Chapter 10

Courts of general trial jurisdiction handle the majority of U.S. trial work.  These courts may have limited or general jurisdiction; be unified or specialized; handle cases at law or equity; and be state or locally funded.  The creation of state courts depends upon a variety of factors, including the time that the state entered the Union, the political culture, the local legal culture, and state traditions.

The jurisdiction of state courts is defined by the state constitution, which delegates authority to the state legislature to define the court's jurisdiction.  The structure of courts can be portrayed through a "wedding cake model."  This model consists of four levels of cases.  Level I are celebrated cases that receive significant public and media attention.  Level II are the most serious felonies, a high percentage of which are resolved through a trial.  Level III are less serious felonies, such as property and drug offenses, and in which plea bargaining takes place more frequently.  Level IV are misdemeanor cases and are often processed by courts of limited jurisdiction.  Citizens are frequently exposed to these cases, as there are more Level IV offenses committed each year than the other three levels combined.

Courts of original jurisdiction are the trial courts where cases are originally heard and recorded.  These courts hear evidence, decide who wins and loses the case, and determine remedies and sentences.  Courts of general trial jurisdiction are authorized to try any state crime.  They handle fewer cases than courts of limited jurisdiction, are courts of full record, utilize attorneys and juries, have a dignified physical appearance, and require judges to be trained as attorneys.

State courts process the vast majority of civil and criminal cases in the U.S.  The majority of these are civil cases, which include breach-of-contract cases, tort claims, and domestic relations issues.  In civil cases, there is no right to counsel or to a speedy trial, and the cases may be more difficult to resolve.  In criminal cases, there has been a growth in the number of felony cases and a decrease in property crimes and violent offenses.

Federal District Courts were established by Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  The Constitution establishes the U.S. Supreme Court and allows Congress to determine the logistics of other federal courts.  Constitutional courts, which are created by Article III, have only judicial powers.  Legislative courts, which are created by Article I, may exercise judicial, legislative, and administrative powers.  The Judiciary Act of 1789 allowed for the creation of federal courts below the U.S. Supreme Court.  Federal district courts have jurisdiction over cases regarding admiralty, diversity of citizenship, the U.S. government as a party, and federal crimes.  Federal courts may only decide cases and controversies, and court jurisdiction may be changed by court interpretation and Congressional enactments.  Civil cases heard by federal district courts include civil rights, criminal, and bankruptcy cases.

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