Black Print: From TEXT

Blue Print: Definitions

Gitelson Chapter 13: Courts



Civil actions: Suits arising out of conflicts between private persons and/or organizations; they typically include disputes over contracts, claims for damages, and divorce cases.

Criminal law: The branch of the law dealing with offenses against the public order and providing for a specified punishment. Most criminal law cases arise in state courts.

Prosecution is the party demanding legal action.

Defendant is the person being prosecuted. (p.357-359)


Two types of courts are found in all systems: Trial courts and Appellate courts.

Trial Courts: Courts at the lowest level of the system. They possess original jurisdiction (the power to be the first court to hear a case). Trial courts handle both criminal and civil cases.

A bench trial are trial court decisions may be made by a single judge or by a jury.

Appellate courts: Courts that reconsider the decisions rendered by trial courts, at the request of the losing party seeking to appeal. Appellate courts do not use juries.

Diversity cases are suits between parties from different states when the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. The district courts are also responsible for the naturalization of aliens, the approval of passports, and granting of parole to federal prisoners.

A single judge, who presides over both civil and criminal trials, usually hears district court cases.

Circuit courts: Federal courts of appeals that rank above the district courts and serve as the major appellate courts for the federal system. They review all cases, both civil and criminal, and the decisions of independent regulatory agencies and departments.

There are twelve U.S. Courts of appeals. Thirteenth court of appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, is an appellate court charged with hearing patent and trademark cases. (p.359-362)


Nine justices serve on the Supreme Court: one chief justice and eight associate justices. Chief Justice Rehnquist, W. (R), Scalia, A. (R), Stevens, J. (R), O’Connor, S. (R), Kennedy, A. (R), Souter, D. (R), Thomas, C. (R), Breyer, S. (D), Ginsburg, R. (D)

The Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. However, the main labor of the Supreme Court is appellate.

Writ of certiorari: A request that the Supreme Court order a lower court to send up the record of a case.

Cases are accepted for review by means of the rule of four, that is, four justices must vote to consider the case. More than 95% of requests for writs of certiorari are denied, without explanation.

Appeal: cases can reach the Supreme Court. In such cases, litigants have some right under the law to have their cases reviewed.

Each state has at least one appellate court that serves as its highest tribunal.

The most numerous state courts, the trial courts, are divided into two types:

those with limited jurisdiction and those with general jurisdiction.

Limited jurisdiction: the power of certain trial courts that are allowed to hear only a narrowly defined class of cases. Most common courts are traffic courts and small-claims courts.

General jurisdiction: the power of trial courts to hear cases on a broad class of issues, ordinarily including all civil cases involving nontrivial monetary value and all cases involving serious criminal matters.

Concurrent jurisdiction is state and national courts may have jurisdiction over the same issues. (p. 362-366)


The Constitution requires that federal judges be nominated by the president and appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The nomination of district court judges often originates with the senator or senators of the president’s party from the nominee’s state. Because courts of appeals are organized into circuits that cross-state boundaries, no senator is entitled to exercise senatorial courtesy over these appointments.

Federal judges are appointed for life. The Constitution provides removal only by impeachment, so Congress has created the position of senior judge as a means of encouraging judges to retire. (p. 383)

Gubernatorial Appointment- allows the governor to make the appointment, with legislative confirmation by state senate.

Legislative Election- three states elect judges: Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia. Only Supreme Court justices are elected by the legislature.

Partisan Election- judicial candidates run on a partisan ballot after winning nomination.

Nonpartisan Elections- candidates’ names appear on the ballot without party labels attached.

Merit Selection- blends independent and accountability. (p. 373)


Briefs: Documents submitted to a court by attorneys that contain a summary of the issues, the laws applying to the case, and arguments supporting counsel’s position.

Amicus curiae (Latin-friend of the courts): Written briefs submitted to the Supreme Court by third-party individuals or organizations that want their opinions to be considered in a case.

Concurring opinions: opinions written by Supreme Court justices that agree with the conclusion but not with the reasoning of the majority opinion.

Dissenting opinions: legal opinions written by Supreme Court justices that disagree with the majority conclusion.

Judicial Review: The power of the courts to declare an act of a legislature constitutional or unconstitutional.

Marbury v. Madison 1803, the Court inferred judicial review. It put the Supreme Court on the same level as the executive and legislative branches. William Marbury, sued Secretary of State Madison to force delivery of his appointment as justice of the peace, after the new President, Jefferson, had ordered Madison not to. Chief Justice John Marshall (F) denied the request because the law that gave the Supreme Court power over these matters was unconstitutional. Marbury had right to his commission but not to bring original action to the Supreme Court.

Mandamus is an order to a government official to carry out a duty of his office.

Judicial restraint: Limited and infrequent use of judicial review. It is advocated on the ground that unelected judges should not overrule laws passed by elected representatives.

Imperial judiciary makes decisions that are best left to the elected branches of a democratic government.

Judicial activism: the concept that the Court has both a right and an obligation to practice judicial review, especially in defense of political minorities. (p. 374-383)