The Role of Federal and State Law:
The Judicial System and Victims of Crime
the role and functions of the various court systems in the United
States provides victim service providers with a solid foundation
for understanding the dynamics of the law. It is a complex aspect
of our legal system that can be confusing and frustrating to victims
when they are first exposed to it. Knowing some of the rationale
for its present day structure may help victims understand the
manner in which laws operate and interact.
Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the
1. The principle of federalism and how it affected the structure
of our court system.
2. How the dual system of state and federal courts function.
3. The characteristics of the American court system.
4. How the juvenile court system functions.
(Reference: Felony Sentences in the United States,
1992. (1996, May). Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.)
In order to understand the role of federal and state law, it is
essential to have a firm grasp of the principles of how the American
criminal justice system functions. There is no more confusing,
frustrating, and complex environment for victims of crimes than
the criminal court system. This section will provide a brief overview
of the judicial system in the United States.
Historical Context: The Principle of Federalism
The court system in the United States is based upon the principle
of federalism. The first Congress established a federal court
system, and the individual states were permitted to continue their
own judicial structure. There was general agreement among our
nation's founders that individual states needed to retain significant
autonomy from federal control. Under this concept of federalism,
the United States developed as a loose confederation of semi-independent
states having their own courts, with the federal court system
acting in a very limited manner. In the early history of our nation,
most cases were tried in state courts. It was only later that
the federal government and the federal judiciary began to exercise
jurisdiction over crimes and civil matters. Jurisdiction in this
context simply means the ability of the court to enforce laws
and punish individuals who violate those laws.
A Dual System of State and Federal Courts
As a result of this historical evolution, a dual system of state
and federal courts exists today. Therefore, federal and state
courts may have concurrent jurisdiction over specific crimes.
For example, a person who robs a bank may be tried and convicted
in state court for robbery, then tried and convicted in federal
court for the federal offense of robbery of a federally-chartered
Court System Performs its Duties With Little
or No Supervision
Another characteristic of the American court system is that it
performs its duties with little or no supervision. A Supreme Court
Justice does not exercise supervision over lower court judges
in the same way that a government supervisor or manager exercises
control over his or her employees. The U.S. Supreme Court and
the various state supreme courts exercise supervision only in
the sense that they hear appellate cases from lower courts and
establish certain procedures for these courts.
Specialization Occurs Primarily at the State
and Local Level
A third feature of our court system is one of specialization that
occurs primarily at the state and local level. In many states,
courts of limited jurisdiction hear misdemeanor cases. Other state
courts of general jurisdiction try felonies. Still other courts
may be designated as juvenile courts and hear only matters involving
juveniles. This process also occurs in certain civil courts that
hear only family law matters, probate matters, housing matters,
or civil cases involving damages. At the federal level, there
are courts such as bankruptcy that hear only cases dealing with
Geographic Organization of the American Court
The fourth characteristic of the American court system is its geographic organization. State and federal courts are organized into geographic areas. In many jurisdictions these are called judicial districts and contain various levels of courts. For example, on the federal level, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has district (trial) courts that hear matters within certain specific boundaries; and an appellate court that hears all appeals from cases within that area. Several studies have been conducted regarding the difference in sentences for the same type of crime in geographically distinct courts. For example, in Iowa the average sentence for motor vehicle theft was 47 months while the average sentence for the same offense in New York was 14 months. (Pursley, 1994). This should not be taken as a criticism; rather it may reflect different social values and attitudes within specific geographic areas.
Historically each of the thirteen original states had their own
unique court structure. This independence continued after the
American Revolution and resulted in widespread differences among
the various states, some of which still exist today. Because each
state adopted its own system of courts, the consequence was a
poorly planned and confusing judicial structure. As a result,
there have been several reform movements whose purpose has been
to streamline and modernize this system.
Many state courts can be divided into three levels:
Trial courts are where criminal cases start and finish. The trial
court conducts the entire series of acts that culminate in either
the defendant's release or sentencing. State trial courts can
be further divided into courts of:
The nature and type of case determines which court will have jurisdiction.
Courts which only hear and decide certain limited legal issues
are courts of limited jurisdiction:
In many jurisdictions these are part-time positions, and the incumbent
may have another job or position in addition to serving as a judge.
However, simply because they handle minor civil and criminal matters
does not mean these courts do not perform important duties. Often,
the only contact the average citizen will have with the judicial
system occurs at this level.
In addition, courts of limited jurisdiction may hear certain types
of specialized matters such as:
These types of courts may be local courts or, depending on the
state, may be courts of general jurisdiction that are designated
by statute to hear and decide specific types of cases. For example,
in California, a superior court is considered a court of general
jurisdiction; however, certain superior courts are designated
to hear only juvenile matters, thereby becoming a court of limited
jurisdiction when sitting as a juvenile court.
Courts of general jurisdiction are granted authority to hear and
decide all issues that are brought before them. These are courts
that normally hear all major civil or criminal cases. These courts
are known by a variety of names, such as:
Since they are courts of general jurisdiction, they have authority
over all types of cases and controversies, and, unless otherwise
geographically limited, may decide issues that occur anywhere
within the state. Some larger jurisdictions such as Los Angeles
or New York may have hundreds of courts of general jurisdiction
within the city limits. It is important to be certain about naming
of courts in each jurisdiction. For example, the New York Supreme
Court is the state's trial court and its highest court is called
the Superior Court. Just the reverse is true in some neighboring
Typically, these courts hear civil cases involving the same type
of issues that courts of limited jurisdiction hear, although the
amount of damages will be higher and may reach millions.
Courts of general jurisdiction traditionally have the power to
order individuals to do or refrain from doing certain acts.
Equity is the concept that justice is administrated according
to fairness as contrasted with the strict rules of law. In early
English Common Law, such separate courts of equity were known
as Courts of Chancery. These early courts were not concerned with
technical legal issues; rather they focused on rendering decisions
or orders that were fair or equitable. In modern times, the power
of these courts has been merged with courts of general jurisdiction,
allowing them to rule on matters that require fairness as well
as the strict application of the law.
Appellate jurisdiction is reserved for courts that hear appeals
from both limited and general jurisdiction courts.
There are two classes of appellate courts:
Courts of Appeals
The intermediate appellate courts are known as courts of appeals.
Approximately half the states have designated intermediate appellate
In either situation, the party who loses the appeal at this level
may file an appeal with the next higher appellate court.
Final appellate courts are the highest state appellate courts.
They may be known as supreme courts or courts of last
resort. There may be five, seven or nine justices sitting
on this court depending on the state. This court has jurisdiction
to hear and decide issues dealing with all matters decided by
lower courts, including ruling on state constitutional or statutory
issues. This decision is binding on all other courts within the
state. Once this court had decided an issue, the only appeal left
is to file in the federal court system.
While state courts had their origin in historical accident and
custom, federal courts were created by the U.S. Constitution.
Section 1 of Article III established the federal court system
with the words providing for "one Supreme Court, and . .
. such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain
and establish." From this beginning, Congress has engaged
in a series of acts that has resulted in today's federal court
system. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the U.S. Supreme
Court and established district courts and circuit courts of appeals.
Federal District Courts
Federal District Courts are the lowest level of the federal court
system. These courts have original jurisdiction over all cases
involving a violation of federal statutes. These district courts
handle thousands of criminal cases per year.
Federal Circuit Courts
Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals are the intermediate appellate
level courts within the federal system. These courts are called
circuit courts because the federal system is divided into 11 circuits.
A Twelfth Circuit Court of Appeals serves the Washington D.C.
area. These courts hear all criminal appeals from the District
Courts and habeas corpus appeals from state court convictions.
These appeals are usually heard by panels of three of the appellate
court judges rather than by all the judges of each circuit.
U.S. Supreme Court
The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. It has the capacity for judicial review of all lower court decisions, as well as state and federal statutes. By exercising this power, the Supreme Court determines what laws and lower court decisions conform to the mandates set forth in the U.S. Constitution. The concept of judicial review was first referred to by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, where he described the Supreme Court as ensuring that the will of the people will be supreme over the will of the legislature. (The Supreme Court of the United States, no date). This concept was firmly and finally established in our system when the Supreme Court asserted its power of judicial review in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).
Although it is primarily an appellate court, the Supreme Court
has original jurisdiction in the following cases:
ministers and consuls.
The court hears appeals from lower courts including the various
State Supreme Courts. If four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court
vote to hear a case, the court will issue a Writ of Certiorari.
This is an order to a lower court to send the records of the case
to the Supreme Court for review. The court meets on the first
Monday of October and usually remains in session until June. The
court may review any case it deems worthy of review but it actually
hears very few of the cases filed with it. Of approximately 5000
appeals each year, the court agrees to review about 200, but may
not issue an opinion on each case.
Victim Cases at Supreme Court Level
The Supreme Court handles perhaps the broadest conceivable array of legal and social issues, among these are victim issues. Recent victim-related Supreme Court decisions have addressed the following topics:
An in-depth discussion of these issues will be provided in Chapter
Because of the significant increase of importance of juvenile
crime in our society, an overview of juvenile courts within the
state and federal court system is important. While there are some
differences, both federal and state systems were initially founded
upon the concept of rehabilitation of young offenders. Additionally,
both systems wanted to shield juveniles from public scrutinies;
therefore, each contained provisions for keeping matters confidential.
The Federal Court Juvenile System
When Congress addressed the issue of juvenile offenders, it established
two alternatives for the prosecution of juveniles:
If the court finds that the juvenile committed the offense, he
or she faces a series of federal sanctions including incarceration.
There is a federal preference for state prosecution of juveniles
since there is no separate federal juvenile court judge or juvenile
detention system. If a juvenile is adjudicated to be a delinquent,
he or she is placed in a state juvenile facility. The federal
government contracts with states for this service.
Until the passage of the Crime Control Act of 1990, the
federal government only prosecuted juveniles who committed crimes
on federal reservations, where the states had no jurisdiction.
The Crime Control Act added two other categories of juveniles
who fall under federal juvenile court jurisdiction: juveniles
who commit felony crimes of violence and/or those juveniles involved
in certain drug felonies. Similar to most state court systems,
federal law allows for the transfer or certification of a juvenile
to "adult status." This procedure allows juveniles to
be tried as adults in either the state or federal court system.
Under federal law, juveniles are those persons under 21 who commit
a federal offense before their eighteenth birthday. A federal
judge acts as the federal equivalent of the state juvenile court
judge. The proceedings are confidential with no members of the
public or press in attendance. federal jurisdiction in juvenile
matters is established where:
A juvenile proceeding is initiated by the filing of an information.
In most cases, the U.S. Attorney must file a certification stating
there are grounds for federal jurisdiction. The hearing in federal
court is very similar to a court trial.
The State Court Juvenile System
The separate handling of juvenile justice matters has roots throughout
history. Even in earlier periods in America, certain specific
juvenile accommodations were in use. However, the present day
American state-level juvenile court system dates back to 1899
when the state of Illinois passed the Illinois Juvenile Court
Act. It was at that time that the juvenile court system as
we know it today came into existence (Fox, 1972). This statute
separated the juvenile court system from the adult criminal system.
It labeled minors who violated the law as "delinquents"
rather than criminals, and required that juvenile court judges
determine what "is in the best interests of the minor"
in rendering their decision.
The juvenile court system is guided by five basic principles:
1. The state is the ultimate parent of all children within its
jurisdiction, the doctrine of parens patrea; and has the
power to step into the parental role in loco parentis.
2. Children are worth saving and the state should utilize non-punitive
measures to do so.
3. Children should be nurtured and not stigmatized by the court
4. Each child is different and justice should be tailored to meet
individual needs and requirements.
5. The use of noncriminal sanctions are necessary to give primary
consideration to the needs of the child (Cadwell, 1966, p. 358).
It is important to note that each state determines its own jurisdictional
age of "minors" handled by its juvenile system. Most
involve children who are under 18 years of age. A few states use
higher ages, up to 21 usually for specific issues. Three states
cover children up to 15 years of age, adjudicating their 16-year-olds
in adult criminal courts.
While these principles were originally adopted for delinquents
or minors who committed criminal acts, they have been broadly
applied to proceedings involving children who are victims of abuse.
Juvenile courts have jurisdiction over three types of minors:
Delinquents are minors who have committed criminal offenses.
Status offenders engage in acts that are not problematic
if committed by an adult, such as when minors are truant from
school, run away from home or are considered incorrigible. Dependent
children are those who are in need of state intervention because
of abuse or neglect by their caretakers.
Abuse and Neglect Proceedings
While the procedure is basically the same for delinquents as well
as dependent minors, the juvenile court process dealing with children
who are victims of abuse or neglect is of particular importance
to victim service providers:
Detention Hearings in Child Maltreatment
Once the petition is filed, many jurisdictions hold a show cause
or detention hearing. This hearing is usually conducted within
24 to 48 hours after filing the petition or the emergency removal
of the child. The detention hearing requires child protective
services or police to pro-duce evidence justifying the emergency
removal of the child, or to present evidence that would allow
the court to order the removal of the child if he or she is still
in the custody of the parents. The parents may also admit or deny
the allegations contained in the petition at this hearing.
Pending this hearing, the court may order the child temporarily
placed in a living arrangement outside the home.
Child Abuse and Neglect Adjudicatory or Jurisdictional
An adjudicatory or jurisdictional hearing is used to determine
if there is sufficient evidence to determine that the allegations
in the petition are true. At the conclusion of this hearing, the
court will render its decision. If the petition is upheld, the
court sets a date for a dispositional hearing. If the petition
is not upheld, the child is returned to the parents and the case
The burden of proof to uphold the abuse or neglect petition is
the same as a civil case. In civil trials, the plaintiff has the
burden of proving the case by a preponderance of the evidence.
This is normally defined as slightly more than fifty percent.
A criminal case requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This
is not proof beyond all doubt, but it is proof of the "material
facts to a moral certainty" that they did occur.
Once the adjudicatory or jurisdictional hearing is concluded,
the next hearing to occur is the dispositional hearing. This hearing
is to determine where the child should be placed. The court will
decide whether the child should be immediately returned to his
or her parents or placed in an out of home environment for a period
of time. The guiding principle in this hearing is "the best
interests of the child". If the court orders the child placed
outside the home, it may schedule periodic reviews to determine
if or when the child will be reunited with the parents. Typically,
a specific plan regarding placement is established and monitored.
From the beginning of the intervention process until the final
dispositional hearing and beyond, every party in the action has
certain rights. The parents and the child each has distinct rights
which must be observed and protected. These rights include:
In a dependency hearing, the rights of a child include appointing
an attorney who will speak on behalf of the child. This attorney
must represent what he or she believes is in the best interests
of the child regardless of what CPS or the parents advocate believes
is appropriate. In some jurisdictions this is a government-funded
attorney; in others, it is a private attorney appointed by the
court to represent the child. Depending on the case, the attorney
may side with the parents and argue for return of the child to
their care, or the attorney may take the position that it is in
the best interests of the child to be removed from the custody
of the parents. Even if the child is removed temporarily from
the custody of his or her parents, the child has a right to re-unification
efforts after a reasonable time.
Many jurisdictions additionally engage Court Appointed Special
Advocates (CASAs), or similarly trained (typically non-attorney)
individuals. The role of these child advocates is to present to
the court an independent analysis of what is best for the child.
This is particularly important; as the child's legal representative,
the court appointed lawyer must forward the child's wishes when
an objective view would be to the contrary. For example, the lawyer
may decide that they must vigorously advocate a juvenile's wish
to return home, when an independent child advocate may determine
that this is not actually in the child's best interest.
During dependency hearings, parents have a right to notice of
the hearing, an opportunity to be present at that hearing and
to be represented by an attorney. They may present any evidence
they desire to rebut the charges. If the child is removed from
their custody they have the right in most jurisdictions to a re-unification
plan that will allow them to regain custody of the child once
they have finished treatment or counseling.
Victims' Rights in Juvenile Delinquency Matters
Among the most rapidly changing areas in the victim assistance
field is the extension of victim rights in juvenile delinquency
proceedings. Historically, juvenile courts have been closed proceedings
and records have been generally confidential. Even the victim
was unable to learn much, if anything, about the progress of a
case against the juvenile who offended against them. Juvenile
delinquency proceedings are analogous, in many ways, to adult
criminal trials, with all the typical obstacles to victim participation.
The juvenile court's privacy provisions exacerbate these obstacles
Many states have, or are, considering rolling back their previously
hard and fast confidentiality statutes. States like Connecticut,
Missouri, and Arizona have gone further to provide for victim
rights and accommodations in juvenile courts that mirror those
in adult courts. This provides fertile ground for expansion of
victim advocacy and assistance efforts to a previously underserved
population, victims of juvenile crime.
Definition of Terms
Adjudicatory or Jurisdictional Hearing: Used to determine
if there is sufficient evidence to find the allegations in the
petition are true.
Delinquents: Those minors who have committed criminal offenses.
Status Offenders: Minors who are truant from school, run
away from home or are considered incorrigible.
Dependent Children: Those who are in need of state intervention
because of neglect or abuse by their caretakers.
Detention Hearing: Requires child protective services or
police to produce evidence justifying the emergency removal of
the child or present evidence that would allow the court to order
the removal of the child if he or she is still in the custody
of the parents.
Dispositional Hearing: To determine where the child should
Parens Patrea: Meaning "the country is the parent,"
this doctrine is fundamental to the juvenile court's power to
decide on placements, treatment and other determinations regarding
Petition: A formal pleading that alleges that the parents
or custodians endangered the health or welfare of the child.
Writ of Certiorari: An order to a lower court to send the records of the case to the Supreme Court for review
THE DUAL SYSTEM OF COURTS IN AMERICA
|U.S. Supreme Court|
$ Chief justice and 8 associate justices
$ Appointed by President with "advice and consent" of Senate
$ Rarely acts as a trial court
U.S. Court of Appeals
$ 12 judicial circuits
$ Normally hears cases in panels
$ No original jurisdiction
$ Appellate cases only
U.S. District Courts
$ Basic federal trial court
$ At least 1 district court in each state
$ States are divided geographically into federal judicial districts
$ Not separate courts
$ Minor offenses and pre-trial matters
|State Supreme Court|
|Trial Courts of|
FEDERAL JUDICIAL SYSTEM
of the United States
(Tax Court, Federal
|U. S. Courts of Appeal|
|Direct Appeals from|
|State Courts in 50 States|
|Court of Customs|
|and Patent Appeals|
|Court of Claims|
Self Examination Chapter 5
The Role of Federal and State Law:
The Judicial System and Victims of Crime
1) Describe how the federal and state courts function.
2) What are courts of limited and general jurisdiction?
3) What are the principles that the juvenile justice
system was founded upon?
4) Describe the cases that the U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over.
Cadwell, R. (1996). The juvenile court: Its development and some
major problems. Juvenile delinquency: A book of readings.
New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Fox, S. (1972). Modern juvenile justice: Cases and materials.
St. Paul, MI: West.
Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803).
Otterson, D.V. (1979). Dependency and termination proceedings
in California-Standards of proof, Hastings Law Journal, 30,
Pursley, R. (1994). Introduction to criminal justice (6th
ed.). New York: MacMillan.
The Supreme Court of the United States. (no date). Washington,
DC: Government Printing Office.
American Bar Association. (1987). Law and the Courts: A handbook about United States law and court procedures, Chicago: Author.
Siegal and Senna. (1994). Juvenile justice. St. Paul, MI:
Territo, Halsted, & Bromley. (1992). Crime and justice
in America: A human perspective. St. Paul, MI: West.
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