The American Court System Explained

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The American Court System Explained

Are you under arrest? Know your rights. Mr. Beat explains the American judicial system with both criminal and civil cases and at the federal and state levels.

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Elected vs. Appointed?

Photo/video credits:
Phil Roeder
Nydia Tisdale

Say you’re accused of breaking a federal law, or a statute, or a treaty, or anything in the U.S. Constitution really. First of all, woah. Second of all, you go straight to the federal court system. You start out in district courts, aka the general trial courts. There are 94 districts in the country. Some states, like my home state of Kansas, have just one district. Other states, like Texas, have four. Even some of the United States territories get district courts. Ah, that’s nice. Each district court has at least one judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They can serve for life…unless they misbehave, of course. One of the judges in my district, a dude named Sam Crow, has been a district court judge literally my entire life. He is 93 freaking years old. But he’s joined by 10 others. I should say that Crow would be considered a youngin’ compared to this guy. Wesley Brown, who died in 2012 at the age of 104, was actively hearing cases also in the District of Kansas up until a month before he died. He was the oldest person to serve as a federal judge in American history. Anyway, at the district level, there are also subject-specific courts, you know…courts that specialize in certain areas, like taxes, claims against the federal government, and international trade. Also, each district has its own bankruptcy court.

So say they find you guilty in district court. (gasp!) No worries, you can appeal to the circuit courts. Also called the U.S. courts of appeals, they mostly hear appeals from district courts in a designated area. Hey, could you please put up that map again? Uh, thank you. Yeah so I’d be appealing in District 10…no not that District 10. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six in the First Circuit all the way to 29 in the Ninth Circuit. Again, all of them appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Again, they can serve for life…unless they misbehave. Some circuit courts also deal with specific subjects, such as veterans claims and military matters.

So say they find you guilty in circuit court. (gasp!) No worries, it’s not over yet! Although you might worry a bit. You can appeal again, this time to the highest court in the land, as they say, the Supreme Court of the United States, who meet in the capital, Washington, D.C.. You’ve got to petition to them. Basically, suck up to them so they’ll hear your case. The fancy phrase for this is a writ of certiorari. Unfortunately for you, less than 1% of all appeals are actually heard by the Supreme Court. It’s made up of nine justices, again nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. No surprise here…they can serve for life…unless they misbehave, but who are we kidding here, no justice has ever been kicked out of the Supreme Court.

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