Chapter 1

JurisdictionUnited States

In the following chapters, we will be looking at the organization and structure of courts in America. Those chapters will cover state courts, federal courts, and specialized courts (which may be either federal or state). But first we need to understand how the courts got to where they are today.

The organization of the American system of courts will seem at first glance to be tremendously complex, filled with overlapping authority and based on seemingly random factors. That description is, of course, the exact opposite of what one would want in a system of justice. One wants simplicity, clarity of authority, and an appropriate level of efficiency.

But the American courts are as much a product of their history as of any logical design and so it is important to briefly trace that history and to place the courts in the context of the broader American history. It is only by doing so that the design becomes understandable.

So, let's move back to the beginning of the America and the drafting of the Constitution in 1787. Let's take a look at the decision to have a "federal" government and what that meant for the courts.

America separated from England as a result of the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Before that each colony had acted independently of the others. All were subject to English rule as well. But virtually all government was local and colony based. After the Revolutionary War, the new American states adopted the Articles of Confederation. This agreement retained the basic structure of the colonial era. Each former colony was an independent state that agreed with the other former colonies to act together on a small number of items—largely foreign affairs and defense.

The new central government had no real power. If it needed an army for defense, it had to ask the states to voluntarily pay for it. If one state passed a law harmful to another, the central government could do nothing about it. It quickly became clear that the new nation could not flourish with a system in which no one was really in charge, and defense and commerce could not be efficiently managed. Something had to be done, but the independence of the states was a crucial fact that had wide support. People considered themselves to be New Yorkers or Virginians more than Americans and that was not going to change quickly.

Things had gotten bad enough that in 1787 delegates from around the new nation gathered in Philadelphia to create a new framework for governance. In...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT