5.10. Putting It Together

Kate McLean


Court jurisdiction determines where a case will be filed and which courthouse has the legal authority to hear a case. Jurisdiction can be based on geography, subject matter, or seriousness of the offense. Jurisdiction is also divided between trial courts (original jurisdiction) and appellate courts (appellate jurisdiction).

More than 51 court systems operate in the United States. We have a dual court system comprised of federal trial and appellate courts and state trial and appellate courts. Federal and state courts have similar hierarchical structures with cases flowing from lower trial courts through intermediate courts of appeals and up to the supreme courts.

Defendants who wish to appeal their convictions are entitled to have their cases reviewed at least once, a mandatory appeal of right in the intermediate courts of appeal. After that, appellate review is discretionary and rare. Appellate courts generally affirm the decision of the trial courts, but may also reverse and remand the case back to the trial court if they determine that prejudicial error occurred.  At the intermediate appellate court level, judges most frequently affirm the trial court’s decision without writing an opinion, but sometimes the judges will write opinions informing the parties of their decision and the reasons for holding as they did. Judges don’t always agree, and at times, judges will write dissenting opinions or concurring opinions. Appellate court opinions become precedent that must be followed in the trial courts.

Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys work together, along with court clerks, bailiffs, and other court staff to process tens of thousands of cases daily in trial courts across the nation.  Although few cases actually go to trial, and the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved in the trial courts at the pre-trial stage, the defendants must be represented by an attorney at critical stages in the process, and at the government’s expense if they cannot afford to hire an attorney, unless they have voluntarily waived the right and wish to represent themselves.

The chart below outlines the basic stages that a criminal case follows after arrest. Click on each stage below to learn more, keeping in mind that the name and order of these steps may differ by jurisdiction.


How Much Does TV Get Right…or Wrong?

Check out former NYC Prosecutor Lucy Lang’s breakdown of 30 courtroom scenes from popular TV dramas and movies. Will you still be taking legal advice from “Suits”?


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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