How Courts Work
Courts and Legal Procedure
The Role and Structure of Courts
Law won’t work without independent courts. That means courts that aren’t under the thumb of the political powers-that-be. An independent judge can assure that your case will be decided according to the law and the facts—not the vagaries of shifting political currents.
We need courts to interpret and apply the law when parties dispute. In that way, courts take law out of dry and dusty law books, and make it part of the living fabric of our lives. Courts apply the law to specific controversies brought before them. They resolve disputes between people, companies and units of government.
Often, courts are called on to uphold limitations on the government. They protect against abuses by all branches of government. They protect minorities of all types from the majority, and protect the rights of people who can’t protect themselves. They also embody notions of equal treatment and fair play. The courts and the protections of the law are open to everybody.
In any state, there are not one but two distinct court systems: state courts and federal courts. The vast majority of cases—over 95%—are handled by the state courts. The great bulk of legal business—traffic offenses, divorce, wills and estates, buying and selling property—is handled by the state courts, because all these areas are governed primarily by state laws.
Basically, the courts of this country are divided into three layers:
- trial courts, where cases start;
- intermediate (appellate) courts, where most appeals are first heard; and
- courts of last resort (usually called supreme courts), which hear further appeals and have final authority in the cases they hear.
This division is generally true of both state courts and federal courts.