meet to discuss the case, make a decision, and issue an opinion.
The supreme court is the final court of appeals in the state.
Unless a case involves a federal question and can be heard on further appeal in the federal court system, all decisions rendered by these courts are final.
State courts have a variety of procedures for selecting judges.
The procedures range from appointment by the governor to the more democratic method of election by the state population as a whole.
Thirty-nine states hold elections for judges.
Judicial elections are controversial.
Supporters say they give people a voice, while keeping judges accountable and in line with public opinion.
Critics say judicial elections can have a conflict of interest.
In 2002 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable spent $25 million to influence judicial elections across the country.
The federal system has three levels.
The lower two tiers are discussed in this section.
In the following section, we discuss the importance of the Supreme Court in the American political system.
Ninety-four U.S. federal district courts are the lowest level of the federal judiciary hierarchy.
Each state has at least one court and the largest states have four.
The district courts have original jurisdiction over all cases involving any question of a federal nature or any issue that involves the Constitution, Congress, or any other aspect of the federal government.
Criminal charges stemming from a violation of the federal anticarjacking statute or a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency are examples of the wide-ranging issues.
Criminal and civil cases are heard by the district courts.
In trials at the district level, witnesses are called to testify and are questioned and cross-examined by the attorneys representing both sides.
In criminal cases, the government is represented by a U.S. attorney.
The Senate has the power to approve the appointment of U.S. attorneys, one per district.
The final verdict is returned by juries in district courts.
The case that is appealed beyond the district court level will appear in one of the U.S. courts of appeals.
Even though it's small, the Twelfth Circuit Court has a large caseload because it hears all appeals involving government agencies.
The district court where the case was originally heard is where the cases are heard now.
A case that was tried in Miami, in the southern district in Florida, would be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, located in Atlanta, Georgia.