NVAA 2000 Text

Chapter 2 The Criminal Justice System Continuum

Section 1, Federal and State Jurisdiction


An understanding of 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. The U.S. judicial system can be confusing and frustrating to victims when they are first exposed to it. Knowing some of the rationale for its present day composition may help victims understand the foundations of our judicial system and the manner in which laws operate and interact.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this section, students will understand the following concepts:

Statistical Overview

Characteristics of the American Judicial System

In order to understand the principles of federal and state court jurisdiction, it is essential to have a clear understanding of how the American judicial system functions. The following section will provide a brief overview of the judicial system in the United States.


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 savings institution.

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 the U.S. 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 specific matters.

Geographic organization of the American court system. 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 forty-seven months while the average sentence for the same offense in New York was fourteen months. (Pursley 1994). This should not be taken as a criticism; rather it may reflect different social values and attitudes within specific geographic areas.

The State Court System

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.

Limited jurisdiction. Courts that 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.

General jurisdiction. 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 the correct terminology for 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 many jurisdictions.

Typically, these courts hear civil cases involving the same types 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 courts.

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 potential appeal left is to file in the federal court system, but only if grounds for federal appellate jurisdiction exist.

The Federal Court System

While state courts had their origin in historical 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 federal District Courts and Circuit Courts of Appeals.


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 or other instances of statutorily-defined federal jurisdiction. These district courts handle thousands of cases per year.


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 District of Columbia area. These courts hear all appeals from U.S. 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.


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 which 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 function of 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 the U.S. judicial 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:

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 but it actually hears very few of the cases filed. Of approximately 5,000 appeals each year, the court agrees to review about 200, but may not issue an opinion on each case.


The Supreme Court handles perhaps the broadest conceivable array of legal and social issues. Recent victim-related Supreme Court decisions have addressed the following topics:

The Juvenile Court System

Because of the significant increase in 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 juvenile matters confidential.


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 detention. 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 or on juvenile probation. 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 twenty-one 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 typically confidential with no members of the news media 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 that there are grounds for federal jurisdiction. The hearing in federal court is very similar to a court trial.


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 patriae) 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 process.

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, 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 eighteen years of age. A few states use higher ages, up to twenty-one, usually for specific issues. In response to increasingly violent juvenile crime, some states have lowered their upper age limit for juvenile jurisdiction to fifteen, and even fourteen years of age.

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 truancy, running away from home, or incorrigible behavior. Dependent children are those who are in need of state intervention because of abuse or neglect by their caretakers.


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 twenty-four to forty-eight hours after filing the petition or the emergency removal of the child. The detention hearing requires child protective services or police to produce 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 hearing. An adjudicatory or jurisdictional hearing is used to determine if there is sufficient evidence to determine whether 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 is dismissed.

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 that 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 reunification 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 he or she must vigorously advocate a juvenile's wish to return home, while 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 or complied with other court orders.


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 allegedly 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 confidentiality provisions for alleged delinquents exacerbate these obstacles tremendously.

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 victims' 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 be placed.

Parens Patriae: 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 children.

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

U.S. Court of Appeals

U.S. District Courts and Magistrate Courts


State Supreme Court

Intermediate Appellate Courts

Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction

Lower Courts

Federal Judicial System
U.S. District Courts

U.S. District Courts

Administrative Quasi-Judicial Agencies

Supreme Court of the United States

U.S. Courts of Appeal

Court of Customs and Patent Appeals Custom Court

Direct Appeals from State Courts in 50 States

Court of Claims

Federal and State Jurisdiction Self-Examination

1. Describe how the federal and state courts function.

2. Describe the differences between courts of limited jurisdiction and courts of general jurisdiction.

3. What are the principles upon which the juvenile justice system was founded?

4. Describe the cases over which the U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction.

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2000 NVAA Text
Chapter 2.1
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