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A. Introduction

To be an effective “jailhouse lawyer,” you must understand both how the judicial system is organized, and how to find and use the law so that you can work within that system. This Chapter will first explain the structure of the courts that make up the judicial system. Then, this Chapter will discuss how you can research the law in your prison library. Legal research is important in helping you understand your rights under the law, so that you can present your position to a court clearly and effectively.

Before you research the law, you will need to know the powers and functions of the court where you will make your argument. Different types of courts have different powers, and hear different types of arguments. For example, the argument you make in a trial court may not be appropriate in an appellate court. Part B of this Chapter describes how the judicial system is organized and will help you understand the different powers that courts have at each level of the system. Part C explains basic legal research and provides an outline for how to develop legal arguments. Part D provides the general rules for how to cite cases and statutes in documents that you submit to a court. Part E suggests next steps you should take after you complete your legal research, such as double-checking that all your cases are up-to-date and have not been overruled.

B. An Overview of the Court System

In order to move your case successfully through the judicial system, you need to understand the system’s basic structure. Some courts will only hear cases that have to do with a certain subject matter. Other courts will only hear specific types of legal proceedings (such as an appeal), or will only hear cases from a certain geographic area. So before you file a case, you have to make sure that you are filing it with the correct court. Courts are responsible for determining what a law means. There are two types of law: law created by a legislature, and law created by judges on a court. Understanding this basic structure will help you be an effective jailhouse lawyer.

1. The Court System

The American judicial system is made up of two types of courts: trial courts and appellate courts. In trial courts lawyers put evidence before a judge or jury, who decides the facts of the dispute. Criminal trials determine the guilt or innocence of the accused, while civil cases determine whether the defendant is liable (responsible for damages or wrongs) to the plaintiff. (In civil cases, one party sues another party for a remedy.) Appellate courts review the legal conclusions of trial courts for errors. If the appellate court finds legal errors, it may order a new trial. The major difference between trial and appellate courts is that the trial courts decide issues of fact (did person A hit person B with a baseball bat?), while appellate courts generally will only check to make sure that the trial court correctly applied the law to the facts that the trial court found (if person A did hit person B, was it an assault?). Appellate courts will rarely interfere with the facts that have been found by the trial court. (If the trial court decided person A did hit person B, the appellate court will generally accept that as true.) Appellate courts will normally only consider arguments about the law, and not about the facts.1

Most states and the federal system have two levels of appellate courts. The “intermediate” appellate court2 is often called the Court of Appeals in the state system and the Circuit Court of Appeals in the federal system. The higher level of appeal, normally the “court of last resort,” is often called the Supreme Court. If you are a criminal defendant, than you usually have an automatic right to appeal your conviction or

  • *

    This Chapter was revised by Susan Maples based on previous versions by Kristin Heavey, Jennifer Parkinson, Paul

Quinlan, William H. Knight, Andrew Cameron, and Patricia A. Sheehan.


Normally, appellate courts will overturn factual findings of a trial court only if there was no evidence presented

at trial to support the trial court’s factual finding.


The first level of appellate court is called


“intermediate” appeal court because

it is between


trial court

below and the higher appellate court above.

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