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How the United States Court System Works

written by: Le Bach Pham • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 2/23/2013

The United States court system is integral to maintaining rule of law in American society. It acts as a power check on the other branches of government. So how does the court system work?

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    Court Systems and Types of Courts

    The American judicial system comprises governmental bodies known as courts. In the United States judicial system courts resolve legal disputes by making decisions in accordance with law. There are three types of courts: trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. There are two different court systems in the American judicial system. These are known as the state and federal court systems. The sharing of judicial power between the Federal and state governments is known as federalism.

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    Trial Courts in the United States

    Trial courts resolve disputes through analyzing facts presented by opposing parties. The two parties introduce evidence and present arguments regarding interpretation of law. Either a judge or a jury may decide trial court cases. Litigation rules may vary depending on the state in which the case is heard. Also, the state and federal court systems may have their own regulations and procedures.

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    Appellate Courts in the United States

    Appellate courts hear appeals on rulings of lower trial courts. In civil actions any party may appeal a trial court decision and bring the case to the appellate court. However, in criminal cases, usually the defendant is allowed to appeal, but the prosecution may not.

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    State Court Systems in the United States

    Rules and procedures may vary from state to state. However, certain basic structures are usually utilized in most state court systems. Most judicial systems are made up of various types of courts. Some are designed to handle most types of cases, while others specialize in certain types of disputes. Most state judicial systems consist of probate courts, courts with limited jurisdiction, courts with residual jurisdiction, and appellate courts.

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    The Federal Court System in the United States

    The federal court system oversees disputes based upon the Constitution, federal laws, or treaties of the United States. This would include claims based upon civil rights, patent, copyright, trademark, unfair competition, and admiralty suits. Additionally, federal courts may have jurisdiction if the lawsuit involves American citizens from different states. They may also have the right to rule over cases between an American citizen and an alien.

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    The United States Supreme Court

    The last and final court of review over all cases is the United States Supreme Court. This includes all cases in the federal system and some in the state system. The Constitution created the United States Supreme Court, while Congress created all other courts. The Supreme Court of the United States also hears trials involving ambassadors, public ministers, and consuls. Additionally, the Supreme Court hears cases in which a state is a party.

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    Avenues of Interpretation

    The United States court system works intricately to decide controversies efficiently in accordance with federal and state laws. The court system is an avenue for interpretation of law to be debated. Decisions made by the United States court system shape and impact all aspects of American society.

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    Introduction to Law and the Legal System, Eighth Edition by Frank A. Schubert

    “Understanding Federal and State Courts," published on United States Courts website. (

    “A Brief Overview of the Supreme Court," published on The Supreme Court website. (