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The US Supreme Court

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How is the Court System Structured?

This is the highest court in any jurisdiction. If an appellate court makes an error, or if the parties think the law as it stands is unjust, they can appeal from the appellate court to the supreme court. If a trial court case has a particularly interesting question of law, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide to skip the appellate court and bring itself the case directly. After a supreme court makes its decision, this is typically the end of the road for a particular case. One exception would be if a case was before a state supreme court, addressed a federal issue, and a party wishes to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The federal courts and most state courts are structured in this general order, although states sometimes choose to have different names for the different levels of courts. Notably, however, state and federal courts do decide different types of cases. Federal courts only decide cases with issues of federal law (such as constitutional rights, tax, intellectual property, and federal crimes), or cases between residents of two different states or countries. State courts are also allowed to decide some federal matters brought to them, and on top of that, will decide all other matters of state law. These would include the most common reasons people interact with the law, such as cases dealing with wills and trusts, divorce, or traffic court. As a result, the vast majority of cases in the United States are heard by state, as opposed to federal, courts.

How have the Supreme Court’s powers changed over time?

The Constitution makes the Supreme Court the highest court in the federal judiciary. It also requires a chief justice to be head of the Court. The Constitution is silent, however, on how many justices must serve on the Court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number at six, and assigned them in pairs to sit as trial judges in the three circuit courts.

The Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to hold trials in cases involving ambassadors, public ministers, consuls, and states. The Judiciary Act of 1789 repeated this provision. The Constitution says the Supreme Court may hear appeals in cases arising under the Constitution and federal laws and treaties, admiralty cases, cases in which the United States is a party, and cases between citizens. Congress, however, may make exceptions to this appellate power. In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress gave the Supreme Court the power to hear appeals mostly in civil cases involving more than $2,000. The Supreme Court did not get general power to hear appeals in criminal cases until the 1890s.Section 25 of the Judiciary Act contained a controversial provision. It gave the Supreme Court the power to hear appeals from the highest court of each state in cases involving interpretation of the federal Constitution. Anti-Federalists dislike the notion that the Supreme Court could reverse a decision by a state court. This, however, has remained part of the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review ever since.

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