7.1. Introduction to the U.S. Court System
What follows is an examination of the structure and role of the courts in the American criminal justice system and the requirement of jurisdiction. As you read this chapter, pay attention to the context when you see the word “court” because it is used in a variety of ways. “Court” can mean a building—it is short for “courthouse” (for example, “he went to the court”); one judge (for example, “the trial court decided in his favor”); a group of judges (for example, “the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction”), or an institution/process generally (for example, “courts hopefully resolve disputes in an even-handed manner”). Courts (the institution and processes) determine both the facts of a crime (did the defendant do the crime?) and also the legal sufficiency of the criminal charge (can the government prove it?). Courts ensure that criminal defendants are provided due process of law, or the procedures used to convict the defendant are fair. Courts are possibly more important in criminal cases than in civil cases because, in civil matters, the parties have the option of settling their disputes outside of the court system, but all criminal prosecutions must be funneled through the criminal courts.
After reading this chapter, you will be able to project the trajectory of a criminal case from the filing of criminal charges in a local courthouse through all final appeals processes. This requires an understanding of the dual court system, the structure of typical state court systems and the federal court system. This chapter explores the differences between a trial court and an appellate court, and you will learn how trial judges and juries decide (determine the outcome of) a case by applying the legal standards to the facts presented during trial and how appellate judges decide if the case was rightly decided after examining the trial record for legal error. Appellate courts make known their decisions known through their written opinions, and this chapter introduces the types of opinions and rulings of appellate courts.
This chapter also examines the selection, roles, and responsibilities of the participants in the criminal courts frequently referred to as the courtroom workgroup. You will become familiar with who the players are during each of these steps of the process.