Both the federal and state court systems are triangular
At the bottom there are many trial courts
There are fewer appeals courts and one supreme court
At the federal level there are
646 District Court Judges
13 Circuit Courts of Appeal
One Supreme Court with nine justices
Trial courts determine the facts and apply existing law to those facts
Juries are charged with making factual determinations , except when the parties waive their right to a jury, in which case
In general appellate courts will not hear appeals of jury verdicts unless there is evidence of jury tampering or some other procedural irregularity
Appellate courts determine whether legal errors were made at the trial court level
Most appeals are denied, as trial court decisions are affirmed
Supreme courts can overrule decisions of appellate courts
The U.S. Supreme Court is almost entirely an appellate court
The U.S. Supreme agrees to hear only a fraction of the appeals made to it
New York vs New Jersey
Main function of appellate courts is to review trial courts for possible errors of law
Possible errors of law include rulings the trial court on
Motions made by either party
Admission or non-admission of evidence
Instructions to juries
U.S. Courts of Appeals often hear appeals for decisions of administrative agencies such as the FTC, the PTO, and NLRB
Decisions of trial courts are only reversed when the errors made are judged material .
A mistake is material if it could have effected the outcome of the case.
U.S. Supreme Court
Mainly hears appeals from cases that either
Have constitutional implications
Resolve differences among the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Have significant social implications and are considered ripe--appropriate for resolution
Appeals to the Supreme Court are based on writs of certiorari (4 of 9 must vote to hear case)
Issues majority, concurring and dissenting opinions
At both the federal and state levels there are specialized courts
At the federal level there are specialized courts of bankruptcy, tax court, military courts
At the state level there are specialized juvenile, probate, domestic relations courts
Specialized courts do not have jurisdiction to resolve disputes outside their subject matter.
In the federal courts, trial courts are called district courts
In state courts, trial courts are often divided between
District courts for lesser civil cases and criminal misdemeanors, and
Superior courts which hear major civil cases and criminal cases involving felonies
Unless a case in state courts involves federal law there are usually no appeals from state to federal court
Appeals from state supreme courts to federal court can take place when
It is a capital criminal case—it often involves allegations of violations of constitutional law
Claims are made by a party that state laws violate the Interstate Commerce Clause
Claims are made that state laws violate fundamental constitutional rights involving, for example, race, abortion, and due process.
Defendants in civil cases can file a motion to dismiss based on a claim that the court selected by the plaintiff for the lawsuit
Does not have jurisdiction over the defendant
Or the subject matter of the dispute
A court has jurisdiction if it has power to resolve the dispute.
Two factors in determining jurisdiction:
Subject matter and geography
Trial courts have original jurisdiction
Obviously, appellate courts have appellate jurisdiction
In order to deny the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, the trial court must have both :
Jurisdiction over the subject matter of the dispute and
Jurisdiction personally over the defendant
Obviously, a bankruptcy court does not subject matter jurisdiction to try a criminal case
Many trial courts have general jurisdiction to hear any case
Jurisdiction of State Courts: Over the Person
Assume the plaintiff files suit against the defendant in the plaintiff’s state:
Clearly the state trial court has jurisdiction over the def., if the def. is a resident of the plaintiff’s state
A state court can exercise jurisdiction if the person
Did business within the state, such as sign or perform a contract, or
Committed a tort within the state, such as get involved in a traffic accident
States typically pass “Long Arm” statutes that extend the jurisdiction of state courts as far as is constitutionally permissible.
Jurisdiction over the Person
Suppose the def. is a corporation or a business?
Jurisdiction depends on whether the out-of-state business satisfies the minimum contacts test:
The minimum contacts test is satisfied if the business owns property, rents office space, directs employees towards, or directs advertising toward the state
Without more, mail order companies are not subject to the jurisdiction of out-of-state courts
Conceptual test is whether the out-of-state company availed itself of the advantages of the state government?
If yes, then jurisdiction is fair and justified
Jurisdiction over the Person
For web sites,
mere accessibility does not give out-of-state courts jurisdiction,
but if the web site interacts with customers through email or telephone it does…
Obviously, even a small amount of interaction between web sites and in-state residents is going to subject the web site to out-of-state courts
Web sites can easily avoid exercise of jurisdiction by out-of-state courts simply by have a choice of law clause in their Terms of Service agreement, which the user “agrees to” by browsing the web site.
Jurisdiction: State Courts
In rem jurisdiction
If an out-of-state resident owns property within a state, that state’s courts have in rem jurisdiction over the property
Note further that the plaintiff always has the option of going to the defendant’s home state and suing him or her in that state,
If state courts in the pl.’s home state do not have jurisdiction
Jurisdiction: Federal Courts
A plaintiff can file a lawsuit in federal court if
Federal question jurisdiction takes place
The claim (or defense) involves federal law
E.g., the plaintiff the defendant violated the Clean Water Act, which is a federal statute.
The parties are located in separate states and
The amount in dispute involves more than $75,000
If the case is tried in fed. court, procedural law is governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Proc.
Exclusive and Concurrent Jurisdiction
In many cases, plaintiff’s have a choice as to which court system (state or fed.) to file the claim because
Jurisdiction over the case is concurrent between federal and state courts
E.g., civil rights, securities, any claim based on diversity
In other cases, jurisdiction of fed. or state courts is exclusive:
Federal courts have exclusive juris. over patent cases, criminal cases and bankruptcy, to name just a few
State courts have exclusive juris. over domestic relations, juvenile court, in-state tort claims where diversity does not apply
Exclusive and Concurrent Jurisdiction
Plaintiffs can file a suit in state court based on a violation of a federal statute,
unless the statute contains language that provides for exclusive juris. of fed. courts.
Defendant’s can remove a case to fed. court, if
The plaintiff had a choice between fed. and state court and chooses to file in state court
Def. may choose to remove a case to fed. court if the def. is concerned that a state court may favor the pl.
Conflicts of Law
In some cases there is a genuine issue as to which state’s laws apply
Suppose a contract is signed in one state, but performed in another state?
In some cases the rules for determining choice of law are simple, i.e., where did the tort occur?
In other cases, the choice as to which state’s laws apply is complicated.
In contractual situations confusion can be avoided by having choice of law clauses in the contract, which is quite common
Venue is the physical location of where the trial will take place
In criminal cases, motions to change venue are sometimes granted based on pre-trial publicity
A motion to change venue based on pre-trial publicity could be granted in a civil case also
At the state level a to change venue is a motion to change the location of the trial within the same state, whereas the same motion at the federal level is a motion to change the state where the trial takes place.
Sometimes venue is changed if going to court is very inconvenient for the defendant or witnesses
Motion to change based on forum non conveniens
If the motion is granted, the trial will take place in another state or at the fed. level.
Standing to Sue: Justiciability
In order to get into court, the plaintiff must show
He or she has a real, current interest at stake
Examples, loss of freedom (possible incarceration), loss of property, loss of aesthetics if the person actually uses the park, loss of govt. benefits, loss of job etc.
In order to be justiciable the dispute must not be:
hypothetical (a dispute in the future),
moot (dispute already resolved), or
political (decisions that are within the discretion of Congress or the President).
Courts sometimes allow exceptions
Judges and Judicial Officials
Federal judges are appointed for life
Cannot be removed unless there is a showing of malfeasance—bribery, treason, other crimes
Congress cannot reduce the pay of a sitting judge
Some are elected and some appointed
Judicial immunity applies for most of what judges do, but judges could be censored or removed under state codes of ethics for judges.