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Criminal Court System
Evolution and History of the Criminal Justice System:
When the British first colonized the Americas, they adopted their centuries' old "Royal Privy Council" as a judicial system, as a separate branch of government.
Prior to the American Revolution, the individual American colonies all developed and maintained their own criminal (and civil) justice systems with absolutely no uniformity among them, either procedurally or statutorily. More importantly, there was no official method for mediating disputes between citizens of different colonies.
Between 1660 and 1775, the British doctrine of "Disallowance" fulfilled the role of Appellate Review, as we know it within the context of our contemporary judicial system, hearing appeals of lower (colony) court decisions. The disallowance tribunal also decided issues of conflict between the individual colonies, in the manner that modern American federal (and other appellate review) courts adjudicate contemporary issues between individual American states. (O'Connor, p.206)
In 1787, the United States Constitution provided the necessary lawmaking authority to integrate all the pre-revolutionary state courts, establish the Supreme
Court and determine its precise makeup. The actual composition of Supreme Court varied from six to ten Justices between its inception and 1869, when Congress fixed the number at nine.
After the American revolution, the Judiciary Act of 1789 also established a federal court system for mediating disputes arising between individual states and to decide issues of federal law. Similarly, the Judiciary Act of 1789 outlined the relationship between the state courts and federal court system, specifically assigning their respective areas of jurisdiction. (O'Connor, p.208)
One of the most important elements of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was the distinction between judicial review of facts and the judicial review of law. At the time of the First Congress, the Framers of the Constitution were chiefly concerned with the separation of powers between the three branches of government and checks and balances, in general. The need for state court appellate review at the federal level presented a potential problem if appellate judges reconsidered issues of fact, which undermined the entire system of state and lower federal courts of appeal. The solution was to preclude all issues of fact that were decided by lower courts at the appellate level and allow review only of substantive issues of law and judicial procedure.
Modern Structure of the Criminal Justice System:
There are two major components of the United States criminal justice system:
the federal criminal courts and the state criminal courts. Both state and federal district trial courts are courts of original jurisdiction in that they function as "fact finders."
State appellate courts do not entertain factual evidence, but only consider reversible issues of judicial error (or misconduct) at the lower court level.
Federal courts enjoy concurrent original jurisdiction over issues that are also subject to state regulation, such as some disputes between citizens of different states.
In that capacity, federal courts function as a fact-finding forum as well as arbiter of all matters of law appealed from lower court decisions.
Thirteen federal district courts, comprising 94 district courts and 179 federal judges, maintain exclusive original jurisdiction over matters of extreme national importance requiring uniformity of administration. In accordance with its exclusive original jurisdiction, federal district courts are said to preempt state authority on matters such as intellectual property, patent and trademark law, for example.
Appellate district courts usually consist of a panel of three judges hearing approximately 50,000 criminal cases annually, without a jury. At the conclusion of testimony, the court issues a ruling whereby the original decision is either affirmed and upheld, or it can reverse the lower court's verdict entirely. Appellate courts also retain the option of remanding the case back for re-trial, after settling the specific narrow) issue(s) of law or procedure that provided the basis for the initial appeal.
The Constitution authorizes the appointment of federal judges for life, and their subsequent removal through impeachment only for conviction of treason, bribery or "other high crimes and misdemeanors." This provision helps insulate federal judges from undue influences or corruptibility from parties or entities hoping to benefit from judges beholden to them for re-election.
In addition to the federal district courts, administrative agencies of the United
States government maintain adjudicative bodies analogous in function to federal courts. Distinct, independent administrative courts entertain cases arising within legal matters of tax, labor law, securities regulation and international trade.
Appeals from any of the twelve federal district courts are heard in the U.S.
Courts of Appeal, usually referred to as circuit courts, and organized by regions of several contiguous states. Federal judges, appointed for life, sit on twelve federal circuit courts, hearing cases, in panels of six judges. In 1982, the U.S. Court of Claims and the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals were merged into U.S.
Court of Appeals, forming the thirteenth federal circuit.
The individual fifty states all maintain their own trial courts of original jurisdiction that operate as finders of fact as well as law. Most state courts are designated as superior courts that hear either criminal or civil matters. Just as the federal judicial system maintains separate administrative agency courts, many state court systems also incorporate trial level courts of original limited jurisdiction over specific areas of law, such as domestic law, juvenile matters and probate. (O'Connor, p.211)
Finally, many states also allocate specific jurisdiction to minor criminal matters, such as motor vehicle code violations in jurisdictions where the vehicular laws are addressed under criminal codes. The corresponding judiciary body in states where vehicular law falls outside the scope of the criminal code is usually a venue where cases are decided by administrative law judges. Finally, there are usually smalls claims courts of original (concurrent) jurisdiction for legal matters of limited monetary value, as specifically defined by statutes.
The Appellate Review Process:
All fifty states have a system of state supreme courts for appellate review of appeals from lower criminal and civil trial courts. Usually, state appellate courts are the final arbiters of cases under their purview, simply because only a very small percentage of cases are accepted for review by the United States Supreme Court.
Approximately fifty percent of states also maintain intermediate courts of appeal, which hear appeals as of right. Criminal defendants generally have a right to petition their guilty verdicts to a higher level of judicial review by a federal district court, via writ of habeas corpus
State supreme courts, by contrast, usually have the discretion to decide which cases they will entertain, and their decision not to review a case renders the lower court's decision final. (O'Connor, p.209)
The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure:
person arrested for criminal violation in the United States is formally arraigned or charged in a court proceeding by a written instrument known as a criminal complaint. Upon a demonstration of probable cause by law enforcement agents or government prosecutors, judges and magistrates may also issue a summons upon complaint or an arrest warrant, upon which a person may be arrested and charged with a crime pursuant to proper execution, or service by appropriate law enforcement agencies.
In the United States, criminal defendants have certain rights, uniformly and unconditionally guaranteed by the Constitution. These include the rights to competent legal representation, the right to a speedy trial, the right to information relating to all phases of criminal proceedings, and the right to be heard.
The government's interest in criminal trials is represented, at all phases, from arraignment through trial and post-trial sentencing, is represented by state (or federal) prosecutors. As a practical element of criminal procedure, prosecutors review criminal cases prior to any adjudication before a judicial tribunal. Where evidence appears insufficient to warrant the expense of trial, or where procedural shortcomings of the arrest or service of summons and complaint appear sufficiently violative of established principles of criminal procedure or…[continue]
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