State Courts

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State Court Systems

Every state court system has, at least, trial courts of general jurisdiction, which handle civil and criminal trials (sometimes divided by subject matter) and a state supreme court. Most states also have courts of limited jurisdiction, which typically handle minor crimes and smaller civil claims, and intermediate appellate courts, usually called the "Court of Appeals."

Delaware is notable for being the only court system in the United States that still follows the traditional English division of having separate courts of law and equity (most U.S. states eliminiated this division institutionally in the 19th century, although traces of the division remain in the legal rules applied in existing courts). Delware's "Court of Chancery", an equity trial court, is famous for its handling of corporate cases.

In New York State and Maryland, the term "Court of Appeals" refers to the state supreme court and in New York State the term "Supreme Court" refers to the trial courts of general jurisdiction. The main intermediate appellate courts in New York State is the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. The main intermediate appellate court in Pennsylvania is the "Superior Court" (a term that refers to a trial court with jurisdiction over serious criminal cases in most states). The main intermediate appellate court in Maryland is the "Court of Special Appeals."

The 10 states without intermediate appellate courts (all with populations of under 2 million) are:

Delaware, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Most states that have an intermediate court of appeals have a single, all purpose intermediate court of appeals (sometimes divided geographically), but Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas have separate courts to handle civil and criminal appeals (largely to make it easier to appoint "tough on crime" judges to the criminal courts of appeals).

Most states with intermediate courts of appeals have a few kinds of cases that go directly to the state supreme court, bypassing the intermediate courts of appeal (e.g. cases from the Commonwealth Court, which handles public law questions in Pennsylvania, and death penalty, election and water cases in Colorado). Utah has the apparently unique practice of sending all civil appeals directly to its Supreme Court (subject to remand to the Court of Appeals if a case is deemed unimportant), while criminal cases go first to its Court of Appeals.

These courts follow Court Procedure to resolve cases.

Judicial Appointments, Elections and Removal

Different states choose judges in different ways. Some have "non-partisan" elections, some have "partisan elections" which means that judges are elected as either Republicans or Democrats, some mirror the federal system with judges appointed by the executive and confirmed by the legislature, or have judges elected by a legislature without an executive branch nomination process, some are selected by blue ribbon panels (often with a Governor making the final pick from several choices and often with "retention elections" to allow the public to periodically have recall votes on the appointed judges). Some states even have different methods for selecting judges in different courts. A summary of the methods used is outlined in this article.

At the state appellate level, 25 states and the District of Columbia use blue ribbon panels with a Governor (or in South Carolina, the legislature) permitted to choose among several nominees from the panel, 13 states use non-partisan elections, 8 states use partisan elections, 3 states have judges appointed by the Governor (in California, this power is unilateral, while Maine and New Jersey follow the federal model), and 1 state, Virginia, has judges appointed by the legislature without blue ribbon panel input. A number of states which use blue ribbon panels to appoint appellate judges choose their trial court judges in elections. A historical view of judicial selection methods can be found here.

The election process was traditionally a ticklish issue. Judges were allowed to run, but weren't supposed to be beholden to anyone for campaign contributions and weren't allowed to campaign (as a matter of judicial ethics) on anything of substance such as their views on sentencing, constitutional interpretion, or much of anything else except court administration. The U.S. Supreme Court recently held in Minnesota v. White (2002), that such limitations violated the First Amendment, so now judges may campaign on those issues. This has lead a movement in many states with elected judges away from electing judges. Even in states with formal elections, the election process is often deliberately subverted. In Western New York, the political parties often agree to divide the judgeships and not run their own candidates against the other party's quota of judges. In many states with judicial elections, including parts of Ohio, judges often deliberately quit shortly before their term ends so that there is an incumbent who is appointed who can run in the next election, rather than an open judgeship selected entirely by the political process.

Colorado is typical of a "retention election" system (often known as the Missouri plan for the stat which invented it) which essentially amounts to a lifetime appointment. Of 720 judical retention elections held in Colorado since the system was introduced in the early 1960s, just six judges, all at the trial court level, have been recalled. Often, even judges not recommended for retention by judicial performance commissions that evaluated judges for the voters, retain their seats with supermajorities. Small town politics and TV exposure in high profile cases has more of an effect on retention elections than a judge's overall performance. Non-retention is almost as rare as legislative impeachment of a judge, the main mechanism for removal of a judge from outside the judiciary in the federal system. There have been only thirteen judicial impeachments since 1789 in the federal system in the United States (prior to that there was no federal judiciary), although impeachment hearing have been begun but not completed in roughly fifty other cases.

Most commentators think that courts should be independent of the political pressure, but Republicans sometimes think otherwise.

State v. Federal Jurisdiction

In General

State courts have exclusive jurisdiction over all cases not within the scope of Article III of the United States Constitution, and have exclusive jurisdiction in only a handful of cases. In almost all other matters of federal law, both state and federal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases.

The scope of federal jurisdiction represents a compromise among the framers of the constitution between Federalists who wanted a strong federal court system (possibily to the exclusion of state courts), and those who wanted no federal courts or much weaker federal courts. Under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1791), there was no federal judiciary in the United States (nor was there, of course, in the period from 1776-1781, when there was no formal constitutional framework for a national government).

The main subject matters exclusively within the jurisdiction of the federal courts are: admiralty (and more generally all seizures involving international trade), bankruptcy, review of certain federal agency actions, patent cases, copyright cases, federal trademark cases, certain kinds of securities fraud cases, federal crime prosecutions, and lawsuits involving diplomats or members of their families (and related actions against their insurance companies). Almost all cases in which the United States is a party are also handled in federal court.

The vast majority of civil and criminal cases in most subject areas are brought in state court, rather than in federal court. For example, in Colorado in 2002, roughly 98% of civil and criminal trials were held in state court. There were 9,003 trials held in state courts in Colorado in 2002, but just 192 trials held in federal court in that year.

This is reflected in the number of judges at the state and federal level. Continuing the Colorado example, as of July 1, 2003, Colorado has 251 trial court judges (excluding muncipal judges outside of Denver who handle only traffic and ordinance violations and are generally part time). Colorado's courts also have magistrates with judicial powers not included in that number.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado has 7 judges, 7 magistrates, and 5 bankruptcy judges.

Criminal cases

States are primarily responsible for dealing with Crime, while the federal government plays a secondary role.

About 91% of people in prison at any given time got there via state rather than federal court convictions, including 99% of people on death row. Federal courts disproportionately handle white collar crimes, immigration related crimes and drug offenses (these crimes make up 70% of the federal docket, but just 19% of the state court criminal docket). In Colorado in 2002, there were 113 criminal trials (30 jury and 83 non-jury) at the federal level, and 3920 criminal trials (including juvenile crime) in state court (1907 jury and 2013 non-jury). Most violent crimes tried in federal court are bank robberies, involve crimes committed by Native Americans on Indian Reservations, or have federal employees as victims.

A comprehensive listing of the 4,000 federal crimes currently on the books can be found in the appendix to this article.

Civil Cases

The federal civil docket, also a small percentage of all civil cases, disproportionately consists of Habeas Corpus petitions, social security disability appeals, bankruptcy cases, employment discrimination cases, civil rights cases, and collection actions brought by federal agencies in regard to federal loans and tax debt disputes. Almost all probate and domestic relations actions are brought in state courts. Accidents caused by carelessness (negligence cases), mortgage foreclosures, eviction actions and contract disputes between private parties (including collection cases) generally end up in state court unless the plaintiff and defendant are from different states and often stay in state court even then.

For example, in Colorado, in 2002, there were 2,604 civil cases filed in U.S. District Court, 20,303 cases filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court (all but 630 of which were basically uncontested proceedings), 164,237 civil cases filed in Colorado's state courts of general jurisidction (the District Court), and 469,993 civil cases filed in state courts of limited jurisdiction (the County Court). Thus, in 2002, roughly 97% of all civil cases in Colorado were filed in state courts and 89% of the cases filed in federal court were bankruptcies. In Colorado in 2002 there were 79 civil trials in federal court (41 jury and 38 non-jury), and 5950 civil trials in state court (300 jury and 5650 non-jury).

For much of the time period prior to 1980, federal courts did not have jurisdiction over civil diversity and federal question cases where the dollar amount in dispute was in the range typically reserved for limited jurisdiction courts. This remains the case in "diversity" cases.

Review of State Court Decisions By Federal Courts

When all opportunities for appeal are exhausted in the state court system (normally at the state supreme court level), appeals on federal issues may be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. About one-third of petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court are from state supreme courts, but in an average year in an average state only about one per state per year is granted (about one in 66 of the petitions from state supreme courts made to the U.S. Supreme Court). A state supreme court is the final courts of appeal with respect to matters of state law, and federal courts sometimes poses questions directly to a state supreme court on a matter of state law when the law is unsettled on an issue faced by a federal court. Prior to 1914, the U.S. Supreme Court was not permitted to consider state court cases in which the state court had affirmed the constitutionality of a federal law.

In civil cases, a final decision from a state court in a case bars a federal court from rendering a different decision and visa versa. This is a result of two common law doctrines (res judicata and collateral estoppel), and a federal jurisdictional doctrine known as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine (which comes from a statute which gives only the U.S. Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over state court decision making). In criminal cases, a federal prosecution for a crime does not bar a state prosecution for a crime and visa versa, although it is the policy of the Department of Justice, as a general rule, to not try criminal cases that have already been litigated in state court.

State court judgements may be invalidated by a federal Bankruptcy Court in bankruptcy cases. State criminal decisions may be reviewed in the federal courts in Habeas Corpus petitions which are first filed in a U.S. District Court and then may be appealed within the federal system. In Colorado, for example, in 2002, there were 601 prisoner petitions filed in U.S. District Court.

The Terri Schiavo Case

The progress of the Terri Schiavo case in March of 2005 is a rare example of a departure from the general rules described above. In that case, a state court had entered a final judgment, which the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to review on appeal, after seven years of litigation in the state courts regarding the discontinuance of artificial nutrition and hydration for a woman in a permanent vegetative state. Congress intervened, passing a private law, applicable only to the Terri Schiavo case, that purported to supercede the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, res judicata and collateral estoppel. Despite this special legislation, however, all of the claims brought in an effort to overturn the state court decision were ruled unlikely to prevail on legal grounds in the U.S. District Court in two seperate hearings, so no temporary restraining order or injunction was entered in the case, decisions which were affirmed in multiple appeals, and the case was rendered moot when Terri Schiavo died. One of the many appellate judges who considered the case stated in a concurring opinion that he was of the opinion that the act passed by Congress to give the federal courts jurisdiction in that case was unconstitutional. But, this opinion is not binding precedent.

Prospects for Change In Federal v. State Court Jurisdiction

Legislative efforts to shift cases from state to federal courts and visa versa are common.

Republicans in Congress have proposed legislation to limit federal court jurisdiction over issues such as the pledge of allegiance (but, of course, Congress cannot bar state courts from ruling on such issues). The scope of Habeas Corpus review of state court criminal decisions has also been dramatically narrowed in recent times.

Congress has recently put more securities litigation in federal court and class action lawsuits in federal court. The large quantity of drug crime prosecuted in federal court likewise was a matter of Congressional interest in having federal rather than more lenient state courts handle these matters. Numerous attempts have been made to generate more federal death penalty prosecutions, but the large number of statutes authorizing a federal death penalty have, by and large, failed to generate many cases in which a death penalty is obtained at trial in the federal courts. Moreover, most federal death penalty prosecutions have succeeded in states that already have a death penalty at the state level. The Terri Schiavo case discussed above, of course, also represents an effort to expand federal court jurisdiction into an area normally not within the jurisdiction of the federal courts.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, liberals pushed to increase the power of federal judges, who were largely Democrats and were viewed as more liberal than the state court judges of segregationist states. As the 21st century dawns and the federal courts are now generally more conservative than state courts, liberals have focused on developing rights protected by state constitutions (which are not subject to federal judicial review), and on protecting state judicial perogatives.

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