Criminal Justice Degree Guide: Court Resources
According to United States Courts, the judicial branch’s official website, there were over 47,000 cases pending in the U.S. courts of appeals in 2010, over 76,000 pending cases in criminal district courts, and more than 1.5 million pending cases in bankruptcy courts. As the courts get smaller and smaller in scope, the aggregate number of cases tend to swell dramatically, indicating exactly how much time Americans spend interacting with the justice system. Unfortunately, each of these courts has a different jurisdiction and a different set of procedures, which means that researching a court can be tricky. The following page seeks to provide the necessary resources for anyone interested in the distinction between the courts and their inner workings.
Due to the enormous number of local courthouses around the world, this resource will limit itself to descriptions of state and federal hearings, and also provide a section on international courts and temporary tribunals. Finally, broad resources that can lead to information on any of these topics be found in the final section. The goal of this page is to provide access to official resources, so most of the websites are sponsored by the government, university-level law schools, or large directories that lead visitors to official documents.
According to FindLaw’s section on state courts, the bulk of hearings in the U.S. are settled at the state level: 30 million cases each year compared to the roughly 1 million heard in federal courts. The jurisdiction of state courts includes traffic tickets, alimony, litigation that results from injury, and certain criminal violations. Every state has a different court structure, but the individual courts are almost always arranged hierarchically, with the exception of courts that have a specific jurisdiction, such as probation. The number of courts required often depends on the complexities of population. Wyoming and Alaska, for example, do not need the same judicial resources as California and Texas. The following types of state courts, ordered from highest to lowest, are typical:
- High appellate courts are usually called state supreme courts. In Massachusetts, this is called the Supreme Judicial Court, for example. Cases begin in lower courts and can only be heard in a state’s highest court after graduating through a succession of appeals.
- Appellate courts can review determinations made by lower courts, although their jurisdiction is often over the decisions of the judges and juries themselves, meaning that they cannot, in many cases, weigh evidence and make a ruling based on it.
- Trial courts often have their own internal hierarchy depending on the severity of the case. Felonies and property stakes in excess of a fixed dollar amount may be heard in higher-tier trial courts than lower ones.
More information about state courts can be found in the resources below, including famous state trials and details about the appeals process.
- Court Systems: State Courts is a section of the larger legal resource, FindLaw, with detailed sub-sections on “State Courts In-Depth,” “State Courts vs. Federal Courts,” “How to Determine Where Your Suit Will Be Heard” and so on. The “In-Depth” article uses the example of Massachusetts to explain the different levels of state courts, including trial courts and appeals courts.
- The National Center for State Courts, or NCSC, was founded in 1971 as a major unifying body for state courts around the U.S. that provides guidance for judges and other court officials. As such, the website serves as an exhaustive database of information about topics related to state courts, archiving everything from official case documents to explanatory graphic novels.
- State Statutes is one way that Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute organizes its state court information (the other is by listing the states themselves and then “Constitution and Legislation,” “Judicial Opinions,” “Regulations and Other Agency Material,” and other resources). The statutes are organized by category, including criminal procedure, fish and game, labor, taxation, unemployment, and many others.
- Ten Major Court Cases about Evolution and Creationism, from the National Center for Science Education, represents some of the most high-profile decisions in its summary of evolution trials. Of those decided on the highest state level are Epperson v. Arkansas, Segraves v. State of California, and McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.
Besides hearing trials of national significance (disputes between states or residents of different states), the jurisdiction of federal courts is bankruptcy, immigration, copyrights and patents, international diplomacy, waterways (rivers, coastal waters, etc.) and other domains. Federal courts are also arranged in a tier system, which from lowest to highest include:
- District Courts, which cover entire states or parts of states and function as the trial courts on the federal level. There are 94 such districts in the country.
- Courts of Appeals, which apply to multi-state regions called circuits, of which there are 12 in the country. Circuit 5, for example, includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Courts of Appeals can review the proceedings of a district court when there is a question as to the validity of the decision.
- The United States Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the land that hears cases of far-reaching consequences. Some historical Supreme Court cases include Brown v. Board of Education and United States v. Nixon.
- Creating the Federal Judicial System, by Russell R. Wheeler and Cynthia Harrison, is a 34-page PDF document about the history of the government’s judicial branch, created for the Federal Judicial Center. The history starts in 1789 with the Judiciary Act and then covers the changing jurisdictions of federal courts over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as the U.S.’s population and number of states and territories changed.
- Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court is an educational resource by StreetLaw.org and the Supreme Court Historical Society that provides summaries, related teaching materials, external links, annotated excerpts, full texts, and historical details (at various reading levels) about some of the most important Supreme Court decisions. Include is Brown v. Board of Education, Marbury v. Madison, Roe v. Wade, and many others.
- The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land, considered the last resort after the district courts and courts of appeals, and the place where some of the most important national decisions have been made. The website provides extensive information about the cases and the Supreme Court’s own guidelines.
- United States Courts, the official website for the U.S. judicial branch of government, provides introductory information about all of the courts at the federal level, including bankruptcy courts and courts of special jurisdiction: U.S. Tax Court, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, etc. Statistics and the government’s official policies are also described.
The need for an international arbiter of disputes between entire nations has prompted the United Nations to created permanent courts that, besides providing an official forum for debate, help prevent military conflicts. Crimes against humanity, such as the holocaust perpetuated by Nazi Germany, also led the UN to establish tribunals. These are set up when a nation’s atrocities against its own people or another nation’s require the intervention of other international organizations to bring war criminals to justice. Only the most extreme cases, such as genocide and the forced recruitment of child soldiers, lead to such decisions.
- Military Legal Resources: Nuremberg Trials, part of the Library of Congress, provides official archived documents about the trials of Nazi war criminals at the end of World War II by the Allies. The trials took place between 1945 and 1949 and represent some of the most famous international hearings in history.
- The International Court of Justice, working from the Hague, Netherlands, is part of the United Nations that settles conflicts between States (countries). The ICJ is different from tribunals and the International Criminal Court in that it has no jurisdiction over individual people, organizations, companies, or other entities, such as leaders accused of war crimes.
- The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is an example of a special tribunal, like the Nuremberg Trials, set up in reaction to a particular series of crimes: in this case, the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The website provides regular updates about the individual cases, as well as speeches, news, essays, and other information.
Because it is often difficult to tell what level of court is most appropriate for a case, both Gavel2Gavel Courts and Opinions and Open Jurist start at the broadest level possible, compiling information about both federal and state courts. In general, these resources do not strictly fall into the categories established on this page, but may nevertheless be useful to students and researchers who are interested in the topics above.
- Famous Trials is a simple menu of notable trials from 399 B.C. (the trial of Socrates, after which he took hemlock) to the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in 2006, created by Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Each of the several dozen entries is accompanied by a short timeline, images, important documents, descriptions of evidence, and many other topics.
- Gavel2Gavel Courts and Opinions provides quick access to court websites and cases on the state and federal level. Each of these two main categories is then further divided into individual types of courts: state supreme courts, courts of appeals, circuit courts, and so on.
- Open Jurist displays a map of the United States and allows visitors to find courts by region, from large federal courts to individual states’ probation offices, bankruptcy courts, and many others. After the user selects the level of court he/she is interested in, the location of the courthouse itself is displayed on a map and a link to the official website is provided.