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American Criminal Court System

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American Criminal Court System

Stephanie Royer


August 10, 2015

Samyra Hicks

American Criminal Court System

         Most people have seen courtroom dramas on television, or in the movies, and although some are realistic, most are not. The courts in the media are trial courts where lawyers present their side of the case to judges and sometimes even juries. Witnesses might testify and evidence is presented to prove one side of the case or the other. In a criminal case, the two sides represent the state, which is the prosecutor, and the other is the defendant and his or her lawyer. Usually there is a jury, but not always. The jury is considered the “fact finders,” they are the ones that decide whether someone is telling the truth, whether the evidence is convincing, and much more. They use all this information to decide whether the person is guilty or innocent. The judge, in a case with a jury, is there to make sure the laws and procedures are followed correctly.

Common law principles

Our legal system in the United States is referred to as a “common law system” (Siegel, Schmalleger, & Worrall, 2011). It dates back to the ancient system of English law. This system still prevails in England, as well. Its roots go back to possibly the twelfth century when the king’s court would settle disputes based on the evolving customs of the people, and enforced by the ultimate decrees and orders of the court (Siegel, Schmalleger, & Worrall, 2011). These decisions over the course of time became the “law of the land.”

Courts following common law principles, base their decisions on previous court rulings, not on laws passed by the legislature (Siegel, Schmalleger, & Worrall, 2011). However, when a “codified” or written law, is involved, the courts look to previous judicial interpretation as a basis for their decisions. This is a doctrine called Stare Decisis which makes judges obligated to follow those previously decided cases.  

 Substantive law refers to the opposite of common law, the statutory or written laws. These are the codes of law passed by the legislature and appear in the state or federal body of written laws (Siegel, Schmalleger, & Worrall, 2011). Substantive law spells out the legal relationship between people, or between the people and the “state”. Criminal laws are an example of substantives laws. No matter whether state or federal, the criminal codes very specifically lay out what constitutes a crime, the elements of the crime, the possible punishments, time frames, and any other details that are pertinent (Siegel, Schmalleger, & Worrall, 2011). Substantive law can also be procedural, determining the rules by which a court functions (Siegel, Schmalleger, & Worrall, 2011).   

Dual Court System

        The Court System in the United States consists of State Courts and Federal Courts. The federal courts are established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which states: 'The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish' ("United States Courts", 2015). Both state and federal courts can hear criminal cases, but they have different jurisdictions.

Federal courts. Federal Courts can charge and have trials for offenders who have committed federal crimes, such as certain drug crimes, kidnapping, violation of federal gun laws, treason, immigration violations, and more ("United States Courts", 2015). Other federal courts hold appeals and often these appeals concern criminal matters, either from the state courts or federal trial courts ("United States Courts", 2015). These courts include: the Supreme Court - One court with national jurisdiction; the Courts of Appeals - 12 Geographic-based and one for the Federal Circuit; and the District Courts - 94 in 50 states, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico ("United States Courts", 2015).  These are the level of federal courts that have criminal trials.
        The federal courts have power to decide only those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority and normally these are not criminal cases, but sometimes are, especially at the appellate level. These courts are mainly located in larger cities, and only special types of cases may be heard in the federal courts. This include cases in which the United States government, or one of its officers, is either being sued or is suing someone
("United States Courts", 2015).



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