Understanding the Dual Court System

Sculpture of the scales of justice

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A “dual court system” is a judicial structure employing two independent court systems, one operating at the local level and the other at the national level. The United States and Australia have the world’s longest-running dual court systems.

Under the United States’ system of power-sharing known as “federalism,” the nation’s dual court system is composed of two separately operating systems: the federal courts and the state courts. In each case, the court systems or judicial branches operate independently from the executive and legislative branches.

Why the US Has a Dual Court System

Rather than evolving or “growing into” one, the United States has always had a dual court system. Even before the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787, each of the original Thirteen Colonies had its own court system loosely based on English laws and judicial practices most familiar to colonial leaders.

In striving to create the system of checks and balances through separation of powers that is now arguably considered their best idea, the framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to create a judicial branch that would have no more power than either the executive or legislative branches. To achieve this balance, the framers limited the jurisdiction or power of the federal courts, while maintaining the integrity of the state and local courts.

Criminal and Civil Law

Both the federal and state courts here two different types of cases—criminal and civil. Criminal law deals with conduct that can harm others, such as murder, assault, theft, and impaired driving. Based on their nature and degree of seriousness, criminal offenses are classified as felonies or misdemeanors, with felonies being the more serious crimes. Criminal courts determine guilt or innocence and assess punishment for criminal offenses.

Civil law involves disputes between two or more private parties over the legal or financial responsibilities they owe each other. Civil cases are settled through civil lawsuits. 

Jurisdiction of Federal Courts

A court system’s “jurisdiction” describes the types of cases it is constitutionally allowed to consider. In general, the federal courts’ jurisdiction includes cases dealing in some way with federal laws enacted by Congress and interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution. The federal courts also deal with cases whose outcomes may impact multiple states, involve interstate crime and major crimes like human trafficking, drug smuggling, or counterfeiting. Also, the “original jurisdiction” of the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Court to settle cases involving disputes between states, disputes between foreign countries or foreign citizens and U.S. states or citizens.

While the federal judicial branch operates separately from the executive and legislative branches, it must often work with them when required by the Constitution. Congress passes federal laws which must be signed by the President of the United States. The federal courts determine the constitutionality of federal laws and resolve disputes over how federal laws are enforced. However, the federal courts depend on the executive branch agencies to enforce their decisions.

Jurisdiction of the State Courts

The state courts deal with cases not falling under the jurisdiction of the federal courts—for example, cases involving family law (divorce, child custody, etc.), contract law, probate disputes, lawsuits involving parties located in the same state, as well as almost all violations of state and local laws.

The jurisdictions of the state courts will overlap with that of federal courts, with some cases being considered in both. Since each state creates its court system, they differ in structure, the number of courts, and sometimes jurisdiction. As a result, the organization of state courts resembles but is less clearly structured than that of the federal courts. 

As implemented in the United States, the dual federal/state court systems give the state and local courts leeway to “individualize” their procedures, legal interpretations, and decisions to best fit the needs of the communities they serve. For example, large cities may need to reduce murders and gang violence, while small rural towns may need to deal with theft, burglary, and minor drug violations.

About 90% of all cases dealt with in the U.S. court system are heard in the state courts.

Operational Structure of the Federal Court System

The US Supreme Court

As created by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court stands as the highest court in the United States. The Constitution merely created the Supreme Court, while assigning the task of passing federal laws and creating a system of lower federal courts. Congress has responded over the years to create the current federal court system made up of 13 courts of appeals and 94 district level trial courts sitting below the Supreme Court.

While it generates the most public interest, the Supreme Court usually hears fewer than one hundred cases every year. Overall, the entire federal court system—trial courts and appellate courts—hear several hundred thousand cases each year compared to the millions handled by the state courts. 

Federal Courts of Appeals

The U.S. Courts of Appeals is made up of 13 appellate courts located within the 94 federal judicial districts. The appeals courts decide whether or not federal laws were correctly interpreted and applied by the district trial courts under them. Each appeals court has three presidentially-appointed judges, and no juries are used. Disputed decisions of the appeals courts can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal Bankruptcy Appellate Panels

Operating in five of the 12 regional federal judicial circuits, the Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals to decisions of bankruptcy courts BAPs are currently located in the First, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits.

Federal District Trial Courts

The 94 district trial courts making up the system of U.S. District Courts do what most people think courts do. They call juries that weigh evidence, testimony, and arguments, and apply legal principles to decide who is right and who is wrong.

Each district trial court has one presidentially-appointed district judge. The district judge is assisted in preparing cases for trial by one or more magistrate judge, who may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.

Each state and the District of Columbia have at least one federal district court, with a U.S. bankruptcy court operating under it. The U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands each have a federal district court and a bankruptcy court.

Purpose of the Bankruptcy Courts

The federal bankruptcy courts have exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases involving business, personal, and farm bankruptcy. The bankruptcy process allows individuals or business that cannot pay their debts to seek a court-supervised program to either liquidate their remaining assets or reorganize their operations as needed to pay off all or part of their debt. The state courts are not allowed to hear bankruptcy cases.

Special Federal Courts

The federal court system also has two special-purpose trial courts: The U.S. Court of International Trade deals with cases involving U.S. customs laws and international trade disputes. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims decides claims for monetary damages filed against the U.S. government.

Military Courts

Military courts are completely independently from state and federal courts and operate by their own rules of procedure and applicable laws as detailed in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Structure of the State Court System

While more limited in scope the basic structure and function of the state court system closely resembling that of the federal court system.

State Supreme Courts

Each state has a State Supreme Court which reviews the decisions of the state trial and appeals courts for compliance with the state’s laws and constitution. Not all states call their highest court the “Supreme Court.” For example, New York calls its highest court the New York Court of Appeals. Decisions of the State Supreme Courts can be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court under the Supreme Court’s “original jurisdiction.”

State Courts of Appeals

Each state maintains a system of localized appeals courts that hear appeals from the decisions of the state trial courts.

State Circuit Courts

Each state also maintains geographically dispersed circuit courts that hear civil and criminal cases. Most state judicial circuits also have special courts that hear cases involving family and juvenile law.

Municipal Courts

Finally, most charted cities and towns in each state maintain municipal courts that hear cases involving violations of city ordinances, traffic violations, parking violations, and other misdemeanors. Some municipal courts also have limited jurisdiction to hear civil cases involving things like unpaid utility bills and local taxes.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Understanding the Dual Court System." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/dual-court-system-definition-4114784. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 1). Understanding the Dual Court System. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dual-court-system-definition-4114784 Longley, Robert. "Understanding the Dual Court System." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dual-court-system-definition-4114784 (accessed June 9, 2023).