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The Court System: Trial, Appellate & Supreme Court

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  • 0:05 Three Levels of Courts
  • 0:34 Trial Court Function
  • 3:09 Appellate Court Function
  • 4:30 Supreme Court Function
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

There are three separate levels of courts in our legal system, each serving a different function. Trial courts settle disputes as the first court of instance, appellate courts review cases moved up from trial courts and supreme courts hear cases of national importance or those appealed in the court of appeals.

Three Levels of Courts

Have you ever had a beef with another person and wanted to settle the mess in court? Deciding on the court is simple. Trial courts settle cases between two parties seeking remedy for the very first time. Appellate courts oversee cases where one of the parties does not like the trial court outcome. And supreme courts reside over the highest level of case or those cases appealed in appellate court.

Trial Court Function

When something happens, whether it is a criminal action or a civil disagreement between neighbors, the case is taken to the trial court. The trial court is the initial court a case moves through based on jurisdiction. You've likely heard the term jurisdiction before. In the court system, jurisdiction is the power that a court holds to oversee a trial or other legal orders. It can be based on several things:

  • Jurisdiction over the person involved in the civil or criminal activity
  • Jurisdiction over the subject matter
  • Jurisdiction to render a particular judgment sought (limits over court power; e.g., small claims court can hear cases under a certain dollar value)

Trial courts oversee two types of legal actions: criminal actions and civil actions. Criminal actions are trials in which a person is found either innocent or guilty of a crime. Criminal trials generally unfold like this:

  • An arrest is made.
  • The arrested party makes an initial appearance where the party learns the charges.
  • A preliminary hearing is set, and the judge will listen to any testimony from witnesses to determine whether there is actually a case.
  • An arraignment is held where the arrested person enters a plea of guilty or not guilty.
  • The arrested person stands trial before a judge and jury where both the state and the defendant present evidence and a judgment is made.
  • If either party is not satisfied, an appeal can be filed with a higher court to review the existing evidence.

Civil actions are trials brought on by one party (the plaintiff) suing another party (the defendant). Civil trials work a little differently. When a plaintiff brings about a civil lawsuit, the process is as follows:

  • The plaintiff initiates a complaint with the court for the wrongdoing.
  • Complaint is delivered to the defendant; the defendant has a certain period of time to respond or the case is forfeited to the benefit of the plaintiff.
  • Plaintiff and defendant (generally through their attorneys) exchange facts about the case. This is called discovery.
  • A trial is presented to a judge.
  • The judge or jury makes a decision based on the facts of the case.
  • Either party may file an appeal.

Although criminal and civil trials differ in the way they are presented to a jury or judge, both have the right to an appeal, or a review of the evidence, of the outcome of the lower court.

Appellate Court Function

The appellate court reviews evidence and outcomes of cases that have been settled in a lower court when one party was not satisfied with the decision. Once a case is brought to appellate court, the plaintiff is named appellant and the defendant appellee. When a party brings their case to appellate court, the evidence is presented in a much different way. Unlike lower courts, there is no trial. It is a review of the evidence and the outcome.

A panel of three judges conducts the appellate review. The judges review all documents and transcripts from the original trial. The main function of the panel is to determine whether a lower court followed the correct law when originally deciding on the case.

The judges' ruling can be:

  • To affirm or agree with the lower court
  • To rescind or go against lower court judgment
  • To remand or move the case back to lower court for a new trial or other action

The decision is based on a two out of three majority vote by the panel of judges. If either party is not satisfied with the decision of the panel, the case may move to the highest court, the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Function

The Supreme Court is the highest court in a state or in the United States and generally only deals with matters of state or national importance or appeals from appellate court. This court will take cases from appellate court only if there was an issue with the interpretation of the law or constitutional rights. It is the last step in the appeals process.

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