Historical Development of the U.S Court Systems

Table of Content

During the colonization of North America by the English, they brought with them their legal system based on British Common Law. The settlers, who were already acquainted with this system, adopted it as a template for their own governance. As the colonies evolved into states and eventually formed the Union in the 18th century, they retained their Common Law governments. Nevertheless, Article III of the U.S. Articles of Confederation aimed to establish a federal court as the supreme court.

The court system in the United States is composed of state and federal courts, as defined by the Constitution. Each state has its own judicial system, while the federal court system encompasses several courts such as the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. courts of appeal, U.S. district court, and specialized jurisdiction courts. The Supreme Court was established in 1789 and serves as the highest legal body nationwide, functioning as the ultimate appellate court.

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Comprised of nine members, including a chief justice and eight associate justices, the Supreme Court appoints its members through presidential nomination followed by Senate confirmation. Its primary function is to interpret the U.S. Constitution and ensure that both federal and state laws adhere to its stipulations. This prominent institution is located in Washington, D.C., within the premises of the Supreme Court Building.

The court consists of nine members and various officers who help with its functioning. These officers, like the Counselor to the Chief Justice, Clerk, Librarian, Marshal, Reporter of Decisions, Court Counsel, Curator, Director of Information Technology, and Public Information Officer are chosen by either the Chief Justice or the Court. The Counselor acts as a personal aide to the Chief Justice.

The Clerk is in charge of handling Court filings and maintaining the Court’s records. The Reporter of Decisions is responsible for editing and publishing the Court’s opinions, both when they are announced and when they are published in permanent bound volumes of the United States Reports. The Public Information Officer handles media inquiries, informs the public about community outreach events, supervises the publication of the circuit’s annual report and other publications, and manages various sponsored websites.

According to the United States Courts for Ninth District, they are not involved in case information or state matters. The Court Library was established in 1935 when the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. was opened. Before this, the Justices depended on their personal collections, the Library of Congress collections, and a private Conference Room collection by the mid-nineteenth century. In 1887, within the Office of the Marshal, the position of Librarian was created to supervise both the aforementioned collection and those in chambers.

According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, in 1948, the Librarian position became the fourth statutory officer of the Court. This change was made due to the growing library functions in the new building. The Marshal’s duties include calling the Court to order, maintaining order in the Courtroom, recording parts of arguments on audio tapes, and timing oral presentations to ensure appointed lawyers adhere to their assigned half-hour limits.

In addition, U.S State appellate courts typically comprise an intermediate appellate court and a higher-level appellate court known as the State Supreme court.

High-level appellate courts, also known as courts of last resort, are the final avenue for defendants appealing within the state court system. Once a high court makes a ruling on a case, no further appeal is possible. Unlike U.S. trial courts, appellate courts do not determine guilt or fault, call witnesses, employ juries, or investigate factual matters. However, they do assess potential legal issues and review court records while listening to arguments from both attorneys involved in the case. All states have supreme courts and 39 states possess intermediate appellate courts (Schmalleger, 2009).

The United States district courts serve as the trial courts within the federal court system and have jurisdiction over all types of federal cases including civil disputes and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts with at least one district court in every state. Additional districts can be found in the District of Columbia,
Puerto Rico,
the Virgin Islands,
the Northern Mariana Islands.
These district courts handle federal cases including those related to bankruptcy.

The Courts of Special Jurisdiction, also known as limited jurisdiction, handle specific types of cases including family matters, bankruptcy, patents, copyrights, probate, traffic violations, juvenile courts, and small claims courts for cases under $5,000.00 (Understanding Federal and State Courts). Federal courts are only authorized to hear cases determined by the Constitution and are primarily situated in major cities. Each of the fifty state court systems in the United States operates autonomously based on their respective state’s constitution and laws.

State courts, despite having different names in different states, all have common fundamental characteristics. Although each state court system is distinct, there are enough similarities to provide a typical example of their structure. In general, state court systems consist of two types of trial courts: (a) trial courts with limited jurisdiction that deal with cases like probate, family matters, and traffic violations; and (b) trial courts with general jurisdiction that serve as the main trial-level courts and may also include intermediate appellate courts (although not found in every state). Additionally, there are highest state courts with varying titles.

State court judges, unlike federal judges, are either elected or appointed for a fixed term instead of serving for life. The United States’ dual court systems collaborate on cases pertaining to federal and state law penalties, federal constitutional issues, civil rights complaints, “class action” lawsuits, environmental regulation matters, or conflicts concerning federal law (Federal Court Systems in the United States).


A Brief Overview of the Supreme Court can be found at http://www.supremecourt.gov/about/briefoverview.aspx. Information about District Courts can be found at http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/UnderstandingtheFederalCourts/DistrictCourts.aspx. The Dual Court System is discussed in detail at http://faculty.ucc.edu/egh-damerow/us_dual_court_system.htm. For more information on the Federal Court Systems in the United States, visit http://www.azd.uscourts.gov/azd/courtinfo.sf/court/files/$file/fedcrtinfo.pdf. The History of the Federal Judiciary can be found at http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/courts_of_appeals.html. Detailed information on the History and Organization of State Judicial System can be accessed from this link: http:/ / www.america .gov/st/usg-english/2008/May / 20080522211311eaifas0.5917169.html.To gain a thorough understanding of the Supreme Court of the United States, it is recommended to consult Schmalleger’s book titled “Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century, 10th ed.: Pearson Education.”

The following sources were retrieved:

  1. http://www. history. com/topics/supreme-court – Retrieved from Supreme Court Historical Society (2012).
  2. http://www. supremecourthistory.org/how-the-court-works/how-the-court-work/library-support/ – Retrieved from Understanding Federal and State Courts (2012).
  3. http://www.uscourts.gov/EducationalResources/FederalCourtBasics/CourtStructure/UnderstandingFederalAndStateCourts.aspx – Retrieved from United States Courts for the Ninth District (2012).
  4. http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/content/view.php?pk_id=0000000113.

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Historical Development of the U.S Court Systems. (2017, Jan 04). Retrieved from


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