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2.3 Trial and Appellate Courts

Learning Objectives

  1. Learn the differences between the state and federal constitutions.
  2. Understand subject matter jurisdiction.
  3. Explore the state and federal court systems.
  4. Distinguish the work of trial and appellate courts.

In many American cities, you can find both a state and a federal courthouse. These courts hear different types of cases, involving different laws, different law enforcement agencies, and different judicial systems. The rules governing the procedures used in these courts are known as civil procedureThe rules governing litigation in civil cases. or criminal procedureThe rules governing litigation in criminal cases. and are sometimes so hard to understand they confound experienced attorneys and judges. Nonetheless, as future business professionals, it’s important for you to understand the general boundaries between state and federal courts.

Most people forget that there are actually fifty-one separate legal systems in the United States: one federal and fifty in the states. Within each legal system is a complex interplay among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The foundation of each of these systems of government is a constitution. Some state constitutions are actually older than the federal Constitution, while others are relatively new. The Massachusetts Constitution, for example, was ratified in 1780, seven years before the federal Constitution. The Montana Constitution, on the other hand, was adopted in 1972. In some states, state constitutions remain vibrant and provide civil protections beyond the federal Constitution. Several state Supreme Courts, for example, have interpreted their various state constitutions as prohibiting treating gays and lesbians differently when it comes to marriage under their “equal protection” provisions. Other state supreme courts have interpreted their state constitutions to grant citizens the right to choose the time and manner of their own death. Since these decisions are by state supreme courts interpreting their own state constitutions, they are beyond the reach or review of the federal Congress or federal courts. This dynamic power sharing between state and federal governments is known as federalism and is a key feature of our republican form of government.

To determine which court a case belongs in, lawyers look first to what the case is about. The rules of subject matter jurisdictionThe authority of a court to hear cases in a specific subject area or matter. dictate whether a case is heard in federal or state court. Lawsuits involving state laws are generally heard in state courts. Most criminal laws, for example, are state laws. There may be wide differences among the states about what behavior constitutes criminal behavior. Speed limits, for example, are different from state to state. Even serious crimes such as murder or manslaughter, and possible defenses to those crimes, are defined differently by the states. Domestic issues such as divorce and family law are also handled at the state level. Some states make it very easy to marry (Nevada provides an obvious example), while others define marriage differently. Some states permit same-sex marriage, but most do not. Child custody and adoption laws are state based. Property and probateThe legal process of administering a deceased person’s property. laws are also based on state law. Laws related to the transfer of property (including real estate), vehicle or watercraft ownership registration, and the disposition of property after death are different depending on what state you live in. The laws surrounding contracts are also passed at the state level (although most are based on a common law called the Uniform Commercial Code [UCC]A model statute that seeks to provide uniformity to contracts law among the different states. It is not a law until state legislatures adopt it as law.). Finally, the law of tortsAny civil wrong, other than a breach of contract. is state based. Torts are any civil wrong other than a breach of contract and can cover a vast array of situations in which people and businesses suffer legal injury. Some states are far friendlier toward torts than others, and the resulting patchwork of tort laws means that companies that do business across the country need to bear in mind the different standards they are held to, based on what state their customers live in.

Given the wide array of subject areas regulated by state law, it’s not surprising that for most individuals and businesses, their experience with courts is with state courts. Nonetheless, cases do sometimes end up in federal court as well. Federal court subject matter jurisdiction is generally limited to cases involving a federal questionAny case involving a federal law or the federal Constitution gives rise to subject matter jurisdiction in federal courts.—either the federal Constitution or a federal law. Cases involving the interpretation of treaties to which the United States is a party are also subject to federal court jurisdiction. In fact, any case involving the United States as a party is properly litigated in federal court. Finally, in original jurisdictionA small category of cases, such as lawsuits between states, that allows the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case for a first time rather than on appeal. cases (so called because the Constitution specifically grants this jurisdiction), lawsuits between states can be filed directly with the U.S. Supreme Court. Ongoing disputes between Wyoming and Montana over the use of the Tongue and Powder rivers, for example, were litigated in the Supreme Court in 2005.

Sometimes it’s possible for a federal court to hear a case involving a state law. These cases are called diversity jurisdictionThe power of federal courts to hear a case based on state law if all plaintiffs are from different states than all defendants and damages claimed exceed seventy-five thousand dollars. cases, and they arise when all plaintiffs in a civil case are from different states than all defendants and the amount claimed by the plaintiffs exceeds seventy-five thousand dollars. Diversity jurisdiction cases allow one party who feels it may not receive a fair trial where its opponent has a “home court” advantage to seek a more neutral forum to hear its case, a process called removalThe process of moving a case from state court to federal court under diversity jurisdiction..

Within both the federal court and the state court system, there is a hierarchy of higher and lower courts. The diagram in Figure 2.9 "State and Federal Court Systems" demonstrates this hierarchy. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country, and all courts are bound to follow precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court through the doctrine of stare decisisLiterally, “let the decision stand.” A doctrine that requires lower courts to follow prior precedents in similar cases by higher courts whenever possible.. Keep in mind, though, that if an issue is exclusively a state matter (such as a state court interpreting its own state’s Constitution), then the U.S. Supreme Court has no jurisdiction on that matter, leaving the state supreme court as the highest court on that particular issue.

Figure 2.9 State and Federal Court Systems

On the left-hand side of the diagram is the federal court system. Cases are filed in a U.S. District Court, the trial court in the federal system. Under the court administration system, there are ninety-four judicial districts in the country. Some states with low population have only one judicial district, while more populous states have multiple judicial districts. The districts are named for their geographical location—the federal court in Manhattan, for example, is the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The U.S. Department of Justice, which acts as the prosecutor representing the federal government in both civil and criminal cases, divides its attorneys among the ninety-four judicial districts, with each district led by a U.S. attorney appointed by the president without any Senate confirmation.

As a trial court, the U.S. district courts hear civil and criminal trials. The trials may be bench trialsA case heard only by a judge, wherein the judge acts as both trier of law and trier of fact. (heard only by the judge), or they may be jury trials. At the trial, witnesses are called and their testimonies are recorded, word for word, into a trial recordThe transcript of all proceedings related to litigation at a trial court, along with accompanying paperwork such as memoranda and briefs. (transcript of what was said in the courtroom along with supporting documentation). At the conclusion of the trial, if the losing side is unhappy with the outcome, it is entitled as a matter of right to appeal its case to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. There are thirteen circuit courts of appeals in the United States, also spread geographically through the states. A party losing an appeal at the circuit court level can appeal one more time to the U.S. Supreme Court for review, but given the extremely small odds of that appeal being granted, most federal litigation ends at the U.S. circuit court level.

On the right side of the diagram is the state court system. In all fifty states, a trial court of general jurisdictionThe power of a court to hear a broad array of civil and criminal matters without limitation. accepts most types of civil and criminal cases. These courts are called various names such as superior court, circuit court, or district court. Confusingly, trial courts in New York State are called supreme courts. There may be other courts of limited jurisdictionThe type of jurisdiction in which a court is restricted to hearing cases in a specific subject matter or threshold damages amount. at the state level, such as traffic court, juvenile court, family court, or small claims court. Increasingly, states are also experimenting with specialized drug courts to treat drug abuse (not distribution or trafficking) as a health problem rather than a criminal problem. State judges may be either appointed by the governor or elected by the public. Like their federal counterparts, state trial courts hold trials, and most preserve a trial record for review by an appellate court. In thirty-nine states, a party that loses at trial can file an appeal with an intermediate court of appeals. The remaining states are smaller and therefore don’t maintain this level of appeal, in which case appeals are filed directly with the state supreme court. In states with an intermediate court of appeals, the party losing the appeal can typically file one more time with the state supreme court, although state supreme court rules vary on whether appeals are a matter of right or discretion. Finally, in certain cases that involve a federal constitutional right, a party that loses at the state supreme court level can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for review. These cases are typically criminal and involve the application of the Constitution to criminal procedure, evidence collection, or punishment.

Whenever an appeal is filed, the trial record is forwarded to the appellate court for review. Appellate courts do not conduct new trials and are unable to recall witnesses or call new witnesses. The trial court’s duty is to figure out the facts of the case—who did what, when, why, or how. This process of fact-finding is an important part of the judicial process, and a great deal of deference is placed on the judgment of the fact finder (trier of factA fact-finding entity, such as a jury (or judge in a bench trial).). The trier of fact is typically the jury, or the judge in the case of a bench trial. On appeal, the appellate judge cannot substitute his or her interpretation of the facts for that of the trier of fact, even if the appellate judge believes the trier of fact was wrong. The issues on appeal are therefore limited to questions of lawStrictly legal issues, such as which evidence to admit, that are resolved by the judge during a trial. or legal errors. For example, the appellate court may disagree with the trial judge’s interpretation of the meaning of a law, or it may disagree with a ruling the trial judge made about what evidence should be admitted or excluded to the trier of fact.

The deference to the trier of fact (trial court) means that, as a practical matter, appeals are rarely won. Even if a litigant is successful in persuading a court of appeals that legal error has taken place, it doesn’t automatically win the case. In most cases, the best remedy a litigant can hope for is for the court of appeals to send the case back to a trial court (a process called remandThe process of sending a case from an appellate court back to the trial court for further action in accordance with the appellate court’s instructions.) for reconsideration or perhaps a new trial.

Key Takeaways

There are fifty-one separate legal systems in the United States, each with its own executive, legislative, and judicial functions. State constitutions remain a vibrant source of civil rights protections for many citizens because state constitutions are permitted to grant more civil rights (but not less) than the federal Constitution. Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear a case based on its subject matter. State law claims are generally heard in state courts, while federal question cases are generally heard in federal court. Federal courts sometimes hear state law claims under diversity jurisdiction. Federal cases are filed in a U.S. district court and appealed to a U.S. circuit court of appeals. State cases are typically filed in a trial court and appealed to an intermediate court of appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country, and all other courts must follow the precedent in Supreme Court opinions. Trial courts are the triers of fact, and their judgment is not questioned by appellate courts. Appellate court review is limited to legal errors.


  1. Do you think that the “home court advantage” that justifies diversity jurisdiction still exists? Why or why not?
  2. Should states retain the ability to grant more civil rights than the federal Constitution? Can you think of historical examples of this happening? What implications does this have for the future?
  3. Stare decisis requires courts to respect and follow established precedent. Why do you think stare decisis is important in our common-law system? What do you think would happen if courts were not bound to stare decisis?
  4. Under what circumstances do you think the Supreme Court should feel comfortable abandoning a prior precedent? Do you think the answer differs depending on whether you believe in judicial originalism or activism?