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Getting to Know the U.S. Court System

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The U.S. court system is divided into two administratively separate systems, Federal and State. Both are independent of the executive and legislative branches of government.

Federal Court System

Most of the federal court system is divided into districts and circuits. There is at least one federal district in every state, but populous states can have multiple districts.

Generally, federal lawsuits start out at the district level in a federal court. Most are civil cases involving legal issues that fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government, not state government. If a lawsuit deals with certain types of federal law, it is heard in a special federal court. Tax court, bankruptcy court, court of federal claims, and court of veteran appeals are all examples of special federal courts.

Each federal circuit includes more than one district and is home to a Federal Court of Appeal. This court plays a role analogous to a state appellate court.

At the very top of the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court. Its legal interpretations are "The Final Word" on the law in this country. The nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate. They can remain on the court until their death or until they resign.

State Court Systems

The system of state courts is quite diverse; virtually no two states have identical judiciaries. In general, however, the states, like the federal government, have a hierarchically organized system of general courts along with a group of special courts. The lowest level of state courts, often known generically as the inferior courts, may include any of the following: magistrate court, municipal court, justice of the peace court, police court, traffic court, and county court. Such tribunals, often quite informal, handle only minor civil and criminal cases. More serious offenses are heard in superior court, also known as state district court, circuit court and by a variety of other names. The superior courts, usually organized by counties, hear appeals from the inferior courts and have original jurisdiction over major civil suits and serious crimes.

The highest state court, usually called the appellate court, state court of appeals, or state supreme court, generally hears appeals from the state superior courts and, in some instances, has original jurisdiction over particularly important cases. A number of the larger states have intermediate appellate courts between the superior courts and the state's highest court. Additionally, a state may have any of a wide variety of special tribunals, usually on the inferior court level, including juvenile court, divorce court, probate court, family court, housing court, and small claims court.

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