INTRODUCTION TO LEGAL RESEARCH
sentence to the intermediate appellate court.3 You can only appeal to a higher appellate court if that court agrees to hear your case. Usually, higher appellate courts only grant appeals to cases that raise new legal issues. The typical court structure is shown below in Figure 1.
State Supreme Court ! Court of Appeals ! Trial Court
Federal Courts U.S. Supreme Court
! Circuit Court of Appeals
! Federal District Courts
inside front and back covers of the JLM).
Some states have different names for their courts, but the basic organization remains the same.4 The organization of the federal system is similar to that of the states. Every state and the District of Columbia has its own system of courts. Each court system only handles cases in its jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the area over which a court has the power to resolve disputes and enforce its decisions. Some courts have jurisdiction only over certain subject matter, and some courts only have jurisdiction over certain territory. Both of these types of jurisdictions are discussed below.
(a) Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Courts are divided into state and federal courts. Federal courts only have jurisdiction over cases that involve the U.S. Constitution or a law passed by the U.S. Congress (called a “federal statute”).5 State courts are generally free to deal with any matter (i.e., a state court can decide a dispute that has to do with a state law or a federal law). Defendants often prefer to bring their case in federal court, if possible, because federal courts can often hear cases more quickly than state courts.
In addition to the distinction between state and federal law, some courts are further limited in the subject matter of law they may consider. For example, the New York City Criminal Court can only hear non-felony criminal cases; the Federal Tax Court can only hear tax cases.6
(b) Territorial Jurisdiction
Courts are also limited to hearing cases from particular regions. For example, the Criminal Court of New York City can only hear cases about crimes that took place in New York City. Similarly, the federal court for the Eastern District of New York is restricted to hearing cases about incidents arising in Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. So even if a case is within a court’s subject matter jurisdiction, the court cannot hear the case unless it also took place in the court’s territorial jurisdiction.
Appellate courts also have limited geographic jurisdiction. Each federal Circuit Court of Appeals represents a specific geographic region; the regions are numbered and may include more than one state. The following are the twelve Circuit Courts and the states (and territories) that are in their jurisdiction:
First Circuit: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island; Second Circuit: Connecticut, New York, and Vermont; Third Circuit: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Virgin Islands; Fourth Circuit: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia;
Prosecutors, on the other hand, can only rarely appeal.
For example, New York State has a more complicated court structure, but it still follows the basic pattern of
other states. In New York, the trial court is called the Supreme Court. The intermediate appellate courts are called the Appellate Division, which is subdivided into four regional Departments; each Department has jurisdiction over different parts of the state. The highest court is called the Court of Appeals. For more details on the organization of the New York State court system, see the diagrams on the inside back cover of the JLM.
art. III, § 2. district court
The § for civil
symbol means section. Additional federal statutes cases that concern the “Constitution, laws, or treaties
also provide of the United
28 U.S.C. § of different
1331 (2008). You can also file a civil complaint in federal district court if you states and the dispute involves more than $75,000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (2008).
original States.” citizens
Handeland v. Comm’n of Internal Revenue, 519 F.2d 327, 329 (9th Cir. 1975) (“The basic jurisdiction of the Tax
Court ... is now limited to … Federal income, estate, and gift taxes”).