The American Legal System

Cases and the Law

In the US judicial system, cases are decided based on principles established in previous cases; a practice called common law.

Learning Objectives

Explain the relationship between legal precedent and common law

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Common law is created when a court decides on a case and sets precedent.
  • The principle of common law involves precedent, which is a practice that uses previous court cases as a basis for making judgments in current cases.
  • Justice Brandeis established stare decisis as the method of making case law into good law. The principle of stare decisis refers to the practice of letting past decisions stand, and abiding by those decisions in current matters.

Key Terms

  • common law: A legal system that gives great precedential weight to common law on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions.
  • stare decisis: The principle of following judicial precedent.
  • precedent: a decided case which is cited or used as an example to justify a judgment in a subsequent case

Establishing Common Law

When a decision in a court case is made and is called law, it typically is referred to as “good law. ” Thus, subsequent decisions must abide by that previous decision. This is called “common law,” and it is based on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently in subsequent occasions. Essentially, the body of common law is based on the principles of case precedent and stare decisis.

Case Precedent

In the United States legal system, a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. The general principle in common law legal systems is that similar cases should be decided so as to give similar and predictable outcomes, and the principle of precedent is the mechanism by which this goal is attained. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “precedent” as a ” rule of law established for the first time by a court for a particular type of case and thereafter referred to in deciding similar cases. ”

Stare Decisis

Stare decisis is a legal principle by which judges are obliged to respect the precedent established by prior decisions. The words originated from the phrasing of the principle in the Latin maxim Stare decisis et non quieta movere: “to stand by decisions and not disturb the undisturbed. ” In a legal context, this is understood to mean that courts should generally abide by precedent and not disturb settled matters.

In other words, stare decisis applies to the holding of a case, or, the exact wording of the case. As the United States Supreme Court has put it: “dicta may be followed if sufficiently persuasive but are not binding. ”

In the United States Supreme Court, the principle of stare decisis is most flexible in constitutional cases:

Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right…. But in cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, this Court has often overruled its earlier decisions…. This is strikingly true of cases under the due process clause.—Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 406–407, 410 (1932)
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Louis Brandeis: Brandeis developed the idea of case law and the importance of stare decisis. His opinion in New Ice Co. set the stage for new federalism.

Types of Courts

The federal court system has three levels: district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the different types of courts that exist in the U.S. federal court system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • District courts and administrative courts were created to hear lower level cases.
  • The courts of appeals are required to hear all federal appeals.
  • The Supreme Court is not required to hear appeals and is considered the final court of appeals.
  • The Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors and other diplomats, and in cases in which a state is a party.

Key Terms

  • appeal: (a) An application for the removal of a cause or suit from an inferior to a superior judge or court for re-examination or review. (b) The mode of proceeding by which such removal is effected. (c) The right of appeal. (d) An accusation; a process which formerly might be instituted by one private person against another for some heinous crime demanding punishment for the particular injury suffered, rather than for the offense against the public. (e) An accusation of a felon at common law by one of his accomplices, which accomplice was then called an approver.

The federal court system is divided into three levels: the first and lowest level is the United States district courts, the second, intermediate level is the court of appeals, and the Supreme Court is considered the highest court in the United States.

The United States district courts are the general federal trial courts, although in many cases Congress has passed statutes which divert original jurisdiction to these specialized courts or to administrative law judges (ALJs). In these cases, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from such lower bodies.

The United States courts of appeals are the federal intermediate appellate courts. They operate under a system of mandatory review which means they must hear all appeals of right from the lower courts. They can make a ruling of their own on the case, or choose to accept the decision of the lower court. In the latter case, many defendants appeal to the Supreme Court.

The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United States, which is considered the court of last resort. It generally is an appellate court that operates under discretionary review. This means that the Court, through granting of writs of certiorari, can choose which cases to hear. There is generally no right of appeal to the Supreme Court. In a few situations, like lawsuits between state governments or some cases between the federal government and a state, the Supreme Court becomes the court of original jurisdiction. In addition, the Constitution specifies that the Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors and other diplomats, in cases in which a state is a party, and cases between the state and another country. In all other cases, however, the Court has only appellate jurisdiction. It considers cases based on its original jurisdiction very rarely; almost all cases are brought to the Supreme Court on appeal. In practice, the only original jurisdiction cases heard by the Court are disputes between two or more states. Such cases are generally referred to a designated individual, usually a sitting or retired judge, or a well-respected attorney, to sit as a special master and report to the Court with recommendations.

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Supreme Court of the United States: The modern supreme court.

Federal Jurisdiction

The federal court system has limited, though important, jurisdiction.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the different levels of jurisdiction by state and federal courts in the American legal system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the justice system, state courts hear state law, and federal courts hear federal law and sometimes appeals.
  • Federal courts only have the power granted to them by federal law and the Constitution.
  • Courts render their decisions through opinions; the majority will write an opinion and the minority will write a dissent.

Key Terms

  • jurisdiction: the power, right, or authority to interpret and apply the law
  • federal system: a system of government based upon democratic rule in which sovereignty and the power to rule is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states or provinces)

Federal Jurisdiction

The American legal system includes both state courts and federal courts. Generally, state courts hear cases involving state law, although they may also hear cases involving federal law so long as the federal law in question does not grant exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts. Federal courts may only hear cases where federal jurisdiction can be established. Specifically, the court must have both subject-matter jurisdiction over the matter of the claim and personal jurisdiction over the parties. The Federal Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they can only exercise the powers that are granted to them by the Constitution and federal laws. For subject matter jurisdiction, the claims in the case must either: raise a federal question, such as a cause of action or defense arising under the Constitution; a federal statute, or the law of admiralty; or have diversity of parties. For example, all of the defendants are from a different state than the plaintiff, and have an amount in controversy that exceeds a monetary threshold (which changes from time to time, but is $75,000 as of 2011).

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Federal district courts: The federal district courts represent one of the ways federal jurisdiction is split.

If a Federal Court has subject matter jurisdiction over one or more of the claims in a case, it has discretion to exercise ancillary jurisdiction over other state law claims.

The Supreme Court has “cautioned that… Court[s] must take great care to ‘resist the temptation’ to express preferences about [certain types of cases] in the form of jurisdictional rules. Judges must strain to remove the influence of the merits from their jurisdictional rules. The law of jurisdiction must remain apart from the world upon which it operates.”

Generally, when a case has successfully overcome the hurdles of standing, Case or Controversy, and State Action, it will be heard by a trial court. The non-governmental party may raise claims or defenses relating to alleged constitutional violation(s) by the government. If the non-governmental party loses, the constitutional issue may form part of the appeal. Eventually, a petition for certiorari may be sent to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court grants certiorari and accepts the case, it will receive written briefs from each side (and any amicae curi or friends of the court—usually interested third parties with some expertise to bear on the subject) and schedule oral arguments. The Justices will closely question both parties. When the Court renders its decision, it will generally do so in a single majority opinion and one or more dissenting opinions. Each opinion sets forth the facts, prior decisions, and legal reasoning behind the position taken. The majority opinion constitutes binding precedent on all lower courts; when faced with very similar facts, they are bound to apply the same reasoning or face reversal of their decision by a higher court.