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2.4: Trial and Appellate Courts

  • Page ID
    42000
  • Within the federal court and the state court systems, there are a hierarchy of courts. The first level of court is a trial court or a court of limited jurisdiction such as traffic court and small claims court. Trial courts accept evidence and testimony to determine what happened in a case. Appellate courts review the decisions of the trial court, without holding a new trial, to determine whether the parties received a fair trial and whether the appropriate law was applied.

    Figure 2.4 Court System Hierarchy
    Flow chart showing the structure of trial and appellate courts
    In the federal court system, cases are filed in the US District Court. There are ninety-four judicial districts in the nation, which are named for their geographical location. However, some states with low population have only one judicial district, while more populous states have multiple judicial districts. The US 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.

    As a trial court, the US District Courts hear both civil and criminal cases. At trial, witnesses are called and their testimonies are recorded into a trial record. The losing party is entitled to appeal the case to the US Circuit Court of Appeals. There are thirteen circuit courts in the United States. A party losing an appeal at the circuit court level may ask the US Supreme Court to hear its case. However, the Constitution only requires the Supreme Court to hear a few types of appeals.

    Figure 2.5 Map of Federal Circuit Courts
    map of United States showing the geographic boundaries of the federal district and appellate courts
    In the state court system, a trial court of general jurisdiction accepts most types of civil and criminal cases. These courts are called various names such as superior court, circuit court, or district court. There may be other courts of limited jurisdiction at the state level, such as traffic court, family court, or small claims court. Like their federal counterparts, state trial courts hold trials, and preserve a trial record for review by an appellate court. Finally, in certain state cases that involve a federal constitutional right, a party that loses at the state supreme court level can appeal to the US Supreme Court. These cases typically 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, which is usually the jury. The issues on appeal are therefore limited to questions of law or legal errors. The deference to the fact finder means that, as a practical matter, appeals are hard to win.

    Figure 2.6 Roles of Trial and Appellate Courts

    graphic showing roles of trial and appellate courts