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The Judiciary

The State Courts

The Federal Courts

Judicial Philosophy, Politics, and Policy

More than 95 percent of court cases in the United States take place in state courts. Most crimes fall under state law, and violations of those laws are tried in state courts. Under the Tenth Amendment, the states have great latitude in how they structure their courts. Most states have a system similar to the federal system: a set of courts with original jurisdiction, appellate courts to hear appeals from these courts, and a state supreme court with final say on state law. States use different terms to describe their courts, so a court with the same (or similar) name might serve very different functions in two different states.

State Judges

Each state determines how to select its state judges. The most popular ways of selecting state judges include the following:

  • Election: This is the most common way in which states select judges.
  • Political appointment: In some states, the governor appoints state judges.
  • The merit plan: The governor appoints judges from a list of qualified candidates provided by a judicial selection committee. This method of selection (also known as the Missouri Plan) tries to put qualifications ahead of partisanship. Judges then must face retention elections, which let voters decide whether the judge should stay in office.

Appeals to the Supreme Court

When a state supreme court has made a decision, losing parties have no higher state court to which they can appeal, but they can appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will only hear these cases if there is a federal or constitutional issue at stake. The Supreme Court has ultimate judicial power in the United States, but it does not settle matters of state law and instead defers to the state courts.

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