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NEW YORK STATE AND FEDERAL STATE COURTS
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A court is an institution that the government sets up to settle disputes through a legal process. Courts decide what really happened and what should be done about it. They decide whether a person committed a crime and what the punishment should be. They also provide a peaceful way to decide private disputes that people can’t resolve themselves.
Courts use the adversary process to help them reach a decision. Through this process, each side presents its most persuasive arguments to the fact finder (judge or jury) and emphasizes the facts that support its case. Each side also draws attention to any flaws in its opponent’s arguments. The fact-finder then decides the case. American judicial tradition holds that the truth will be reached most effectively through this adversary process.
There are two kinds of courts in this country: federal courts and state courts.
Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution by Congress to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. There are two kinds of courts in the federal court system: the trial court and the appellate court. The trial court's basic function is to resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right. The appellate court's task is to determine whether the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Because the federal courts are the courts of limited jurisdiction, they handle much less number of cases than the state courts. Also, the federal courts are funded by the United States government and thus have more resources than the state courts. As a result, federal criminal cases are much more involved and require much more detailed work than state criminal cases. In the federal system, United States Attorney’s Office is the prosecuting agency, and various federal law-enforcement agencies, such as FBI, DEA, ICE, Secret Service, are assisting them in investigating and prosecuting the case.
State and local courts are established by a state (within states there are also local courts that are established by cities, counties, and other municipalities, which we are including in the general discussion of state courts).
The differences between federal courts and state courts are further defined by the jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear.
Federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear:
- Cases in which the United States is a party.
- Cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction) including the violation of Title 18 of the United States Code (Crimes and Criminal Procedure).
- Cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction).
- Bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases. State courts, in contrast, have broad jurisdiction, so the cases individual citizens are most likely to be involved in--such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes--are usually tried in state courts.
In many cases, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. This allows parties to choose whether to go to state court or to federal court.
Criminal cases involving federal laws can be tried only in federal court, but most criminal cases involve violations of state law and are tried in state court. We all know, for example, that robbery is a crime, but what law says it is a crime? By and large, state laws, not federal laws, make robbery a crime. There are only a few federal laws about a robbery, such as the law that makes it a federal crime to rob a bank whose deposits are insured by a federal agency. Examples of other federal crimes are bringing illegal drugs into the country or across state lines and the use of the U.S. mails to swindle consumers. Crimes committed on federal property, such as national parks or military reservations, are also prosecuted in federal court.
Federal courts may also hear cases concerning state laws if the issue is whether the state law violates the federal Constitution.
Some kinds of conduct are illegal under both federal and state laws. For example, federal laws prohibit employment discrimination, and the states have added their own laws. A person can go to federal or state court to bring a case under the federal law or both the federal and state laws. A case that only involves a state law can be brought only in state court.
Appeals for review of actions by federal administrative agencies are also federal civil cases.
Congress has divided the country into ninety-four federal judicial districts. In each district, there is a U.S. district court. The U.S. district courts are the federal trial courts -- the places where federal cases are tried, witnesses testify, and juries serve. Within each district is a U.S. bankruptcy court, a part of the district court that administers the bankruptcy laws.
Congress uses state boundaries to help define the districts.
Congress placed each of the ninety-four districts in one of twelve regional circuits. Each circuit has a court of appeals. If you lose a case in a district court, you can ask the court of appeals to review the case to see if the district judge applied the law correctly.
There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, it hears appeals from certain courts and agencies, such as the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and certain types of cases from the district courts (mainly lawsuits by people claiming their patents have been infringed).
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the nation. If you lose a case in the court of appeals (or, sometimes, in a state supreme court), you can ask the Supreme Court to hear your appeal. However, unlike a court of appeals, the Supreme Court doesn't have to hear it. In fact, the Supreme Court hears only a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to review.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has jurisdiction over and summons jurors from the counties of New York, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, and Sullivan. The Court for the Southern District of New York hears cases in Manhattan, White Plains, and Middletown, New York.
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York comprises of the counties of Kings, Nassau, Queens, Richmond, and Suffolk and concurrently with the Southern District, the waters within the counties of Bronx and New York.