Criminal Courts

IV. Structure of Courts

One way in which courts can be categorized in the United States is to say that there exists a dual-court structure, one at the federal level and one at the state level. The federal court structure consists of four different levels of courts: the magistrate courts, the district courts, the circuit courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. State court structures are less consistent and more complex in their organization and function but generally also consist of four basic levels of courts: courts of limited jurisdiction, courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeal, and courts of last resort. Although this duality is a simple way to categorize court structure in the United States because in reality 51 separate court structures exist, it makes understanding the system easier.

A. Federal Courts

The federal court has the authority to hear cases where there is an alleged violation of federal law. At the bottom of the federal court structure are the magistrate courts. Congress formed the office of federal magistrate in 1968 to provide extra help in alleviating caseloads of the district court judges (Smith, 1992). In 1990, under the Judicial Improvements Act, U.S. magistrates became U.S. magistrate judges. There are both full-time and part-time magistrate judges, and both are appointed by district court judges to tenures that are renewable every 8 years and every 4 years respectively (Champion, Hartley, & Rabe, 2008). Although the duties of magistrate judges vary by district and they have been given increased status and responsibilities by the Judicial Improvements Act, they generally have jurisdiction over petty crimes at the federal level as well as other procedural duties. Most of their work involves setting bail, conducting initial appearances, and issuing warrants, but they also may conduct evidentiary hearings, make rulings on motions, and oversee felony cases regarding any other pretrial matters. There were 486 full-time and 51 part-time magistrate judges in 2002 (Maguire & Pastore, 2005), and in 2006, U.S. magistrate judges drew average salaries of $151,984 (Schwemle, 2006).

The trial courts at the federal level are the U.S. district courts. There are 94 districts in the United States. Interestingly, only about 15% of cases in federal court involve criminal matters; the rest involve civil disputes. Most states (31) have only one district court; the remaining states, either because of their large populations or due to bigger caseloads, have two or more district courts. In 2008, there were 665 federal district judges (TRAC, 2009). Federal judges at the district level are appointed by the president and must pass Senate confirmation. Presidential appointment of district judges is a very partisan process; according to Maguire and Pastore, from President Johnson to President George W. Bush, over 80% of district appointees have come from the same political party as the president that appointed them. For presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, the number was over 90%. District court judges have lifetime tenure, and in 2006, their average salary was $165, 200 (Schwemle, 2006).

The U.S. circuit courts of appeal are the intermediate appellate courts in between the district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The circuit courts of appeal were formed by Congress in 1891 to ease the growing caseload of the U.S. Supreme Court (Champion, Hartley & Rabe, 2008). Federal circuit court judges are also appointed by the president. The number of judges each circuit has is mainly determined by the volume of cases it hears annually. The circuit courts have appellate jurisdiction in the federal system. In other words, they hear appeals on rulings from the district courts. There are 13 courts of appeal—one for each of the 12 circuits, and the 13th is the appellate court for the federal circuit. Each of the 12 circuit courts hears appeals from the states within its circuit. Like their district court counterparts, circuit court judges are appointed by the president, have to be confirmed by the Senate, and also have lifetime appointments. Each circuit also has a chief judge whose tenure in that position can be no longer than 7 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the federal system. The Supreme Court consists of nine justices, eight associate justices, and one chief justice. Again, Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. They also hold their appointments for life. Although the number of cases appealed to the Court varies each year, it has steadily risen up to almost 10, 000 cases annually. The Court will never hear most of these appeals because they are not of a legal question that is significant enough to merit review. In order for the Court to hear an appeal, 4 of the 9 justices must vote to place the case on their docket. This is known as the rule of four, and annually between 100 and 200 cases make it onto the Supreme Court’s docket. The Supreme Court therefore cannot ensure that justice has been served in every case; rather, they marshal their time to hear the most important constitutional cases or those that involve important federal questions.

For the 100 or so Supreme Court cases each year, both written and oral arguments will be presented to the justices. Other briefs may be filed as well; often, amicus curiae briefs are filed by other parties interested in the case on behalf of one of the parties. Oral arguments are presented before the justices by attorneys from the opposing parties. The justices can ask questions of the attorneys at any time during oral arguments. Once the case has been presented, the justices meet to render an initial decision. Usually, the chief justice is in the majority and therefore assigns one of the other justices in the majority the task of writing the majority opinion. The justice that is most senior on the minority side assigns the task of writing the dissenting opinion to one of the justices in the minority. Opinions can become complicated when, for instance, justices agree but for very different reasons, and each justice in the majority could write a separate opinion. Dissenting justices may do the same. Some justices may even concur in part and dissent in part.

The Supreme Court is the final decision-making authority on all cases. The nine justices are the ultimate arbiters on all federal matters. The chief justice of the Supreme Court also has added responsibilities to supervise federal judges and to assign tasks to the eight associate justices. The annual salary of an associate justice was $203,000 in 2006, while the chief justice earned $212,100 (Schwemle, 2006).

B. State Courts

Each state has its own court organization and function. Therefore, there are 50 different court systems in place for dealing with criminal cases at the state level. The complexity of state courts sometimes stems from the fact that various courts may have conflicting or overlapping jurisdictions. The state courts are also diverse in their caseloads, depending on the population of the state. Millions of cases flow through the state court systems each year. In recent years, for instance, over 100 million cases were processed by state courts (Schauffler, LaFountain, Strickland, & Raftery, 2006). Most of these cases (54.7 million) were for traffic offenses. Other cases entering state courts in 2004 included 20.7 million criminal cases, 16.9 million civil cases, 5.7 million domestic relations cases, and 2.1 million juvenile cases (Schauffler et al., 2006). State courts are much busier than their federal counterparts.

State courts can be generally broken down into four levels: courts of limited jurisdiction, courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeal, and state supreme courts. Not all states have these four levels, and some states may refer to some of the levels by different names. In some states, judges are not required to have a law degree, especially those who are presiding over courts of limited jurisdiction. This requirement, or lack thereof, stems from the fact that most of these judges are elected officials. In elections, the most popular but not necessarily the most “qualified” candidate will become judge.

The lowest courts in the state court system are the courts of limited jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of these courts is principally less serious criminal offenses and traffic violations. These courts make up the majority of those in the state court system (roughly 80%). It is not surprising, then, that they are also the courts with the largest caseloads in the United States (LaFountain, Schauffler, Strickland, Raftery, & Bromage, 2007). Courts of limited jurisdiction are responsible for disposing of over half of the cases that come into the state court system.

At the next level in the state court system are the courts of general jurisdiction. These courts take care of all other criminal cases that the courts of limited jurisdiction do not have authority over. They differ from courts of limited jurisdiction because they are courts of record; that is, they keep transcripts of all court proceedings. In courts of general jurisdiction, judges normally have practiced law before coming to the bench, either as prosecutors or defense attorneys. This is not necessarily the case for all states, however, because in some states, judges at this level are also elected. A majority of states have requirements in place, including having a law degree or state bar association membership, as well as certain state residency requirements.

Despite their increasing caseloads, these courts have gotten more efficient at managing them. Indeed, it is the increase in cases that has compelled the state courts to more efficiently dispose of cases. More efficient management of cases, reductions of court delays, and increased use of plea bargaining have helped the courts to be able to process their increasing caseloads. Today, roughly 90% of all cases are disposed of through some type of plea-bargaining mechanism; relatively few cases go to trial. Obviously, other factors such as geography and population also affect state court caseloads. In 2005, Texas had the highest number of criminal cases in state court with more than 2.5 million. Just over 2.2 million of these cases were processed in courts of limited jurisdiction. Vermont, on the other hand, handled only 17,552 criminal cases. Per capita, however, North Carolina processed the most criminal cases at 19,741 per 100,000 population, and Kansas process the least with 2,167 per 100,000 persons (LaFountain et al., 2007). California had the highest number of fulltime judges at 1,498, and Delaware had the least with 19 full-time judges. Per capita, however, the District of Columbia had the most judges with 10.7 per 100,000 population, while South Carolina had the fewest with only 1.1 per 100,000 people (LaFountain et al., 2007). As can be seen from the above statistics, the caseload in state courts varies by population, and efficiency may be related to the number of judges a state has.

There are intermediate courts of appeal in all but 11 states and the District of Columbia. Similar to the federal court structure, these courts were created to alleviate the caseloads of the state supreme courts. In states where there are fewer cases, there is no need for an intermediate court of appeals. The court of last resort in these states can handle all appeals. Three-judge panels rule on most of the cases that make it to intermediate courts of appeal. Most of the intermediate court of appeals judges are chosen by a nominating commission and are then appointed by the governor. Ostrom, Flango, and Flango (1997) outline at least seven different patterns of flow that appellate cases in various states can take. Some states, for instance, have no intermediate appellate court; in these states, the court of last resort has to hear all appeals that are properly filed. In states that have intermediate courts of appeal, there are five case flow patterns: (1) In 5 states, appeals are filed with the court of last resort, but they can transfer some of those cases to the intermediate appellate court; (2) in 25 states, the appeal has to flow through the intermediate court before reaching the state supreme court; (3) in only 2 states, both the intermediate court of appeals and the court of last resort have discretionary jurisdiction; (4) in 5 states, there are two intermediate appellate courts divided by subject matter that all cases must flow through before reaching the court of last resort; and (5) in 2 states, Texas and Oklahoma, there is only one intermediate appellate court but two courts of last resort that divide their jurisdiction by subject matter.

The final level of court structure in the state court system is the state supreme court, or the state court of last resort. As just mentioned above, the structure of these final courts varies across the states. Some have mandatory jurisdiction, which means that they have to hear all cases that are filed properly, whereas others have discretionary jurisdiction and regulate their caseload by deciding to hear only the cases with the most significance. While most cases will not make it to the state supreme court, the workload of these courts has been gradually increasing every year. The number of justices on these courts also varies by state. Eighteen states have only five justices, seven have nine justices, and the rest all have seven justices (Ostrom et al., 1997). Annual salaries of these judges range from $100,884 in Montana to $182,071 in California (National Center for State Courts, 2006). The methods in which state court judges are selected also vary by jurisdiction.

1. State Judicial Selection Methods

Alfini (1981) has recognized five basic methods of selecting judges at the state level: partisan and nonpartisan elections, gubernatorial and legislative appointment, and merit selection. Partisan elections of judges involve judges running on a ticket, Republican, Democrat, or other. Candidates who garner the most votes fill the position of judge for a fixed term. Nonpartisan elections are the same as partisan elections except that candidates do not run for the position affiliated with any particular political party. There are numerous criticisms of using elections to seat judges. The first is that those running may not be learned in the law or know anything about the duties of a judge. Another is that in some cases, certain groups will spend money to try to get someone elected and then if elected, the judge may feel obligated to make decisions in the interest of his or her campaign financers rather than in the interest of the law and justice. Another criticism deals with whether the voting public is aware of what qualifications make for a good judge. Most jurisdictions require some type of legal training for newly elected judges, but questions arise concerning whether this training can give judges the tools necessary to make important decisions. Last, research has shown that the dominant force in state election outcomes is party affiliation (Volcansek, 1983). Despite this, the leading method for selecting judges today is still through partisan and nonpartisan elections. Citizens like to have choices regarding who will preside over the courts in their jurisdiction, and alternative methods like gubernatorial and legislative appointment of judges are also not without criticisms.

According to Maguire and Pastore (2005), governors appoint the highest appellate judges in only four states. Local bar associations sometimes make recommendations to governors regarding potential candidates who may be qualified to fill positions, but these are often not considered because of political pressures. Appointing judges, therefore, is also a very political method of judicial selection. Governors often give more credence to the wishes of their key campaign contributors (Pinello, 1995). Some argue that in certain jurisdictions, gubernatorial appointment of judges has led to unfairness based on the race and gender of the candidates (LouisianaTask Force onWomen in the Courts, 1992; Pinello, 1995). Others contend that many of the methods result in an equally small number of female and minority judicial appointments (Glick & Emmert, 1987).

Legislative appointment of judges has also been criticized as very political. Whichever party is in control of the legislature at the time of an appointment will most always appoint a judge with the same political affiliation. This is almost an expectation among those in power, and therefore the qualifications of the appointee mean very little. Although very few states use this method to elect their highest judges, those judges selected by legislative appointment tend to be more passive in making legal decisions than their governor-appointed or elected counterparts; they also tend to favor state interests over individual interests (Pinello, 1995).

The appointment of judges, by either governor or legislature, suffers from some of the same problems that election of judges does. The question becomes whether the most qualified candidates are selected. Research tends to be inconclusive when it comes to deciding which method results in the best qualified and most responsible judges (Blankenship, Janikowski, & Sparger, 1992).A fifth method of judicial selection was created in the hope that it would solve the problems and curb criticisms of either election or appointment. It attempts to remove politics from the selection process, basing selection on the merit of the candidates.

Selecting judges based on merit is a method that slowly gained popularity, and no state used merit selection until 1933 (Uppal, 1974). Merit selection became more popular in the 1990s, and by 2004 there were 25 states that set up nominating commissions to select judges based on merit for their highest appellate vacancies (Maguire & Pastore, 2005). One of the most popular merit selection methods is known as the Missouri Plan. It was founded in 1940 and has four essential features: a nominating committee made up of lawyers and others who are appointed by the governor and presided over by a judge, a list of candidates nominated by the committee who are all qualified for judicial vacancies, appointment of a judge from this list by the governor, and retention of that judge based upon the person’s performance while on the bench (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement, 1967). The merit selection process is designed to take politics out of the judicial selection process by putting forth a list in which all those nominated are qualified to perform the duties of a judge (Champion, Hartley & Rabe, 2008).

Merit selection, however, is also criticized by those who argue that politics can never fully be removed from the judicial selection process (Blankenship et al., 1992). Some states that use nominating commissions include Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia (Maguire & Pastore, 2005). Debate over which method to use for selecting judges continues despite the fact that most experts believe there is no one method that results in better judges (Blankenship et al., 1992). These experts believe that neither elections nor appointments of judicial candidates are good at achieving judicial independence and accountability.

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