“Equal Justice Under Law” is etched into the Supreme Court of the United States building. It means that ALL United States citizens are created
equal – and they all have equal protection under the law.

Americans enjoy freedom because the laws of the United States protect those freedoms (or rights).
Example: Laws against theft deny the thief’s right to steal; gives other citizens the right to use and enjoy property.

The United States system is a “majority rules” system. If most people believe something should/should not be done then a law will be passed.

Every citizen has a responsibility to know and obey these laws of the land. If they don’t they will suffer the consequences in our court systems. There
are four major types of laws in the United States.

Statutory Laws
These laws are passed by lawmakers – Congress, state, and local governments.

Common Law
These laws guide people in the way they should act – they are “common sense” laws. These laws come from judge’s decisions and are usually passed
down from case to case. The judge sets a PRECEDENT (earlier decision).

Administrative Law
These laws are made by government agencies. (EPA, CPSC, FDA, etc…)
Example: The Consumer Product Safety Commission declares that a toy is unsafe for the market so they pass a law prohibiting the toy from sale.

Constitutional Law
These laws are the ultimate laws. These laws are based on the Constitution of the United States. They are the supreme law and final say over any
other law. To change a ruling on one of these laws you must go to the Supreme Court.

Role of the Courts in the United States
The courts of the United States use a variety of laws to settle disputes.
•        People v. People
•        People v. Government
•        Government v. Government
The courts also appeal laws and reach decisions on them.

Every citizen is guaranteed a fair public trial – US law assumes a person is “innocent until proven guilty”.
The United States Justice System will hold a trial – a system of courts is the only way to ensure justice.


Right to a Lawyer
•        Service of a lawyer
•        Will represent you in court
•        Free if you cannot afford one

Right to be Released on Bail
•        Protection from sitting in jail waiting for trial
•        Post bail/pledge that the accused will appear in court
•        Set by judge - $$$
•        Denied – murder or treason or other serious crime

Indictment by Grand Jury
•        12-23 people from court district
•        Decide if enough evidence to bring someone to trial

Right to a Jury Trial
•        6th Amendment – right to be tried by jury
•        Serve jury duty – 6-12 people on a jury
•        Verdict (unanimous) – hung jury/no decision – new trial w/ new jury

Innocent Until Proven Guilty
•        Must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
•        Accused cannot be forced to testify against themselves
•        Double Jeopardy

Right of Appeal
•        Mistakes can be made
•        Right to have your case reviewed
•        Automatic appeals

1789 – Congress, using Article Three of the Constitution, passed the JUDICIARY ACT, which created the U.S. Federal court system.
Federal courts claim JURISDICTION (authority over all others) over certain matters:
1)        Anyone accused of disobeying the Constitution.
2)        Anyone accused of violating a U.S. TREATY (agreement with another nation).
3)        Anyone accused of breaking laws passed by Congress.
4)        Charges brought by foreign nations against the U.S. government.
5)        Crimes committed on U.S. ships at sea.
6)        U.S. Diplomats accused of a crime overseas.
7)        Crimes committed on Federal property.
8)        Disagreements between two or more states (unless brought by a citizen).  Amendment 11 states that when a citizen sues a state the case will
be in state court.
9)        Lawsuits between citizens of different states.

Federal courts are organized into levels, and by jurisdiction.
        LOWER COURTS have ORIGINAL JURISDICTION (cases start here).
These are the “trial courts”, where most cases begin.
        Next are APPELLATE COURTS, which have APPELLATE JURISDICTION (they can review and change decisions by the lower courts).
Anyone CONVICTED (found guilty) has the right to ask for an APPEAL (a review of their trial to see if it was fair).
        Supreme Court – the top court in the land.

At least one district court in each state and in D.C., with larger states having up to four Federal Court Districts.
There are 91 of these, and all are original jurisdiction courts.
All cases must be tried in the state where the crime was committed.
Each district court has up to 28 judges, who are appointed for life.
District Court judges decide the penalty if the person is convicted by a jury.
U.S. Marshals work for the Judicial branch, and may arrest people accused of breaking federal law.  
U.S. marshals also issue SUBPOENAS (papers requiring someone to appear in court to testify), and keep order in the courtroom.
DISTRICT MAGISTRATES hear evidence and decide if the case should go to a Grand Jury or be dismissed.
The U.S. Attorney is a lawyer who must prove that the accused is guilty.

12 appellate CIRCUITS (districts), one in D.C., eleven for the fifty states.
The judges are appointed for life.
Review cases appealed from the district courts.
Review cases between businesses and regulatory agencies.
There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals Federal Circuit, which has jurisdiction over the entire U.S.A.
Each circuit has up to 28 judges, with the SENIOR (longest serving) judge as the Chief Justice of that appellate court.
How the appeals process works:
A three-judge panel hears evidence about the trial in District Court.  They do not decide if the accused is guilty or innocent, only if they received a
fair trial.
By a majority vote, the judges will decide if the conviction should be:
        UPHELD (the accused received a fair trial, so stop whining and go to prison!).
        OVERTURNED (the accused did not receive a fair trial, and will have a re-trial).
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT – highest court in the U.S.A.
(We’ll discuss this later)


        U.S. Claims Courts – FINANCIAL (money) claims between the federal government and citizens or states.  
Congress writes the check if the federal government loses.
        U.S. Court of International Trade -  Cases involving IMPORTS (goods brought into the country for sale).
The court meets in New York City, and handles disputes over TARIFFS (tax on imported goods).
        Territorial Courts – Handle cases in U.S. territories (not states), such as:
•        Puerto Rico
•        Virgin Islands
•        Guam
•        North Mariana Islands
        U.S. Tax Courts – actually an independent agency, but acts like a court.  
Handles disputes between citizens and the I.R.S.
        Court of Military Appeals – for people in the ARMED FORCES (military).
The COURT-MARTIAL (trial for military personnel) are presided over by military judges, no jury.  
Appeals are handled by three civilian judges.
        Court of Veterans Appeals – handle cases involving former military personnel.

THE U.S. SUPREME COURT – highest court in the U.S.A.
In Washington, D.C., it acts as the “ultimate” appeals court for cases:
        From federal and state courts.
        Involving diplomats from other nations.
        Disputes between states.
        Disputes between states and the federal government.

Supreme Court decisions are the final word, and cannot be appealed.
However, the Supreme Court can REVERSE AN OPINION (change it’s mind) at a later date.
There are nine Supreme Court JUSTICES (judges), one of whom is chosen by the President as Chief Justice.
Salaries: Chief Justice: $171,500, other eight justices: $164,100 per year.
Justices are appointed to a life-term by the President.
They must be approved by a majority of the Senate.
Justices can be impeached.
There are no specific requirements to be a justice, though most have been judges before.
Justices are usually chosen because of their political beliefs, but once appointed can rule as they wish, because they cannot be fired.

The court determines if a law is constitutional.
If it declares a law UNCONSTITUTIONAL (against the rules in the U.S. Constitution), the law will be cancelled.

John Marshall served as Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835.
He established three important legal principles:
This was tested in the case of Marbury vs. Madison (which we will discuss later).
2)        Laws passed by the states can not conflict with the Constitution.
3)        The Supreme Court can REVERSE (change) a state court’s decision.

No cases begin in the Supreme Court.  
They decide which cases to rule on.
Up to 200 cases are on the DOCKET (schedule) each year.
All chosen cases must deal with issues of significant public interest, or challenges to the Constitution.
Four out of nine justices must vote to hear a case.  If they do not take a case, the lower court decision stands.
The court sometimes REMANDS (returns) a case to the lower court for a re-trial.
Each session begins on the first Monday in October.
Justices spend their time:
        Reading case files and written arguments
        Hearing oral arguments
        Holding private meetings.

1)        When a case is selected, lawyers for each side file a BRIEF (a written statement explaining their point of view).
2)        Then hearings are held in court, in a “public session’.
3)        Lawyers have thirty minutes to present oral arguments.
4)        The lawyers will then answer questions from the justices.
5)        Fridays, the justices meet privately to decide cases – majority wins.

After the vote, two judges, one voting yes-the other voting no, will write OPINIONS (a paper explaining why they voted the way they did).
One will write the CONCURRING OPINION (the opinion of the winning judges) and the other will write the DISSENTING OPINION (the opinion of
the losing judges).
The Supreme Court can be checked by:
        Amending the Constitution
        Impeaching corrupt judges
        The President can replace retiring judges.
Sometimes the Supreme Court checks itself, by Reversing an earlier Supreme Court decision.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to appoint additional judges to the court, there was so much opposition to the plan even from Democrats, the
idea was dropped.