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Report No. 99

Court structure in U.S.A.

The complexity of the court structure of the U.S.A. stems largely from the multiplicity of more or less autonomous state jurisdictions which overlap the federal legal system. Although the American legal system was originally founded upon English common law, the written Constitution, in effecting a more or less rigid separation of powers, and with its entrenched liberation provisions such as 'due process', coupled with nearly two centuries of independence, has resulted in the evolution of a system which bears little resemblance to that of contemporary Britain. The differences can perhaps be seen most clearly in the Constitution orientation of the work of the Supreme Court and in a wholly different approach to the doctrine of stare decisis.1

So far as state jurisdiction are concerned, only eighteen of the fifty states have two appellate tiers. The states with two appellate courts are; Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indians, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma (criminal appeals only), Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. But is should be borne in mind that all the principal states have a two-tier system and that the eighteen states mentioned contain no less than 70 per cent of the United States population. Survey date (available for only eleven of the three-tier states) shows that in five states appeal to the second-tier appellate court in all categories of cases lies as of right, and in two other states all final appeals are subject to the granting of leave while, in four states1 appeal, as of right lies only in certain categories of cases.

The federal appellate system is also basically two-tired. The first tier of appellate jurisdiction is exercised by eleven district federal Courts of Appeal. The final appeal lies to the U.S. Supreme Court which has jurisdiction in respect not only of appeals from federal courts but also of appeals from state courts in cases which involve a substantial federal element.3

Appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States does not generally lie as of right, but is subject to the granting of certiorari by the court; exceptions (which do lie as of right) include cases where a state statute is said to be repugnant to the constitution treaties or laws of the United States, but even these cases are carefully screened by the Court before it will grant a hearing.4

1. Bloom Cooper and Drewry Final Court of Appeal, (1972), p. 58.

2. Bloom Cooper and Drewry Final Court of Appeal, (1972), pp. 53-54.

3. There is a provisions for a petition to the Supreme Court for a rehearing, but this is rarely granted.

4. Bloom Cooper and Drewry Final Court of Appeal, (1972), pp. 53-54.

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