CSG eCademy Offers Crash Course on U.S. Judicial System

During a recent CSG eCademy webcast, two judicial experts described how the U.S. state and federal court systems work and how court decisions impact state governments. “Federalism and the U.S. Judicial Branch” was the third and final presentation in a series of webcasts about federalism’s impact across the branches. 

“One of the best examples of federalism that our government provides is the fact that we have a federal court system and a state court system that operate simultaneously and, mostly, independently,” said Lisa Soronen, executive director of the State and Local Legal Center.

Soronen files amicus briefs—documents containing relevant information about a case from someone not a party to the case—to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of members of the Big Seven, including CSG. The Big Seven is a group of national organizations that represent state and local elected and appointed officials.

Soronen explained that the U.S. Constitution determines federal court jurisdiction and state courts decide all other cases, including some cases in which federal courts have jurisdiction. Cases that fall under federal court jurisdiction include federal constitutional issues, cases involving citizens of different states, cases in which the United States is a party, and special situations such as maritime and antitrust cases.

Although there are exceptions across the states, federal and state court systems have three tiers. Lower courts, or trial courts, determine facts. Intermediate courts hear appeals from lower courts and high courts hear appeals from intermediate courts. At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court is the high court.

“The Supreme Court is in the rather luxurious position of getting to decide what cases it hears each year,” said Paul Clement, a partner at Bancroft PLLC who has argued more than 75 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. “And it doesn’t hear very many cases.”

The U.S. Supreme Court receives about 10,000 petitions each year and hears about 70 of those cases, Clement said. Contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court does not look for the most erroneous decisions from appellate courts, he said. It generally takes on cases involving constitutional or federal law where courts have reached different conclusions.  

“They are not looking for the decisions that seem really, really wrong,” Clement said.

Soronen described the United States’ common law system, which has English roots and relies on case law, or judge-made law from previous decisions. Case law is based on statutory and constitutional provisions.

“The Constitution is the most important law,” Soronen said. “It’s the law that governs all other laws. Statutes, executive orders, cases, etc. cannot contradict the Constitution, at least in theory.”

The authors of law vary with the types of law. Statutes come from legislatures; administrative agencies issue rules and regulations; presidents and governors issue executive orders and judges issue case law.

“So, you have some appreciation of how our federal system divides the authority to make laws,” Soronen said. “Each branch has some role.”

Using precedent saves time and can offer fairness and predictability, but there are still guidelines. If a court at the same level or a higher level has issued a decision, that decision must be followed. In many cases, however, a perfect precedent does not exist and a judge might review similar cases even if the decisions in those cases are not binding, Soronen said.

Supreme Court decisions apply equally to state and federal courts, but state courts are not bound by decisions issued in federal trial courts or federal courts of appeal.

Even Supreme Court cases can be overturned, however. If a court interprets a statute in a way that Congress does not favor, Congress can rewrite the statute, Soronen said.  

“The Supreme Court has a lot of authority, but not as much as some might think,” she said.

To learn more about the U.S. judicial system, Soronen recommended American Legal Systems: A Resource and Reference Guide by Toni M. Fine. Visit the CSG Knowledge Center at knowledgecenter.csg.org to watch the eCademy.