Description of the federal and state court system, and discussion of an interesting decision from the 1920s known as the Case of the Hairy Hand.
Decisions of America’s appellate courts can provide interesting reading. Appellate decisions are like an ongoing diary of our society’s critical issues. Consider this: when people have a dispute in which one side is obviously right, and the other is obviously wrong, most often they solve the dispute on their own. When a dispute is a closer call, the parties often work it out. When people in a dispute cannot get it solved, they might bring their case to court.
Most cases brought to court, settle before a trial occurs. A small percentage of filed cases proceed to a decision by the judge or jury. Most cases decided by a judge or jury, end there. But a small percentage of trial court decisions are appealed, to a higher court. In this process, the party who was dissatisfied with the lower court’s decision, asks for re-examination by a higher (appellate) court and asks the higher court to reverse the lower court’s decision.
In the United States the system of courts can be roughly divided in two categories. Federal courts are courts of the federal government (the government of the United States of America). The President of the United States appoints Judges to the federal courts. The President’s nominees are submitted to the U.S. Senate for approval. When approved by the Senate, the individual takes his or her judicial office and serves for life, or until he or she resigns. A federal judge cannot be removed, except by impeachment and conviction in the United States Congress. Recently, federal Judge G. Thomas Porteous was impeached by the House of Representatives and removed from office by the United States Senate, becoming only the 8th federal Judge in U.S. history to have been impeached and removed from office.
Federal courts have three main levels. Federal trial courts are called United States District Courts. Federal law divides the United States into 94 Districts, each with its own U.S. District Court. A party who is dissatisfied with a decision of the District Court, can appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals that has jurisdiction over the District Court where the case was filed. The United States has twelve Circuit Courts of Appeal, numbered 1 through 12, and an additional Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, that hears patent appeals from any of the 94 Districts, and appeals of some other specialized categories of cases. A party who is dissatisfied with a decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals can ask the United States Supreme Court to consider his or her case. Generally, Circuit Courts of Appeals must hear appeals that are presented to them. In contrast, the United States Supreme Court gets to decide which cases it will hear.