Throughout the United States, there are two judicial systems. One consists of state and local courts established under the authority of state governments. The other is the federal court system, created by Congress under the authority of the Constitution of the United States.
State courts have virtually unlimited power to decide nearly every type of case, subject only to the limitations of the U.S. Constitution, their own state constitutions, and state law. State and local courts, located in almost every town and county across the nation, are the courts with which citizens usually have contact. These courts handle most criminal matters and the great bulk of legal business concerning wills and inheritance, estates, marital disputes, real estate dealings, commercial and personal contracts, and other day-to-day matters.
State criminal courts present an intriguing contrast. On the one hand, they exude an aura of highly formalized judicial procedure, while on the other, they demonstrate a surprising lack of organizational uniformity. Courts in one state may bear little resemblance to those in another. Court reform has not had an equal impact on all areas of the country and has, in some instances, exacerbated the differences between state court systems.
Federal courts, located principally in larger cities, decide only those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority. The highest federal court, the U.S. Supreme Court, is located in Washington, D.C., and hears cases only on appeal from lower courts.
Before trial, courts often act to shield the accused from the punitive power of the state through the use of pretrial release. In doing so, they must balance the rights of the non-convicted defendant against the potential for future harm which that person may represent. A significant issue facing pretrial decision makers is how to ensure that all defendants, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, are afforded the same degree of protection.
The personnel and the activities characteristic of today’s criminal courts and the criminal trial is the hallmark of American criminal justice. The criminal trial, which owes its legacy to the development of democratic principles in Western society, builds on an adversarial process that pits prosecution against defense. Trials have historically been viewed as peer-based, fact-finding processes intended to protect the rights of the accused while disputed issues of guilt or innocence are resolved.
The adversarial system, which has served American courts for more than 200 years, is now being questioned. Well-publicized trials of the last decade or two have demonstrated apparent weaknesses in the trial process. Moreover, the plethora of recent social and technological changes might at least partially supplant the role of advocacy in the fact-finding process. In many cases, new technologies that were unanticipated by the framers of our present system (such as DNA fingerprinting) hold the promise of closely linking suspects to criminal activity. Today’s electronic media can rapidly and widely disseminate investigative findings, widening the meaning of the phrase “a trial by one’s peers.” Whether the current adversarial system in its current form can continue to serve the interests of justice in an information-rich and technologically advanced society will be a central question for the rest of the twenty-first century.