- Multiple Appeals in Schiavo Case
- The British Empire
- British supervision of colonial law
- History of Religious Freedom
- The Sloop Active
The federal judiciary is the branch of government that holds trials and decides cases under the nation's laws. The main part of the federal judiciary has three kinds of courts: district courts, courts of appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Overview of the federal judiciary
Federal district courts are trial courts. Trial courts are where judges and juries hear and decide civil and criminal cases. A civil case is a dispute between private parties, or a noncriminal dispute between a private party and the government. Criminal cases involve violations of federal criminal law.
District court judges apply congressional laws and agency regulations in federal trials. In jury trials, the judge instructs the jury on the applicable law. After hearing all the evidence by listening to witnesses and seeing documents, the jury decides who wins the case based on the applicable law.
Sometimes judges decide cases without juries. These are called bench trials. In bench trials, the judge determines the facts after hearing the evidence and then decides who wins based on the applicable law. Judges and juries are supposed to apply the nation's laws fairly to all people.
Courts of appeals are one level above district courts in the federal system. If a party loses a case in district court, he or she can appeal the case to a court of appeals. The court of appeals reviews the case to make sure the judge or jury did not make a serious mistake. A court of appeals can either affirm, or agree with, the result in the district court, or reverse it, sending the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judicial system. Parties who lose in the courts of appeals can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case. If it decides to review a case, the Supreme Court can either affirm or reverse the result in the circuit court of appeals. Just like the courts of appeals, the Supreme Court's job is to make sure judges in the lower courts do not make serious mistakes.
The federal judiciary has roots in the Roman Republic and Empire, the British Empire, American colonial courts, British supervision of colonial law, and American state courts. It also has roots in the national courts under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, which were the frameworks for American government from 1775 to 1788.
The Roman Republic and Empire
The Roman Republic and Empire were centered around the city of Rome from 509 BCE until the latter half of the fifth century CE. The Republic, which ended with the creation of the Empire in 27 BCE, had a government that was republican for the free men of society. In a republic, people control their government through elected leaders. Many legal systems and political structures of the Republic and Empire were forerunners of modern government.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE3 BCE) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, and scholar who lived during the waning days of the Republic. Cicero wrote about natural law, which is the idea that human laws must conform to a higher lawne of nature, often believed to come from God. As reprinted in American Law and Politics, Cicero said:
There is in fact a true lawamely, right reasonhich is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong....It will not lay down one rule at Rome and another at Athens, nor will it be one rule to-day and another to-morrow. But there will be one law, eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times upon all peoples; and there will be, as it were, one common master and ruler of men, namely God, who is the author of this law, its interpreter, and its sponsor.
The notion that law should apply equally to all people affected the development of the federal judicial system. Federal judges take an oath to apply the law equally and fairly, without regard to the identity of the parties. Juries are supposed to do the same.
The Roman Republic first recorded its laws around 450 BCE. According to tradition, common citizens, called plebeians, insisted that all citizens had a right to know the laws. Government officials organized and wrote the laws onto twelve tablets, probably made of bronze, called the Law of the Twelve Tables. The tablets hung in the Roman Forum, which
Nine hundred years later, Emperor Justinian I (48365) of the Byzantine Empire had lawyers and scholars compile the Corpus Juris Civilis, or Body of Civil Law. It was an enormous collection and organization of the laws and legal opinions from emperors and jurists of the Roman Empire. Roman law from the Corpus affected the development of legal systems in Europe after the Dark Ages (476000), which eventually affected the development of American legal systems.
Courts in the Roman period were not like courts in the American judiciary. There was no separate judicial branch of government. Instead, judicial duties were spread among various government officials. Praetors, for example, were Roman Republic officials who commanded armies and also had judicial duties in civil cases. Quaestors helped the leaders of the Republic with financial matters and also had criminal justice responsibilities.
During the Roman Republic, civil cases followed a formulary system. Under this system, parties to a case appeared before a praetor to get a "formula." A formula was a written definition of the legal dispute between the parties. Praetors drafted formulas after hearing what the legal dispute was about. Similarly, in the American judiciary, parties prepare pleadings, which are legal documents that define the nature of their dispute.
Once they had a formula, parties in the Roman Republic selected an arbitrator, called a judex. A judex was a private individual who heard the evidence and decided the case. In the American federal judiciary, judges and juries have that responsibility.
The British Empire
The thirteen colonies that formed the United States in 1776 were British colonies. Naturally, then, the American judicial system drew heavily from the British legal system for its structures and processes.
Like the Roman Empire, England did not have a separate judicial system prior to the Middle Ages (500 CE350 CE). By the time of the Norman dynasty (1066154), England had a loose system of local courts, manorial courts, and royal courts. Local courts held trials in small political subdivisions, such as counties. Feudal lords who owned large pieces of land had manorial courts, which heard local cases involving people on those lands. Royal courts in Westminster, England, heard local disputes at the English seat of government.
During the Norman dynasty, English kings traveled around the country, hearing cases that affected the interests of the monarch, or ruler. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, England established three permanent courts in Westminster for serving this function. They were called superior common law courts because they had more power than the local and manorial courts.
One of the superior common law courts was the Court of Exchequer, which heard cases affecting England's revenues. Another was the Court of Common Pleas, which heard civil cases between private parties under the common law. (The common law is judicial rules governing relations between private parties.) The third superior common law court was the Court of Queen's Bench (or King's Bench), which heard criminal cases plus civil cases that affected the interests of the monarch.
In addition to hearing criminal and civil cases, the Court of Queen's Bench had power to review cases from the local and manorial courts and from the Court of Exchequer and Court of Common Pleas. This made the Court of Queen's Bench a high appellate court similar to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The law applied by the superior common law courts influenced the development of law in America. It included common law, equity, criminal law, and statutory law.
Common law is a system of rules governing the relationships between private parties. For example, when two people make a contract to buy and sell goods or services, the common law of contracts provides rules for their relationship. If one person injures another, the common law of tort, or wrongful acts, provides rules for how the injured person can recover from the offender. Judges in England developed the common law on a case-by-case basis in the Middle Ages and modern times.
Equity was a special area of law that grew out of the common law. Under the common law, a person could not sue for a wrong unless it fit neatly into one of the categories of the common law. For example, if a person agreed to sell an item and then decided not to honor the contract, the common law awarded damages to the buyer but could not force the seller to part with the item.
Equity arose as a system for doing justice in private cases where the common law did not provide an adequate remedy. Equity cases in Great Britain were heard in courts of equity by people called chancellors. In 1873, England combined common law and equity courts into one court. Federal courts in America went through a similar period of handling common law and equity cases separately before combining them into one court.
Criminal law developed out of the common law during the Middle Ages. It was based on the notion that a person who did something harmful to the community had offended the monarch's peace. As a result, the crown of England gradually took on increased responsibility for enforcing criminal laws.
Statutory law is law enacted by a legislature. In England, the legislature is Parliament. In the United States, the federal courts apply statutory law enacted by Congress.
American colonial courts
American colonial governments had various forms, but they tended to include a governor, a council, and an assembly. British monarchs appointed governors to serve as the executive heads of the colonies. The council was a legislative body that represented the interests of Great Britain or of the British company that owned the colony. Assemblies were legislatures that the free men of the colonies elected for representing their interests in government.
Colonies did not have separate judicial systems. Instead, the governors and councils had judicial powers in addition to their executive and legislative functions. Initially, they sat as trial courts to hear and decide cases, and they sat as appellate courts to review decisions from lower courts.
Lower courts grew slowly in the colonies beginning in the seventeenth century. Justices of the peace heard minor criminal violations and disputes. Governors set up local courts to hear specific cases that arose in the colonies. Over time, legislatures established permanent local trial courts, often at the county level of government, to hear civil and criminal cases. The common law of England governed most civil cases. The legislatures also set up chancery courts to hear equity cases.
As permanent local courts grew, governors and councils held fewer trials and heard more appeals. Some colonies eventually set up permanent courts of appeals, relieving governors and councils of some of their appellate duties. The American judicial system follows this practice of holding trials in lower courts and hearing appeals in higher courts.
British supervision of colonial law
Great Britain tried to control the colonies through various laws, courts, and government offices. Legal cases in the colonies often ended with review by the governor and council sitting as a supreme court. If the result in these cases was against the law of England, parties could appeal to the Privy Council, a council that worked for the monarch in England. The Privy Council could modify the results in cases from the colonies. This made the Privy Council similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, which can review cases from the highest courts of the states.
In the latter half of the seventeenth century, Parliament passed a series of Navigation Acts. The acts made rules for the shipment and taxation of goods going to and coming from England and its colonies. To enforce the acts against the colonists, Great Britain set up a system of vice admiralty courts (relating to laws of the sea) in 1696. This system resembled the federal district courts that America would establish for enforcement of federal laws.
Colonial governments also faced review in the British Board of Trade. Parliament established the Board of Trade in 1696 to oversee Great Britain's commercial interests worldwide. The Board of Trade had power to review and strike down colonial laws that violated British law. In this way, the Board of Trade resembled the U.S. Supreme Court, which strikes down federal and state laws that violate the U.S. Constitution. Displeasure with the Board of Trade was one of the many things that led the colonists to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776.
American state laws and courts
Upon signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the thirteen colonies became states in a new country. Many states adopted constitutions to define the framework for their governments. Many also adopted declarations of rights, which defined citizens' rights. (See sidebar, "History of Religious Freedom.")
Prior to independence, the colonies operated under English and colonial laws. As new states, they had to decide what old laws would continue to apply. Beginning in May 1776, Virginia and ten other states passed reception provisions. A reception provision explained in general terms what parts of the common law, English statutes, and colonial statutes would continue to apply in a newly formed state. Reception provisions stated that old laws and statutes that violated a state's new constitution or declaration of rights could not continue to apply in the state.
State legislatures did not have the time to review all old laws and statutes to determine which violated their new constitutions and declarations. State courts ended up making these decisions on a case-by-case basis. A party to a case, for example, might ask the court to enforce a particular old law, and the other party might argue that the old law violated the new constitution or declaration of rights. The court could strike down the old law if it agreed that the law violated the state's reception provision.
Striking down old laws under reception provisions was an exercise of judicial review. Judicial review is the practice of nullifying, or invalidating, laws that violate a society's fundamental laws, such as the constitution or declaration of rights. Judicial review was not too controversial when state courts struck down old English laws and statutes. It became very controversial, however, when they began to strike down new laws passed by state legislatures.
Over time, however, judicial review became an accepted feature of American jurisprudence, or system of law. In 1803, judicial review became a permanent part of the federal judiciary. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its power to strike down congressional laws that violate the U.S. Constitution.
Courts under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation
In 1774, as relations between Great Britain and the American colonies approached the breaking point, the colonies sent delegates to the First Continental Congress. It was the first American government with power to try to resolve the conflict with Great Britain. When the American Revolution (17753) erupted, the Second Continental Congress managed the war effort for the colonies.
The Continental Congress continued as the government of America after the colonies declared independence in 1776. The following year, delegates from the American states drafted the Articles of Confederation. It was the blueprint for American government from 1781 until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Congress continued to be the primary body of American government until the Articles were composed.
There was no judicial branch of government under the Continental Congress or the Articles of Confederation. Congress, however, established a commission and a court of appeals that had judicial powers eventually held by the federal judiciary under the U.S. Constitution.
Commission for land claims
In 1781, when the Articles of Confederation took effect, the land west of the thirteen states was considered the American frontier. Despite the presence of Native Americans on much of this land, American states claimed parts of the land as their own, and claims by two states sometimes overlapped.
The Articles of Confederation set up an elaborate procedure for settling such claims. If the two states could not agree on who should sit on a panel for deciding the case, Congress appointed three men from each of the thirteen states. The states with the dispute then took turns eliminating people from the panel of thirty-nine until thirteen remained. Finally, Congress drew seven to nine names from the remaining thirteen to serve on a commission to hear and decide the case.
Only one case got to trial before a commission under this procedure dispute between Pennsylvania and Connecticut. When America adopted the U.S. Constitution in 1788, the federal judiciary received power to resolve "controversies between two or more States" under Article III, Section 2.
The Court of Appeals in prize cases
Prize cases were cases in which a private vessel captured a merchant ship from an enemy nation. Nations gave private vessels the power to do this by issuing written authority in documents called letters of marque. When a private vessel captured an enemy ship, it brought the ship into port, where a court of admiralty determined if the capture
In November 1775, General George Washington (1732799), who was leading the American army in the Revolutionary War, sent a letter to Congress from Massachusetts. Washington asked Congress to set up an admiralty court for deciding cases involving ships that received letters of marque from Congress. Congress decided state admiralty courts should hear such cases, but agreed to hear prize appeals from the state courts.
When Congress received its first prize appeal, it referred the case to a commission for decision. Commissions appointed by Congress heard all admiralty appeals until 1780. That year, Congress created a Court of Appeals, the first official American court. It decided eleven appeals over the next few years.
States sometimes refused to enforce the decisions of the Court of Appeals. The men who wrote the Constitution in 1787 kept this in mind. The Constitution gave Congress the power to grant letters of marque, gave the federal judiciary power to hear admiralty cases, and provided that "the judges in every state shall be bound" by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
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