How Is Judicial Power Distributed?

In the United States, judicial power is divided between the federal and state governments; within each court system, a tiered structure of original and appellate jurisdiction is in place. Both the executive and legislative bodies of government exert checks over the power of the judiciary. Judicial power is outlined in Article III of the Constitution.

States and the federal government have their own court systems. The federal court system tries cases involving disputes between states, admiralty law, bankruptcy, ambassadors and public ministers, the constitutionality of a law and the laws and treaties of the United States. The Constitution grants the federal judiciary charge over these matters. Jurisdiction over all other issues are reserved to the states, including most criminal cases, wills and estates, personal injuries and family law.

Within both the federal and state court systems, there are differing levels of jurisdiction. Citizens normally initiate trials in a district court, bankruptcy court, tax court or the Court of Veterans Appeals. Disputes over the decision in one of these courts may be appealed to a U.S. Court of Appeal. The highest court of appeal is the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court is not obligated to hear all appeals made to it.

State courts are also dedicated to specific cases, including juvenile courts, family courts and probate courts. Like their federal counterparts, state court systems have supreme courts that serve as the ultimate court of appeal.