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Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Chapter 8 reviews the history and organization of U.S. courts, including federal and state courts.

The History of the Court

  • Underlying the role of the court is the idea that justice should be blind to wealth, power, and social class.

  • Courts have been consistent features of many societies and are a result of the increasing sophistication of societies in which a division of labor is necessary.

  • Part of the development of courts in Europe stemmed from the practice of collecting compensation from the family of the accused for the family of the victim.

  • Gradually, courts were held to resolve disputes in a peaceful manner, and more fees were charged as more behaviors became criminalized and considered crimes against the government. Courts became an important source of revenue for the nobility.

  • The English inquest can be considered the first type of jury.

  • In 1166, the Assize of Clarendon marked the beginning of the grand jury system.

  • The jury trial came about in the early thirteenth century when the Roman Catholic Church halted trials by ordeal.

  • In 1215, the Magna Carta set a precedent of encoding into the law limitations on the state’s power.

  • The fifteenth-century Court of the Star Chamber was established to deal with a variety of offenses and became known for its violations of citizens’ rights.

  • The development of the English courts between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries provided the foundation for U.S. courts.

  • Many legal protections that existed for defendants in England were absent in colonial America.

  • One of the consequences of independence from England is the documents that were created to specify the relationship between the people and the state, including the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Modern U.S. Courts

  • Modern U.S. courts determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant and decide the disposition or sentence.

  • The court is subject to outside forces. The court does not control how it is financed; it does not control how many cases are sent to it; it cannot ensure adequate resources to carry out its sentences; and because its work is done in a courtroom open to the press, it cannot control its public image.

  • Courts are divided into state and federal entities.

  • Federal courts comprise magistrate courts, U.S. district courts, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Federal courts hear cases involving the following issues: the U.S. government or one of its officers is being sued; cases between two or more states; cases involving counsels, ambassadors, and other public ministers; laws enacted by Congress; treaties and laws related to maritime jurisdiction; and commerce on the high seas.

  • Specialized federal courts include the Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Veterans Appeal, the Court of International Trade, and the Court of Appeals for the federal circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the tribal court.

  • State courts are divided into the state trial courts of limited and general jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeals, and state supreme courts.

  • Juvenile courts are part of the state court system, but differ in their goals and in the way they operate.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court is at the top of the hierarchical jurisdiction for both the federal and the state court system.

  • The Supreme Court hears about 80 cases a year, all of which must involve a “substantial federal question.”


  • The term jurisdiction refers to the authority of the court to hear certain cases.

  • Jurisdiction is dependent on the gravity of the case, the location of the offense, and whether the case is being heard for the first time or is on appeal.

  • The three types of jurisdiction are subject-matter jurisdiction, geographic jurisdiction, and hierarchical jurisdiction.

Civil Law and Criminal Law

  • The major distinction between criminal law and civil law is that violations of criminal law are punishable by imprisonment.

  • Criminal law concerns the major violations against society: murder, rape, robbery, theft, etc.

  • Civil laws govern private issues, such as breach of contract, probate, divorce, and negligence. Violations of civil law are not punishable by prison.

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