The Dual Court System

Before the writing of the U.S. Constitution and the establishment of the permanent national judiciary under Article III, the states had courts. Each of the thirteen colonies had also had its own courts, based on the British common law model. The judiciary today continues as a dual court system, with courts at both the national and state levels. Both levels have three basic tiers consisting of trial courts, appellate courts, and finally courts of last resort, typically called supreme courts, at the top (Figure).

A chart that demonstrates the structure of the dual court system. At the top of the chart is a box labeled “U.S. Supreme Court”. There are boxes below it on either side, arranged in the shape of a triangle. On the left hand side of the triangle are two boxes. From bottom to top, the boxes are labeled “U.S. District Courts” and “U.S. Federal Courts.” An arrow points from the top of the box labeled “U.S. District Courts” to the box labeled “U.S. Federal Courts”. An arrow points from the top of the box labeled “U.S. Federal Courts” to the box labeled “U.S. Supreme Court”. On the right hand side of the triangle are three boxes. From bottom to top, the boxes are labeled “State Trial Courts”, “Intermediate Appellate Courts”, and “State Supreme Courts”. An arrow points from the top of the box labeled “State Trial Courts” to the bottom of the box labeled “Intermediate Appellate Courts”. An arrow points from the top of the box labeled “Intermediate Appellate Courts” to the bottom of the box labeled “State Supreme Courts”. An arrow points from the top of the box labeled “State Supreme Courts” to the bottom of the box labeled “U.S. Supreme Court”.
The U.S. judiciary features a dual court system comprising a federal court system and the courts in each of the fifty states. On both the federal and state sides, the U.S. Supreme Court is at the top and is the final court of appeal.

To add to the complexity, the state and federal court systems sometimes intersect and overlap each other, and no two states are exactly alike when it comes to the organization of their courts. Since a state’s court system is created by the state itself, each one differs in structure, the number of courts, and even name and jurisdiction. Thus, the organization of state courts closely resembles but does not perfectly mirror the more clear-cut system found at the federal level.Bureau of International Information Programs, United States Department of State. Outline of the U.S. Legal System. 2004. Still, we can summarize the overall three-tiered structure of the dual court model and consider the relationship that the national and state sides share with the U.S. Supreme Court, as illustrated in Figure.

Cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court come from two primary pathways: (1) the circuit courts, or U.S. courts of appeals (after the cases have originated in the federal district courts), and (2) state supreme courts (when there is a substantive federal question in the case). In a later section of the chapter, we discuss the lower courts and the movement of cases through the dual court system to the U.S. Supreme Court. But first, to better understand how the dual court system operates, we consider the types of cases state and local courts handle and the types for which the federal system is better designed.

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