The justice system in the United States is one of the most unique in the world. It consists of two separate levels of courts, state and federal, that can peacefully co-exist under the concept of federalism . The type of court that a case is tried in depends on the law, state or federal, that was allegedly violated. Most of the laws that govern our day-to-day living are state laws; violations of federal law include offenses involving federal government employees, crimes committed across state lines (for example, kidnapping or evading arrest), and fraud involving the national government (such as income tax or postal fraud).
There are two types of trials: criminal and civil. In a criminal trial, the government is prosecuting an individual for an offense that threatens the security of individual citizens or society as a whole. Usually, criminal trials involve actions taken as a result of malicious intent, although cases of extreme negligence can also be considered criminal. Civil trials are disputes between two parties. In both instances, the person that charges are being brought against is the defendant; in criminal trials, the government ("the State of New Jersey", "the United States of America", depending on the law violated) is the prosecution - in civil trials, the party initiating the action is called the plaintiff.
Although each state is free to arrange its own court system (within certain constituionally defined boundaries), most states justice systems have several features in common. The lowest level court in trials where state law is alleged to have been violated is the trial court (sometimes referred to as Superior Court or Supreme Court Trial Division). This is the only court with the power to determine the actual facts involved in a case (usually done by a jury). If either party involved in the case feels that the trial judge made an error in one of his rulings (either including or excluding a certain piece of evidence, making a bad call on an important objection), they can appeal, or bring the case to a Court of Appeals (or Supreme Court Appellate Divison in some states). Whereas trials are focused around the testimony of witnesses concerning their actions or observations, appeals feature two attorneys attempting to convince a panel of five judges that the law favors their side. The only issue in a Court of Appeals is whether or not correct trial procedure was followed; attorneys prepare written briefs citing historical precedents and rulings to persuade the panel of judges to rule in their favor. If unsatisfied with the appellate court's ruling, a party can ask for a Writ of Certiorari, which is essentially an appeal to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Justices have the option of whether or not they wish to hear the case; four Justices must vote to hear it in order to have it brought before the Court. Out of the approximately 5,000 cases each year appealed to the United States Supreme Court, it actually hears between 100-125 of them. The procedure at this level is similar to that at the appeals court; each attorney addresses the panel of Justices, which can interrupt at almost any time with questions.The ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court is final, though a future Court may overturn that decision (such as Plessy v. Ferguson).
In cases on the federal level, the action again begins at federal trial courts. Cases can be appealed from there to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, of which there are 13 throughout the country. Rulings of this court can again be appealed to the Supreme Court. As one might imagine, this entire process can be quite costly. One of the primary reasons that parties in a case might appeal their case to the Supreme Court is because they feel that the law which they violated was unconstitutional. The United States Supreme Court alone has the power to strike down Federal or state laws that it finds to be contrary to the United States Constitution. In that sense, the judicial system is the guardian of civil liberties in America.
Fourth Amendment - prohibits unwarranted searches and seizures by the government
Fifth Amendment - protects against self incrimination
Sixth Amendment - guarantees a speedy, fair trial before a jury of one's peers.
Eighth Amendment - prohibits cruel and unusual punishment
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