What Courts Do
The judicial branch must apply the existing laws to each individual situation, to be sure justice is administered fairly. This includes punishing those who are guilty of breaking the law, and keeping the rest of the community safe from crime. Courts also settle disputes between citizens that they can’t resolve on their own.
The Types of Court Cases
In criminal cases, the government brings a case against one or more defendants. The defendant in a criminal case is the person being accused of committing a crime by the government. At the U.S. District Court level, the government is represented by the United States Attorney (or an Assistant United States Attorney), also called the prosecuting attorney.
Anyone accused of a federal felony has a right to be assisted by a lawyer for every step of the process, even if they can’t afford one. (A felony is a crime carrying a jail term of more than one year.) The right to counsel is guaranteed by the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The defendant can retain, or hire, their own defense attorney, or they may have one appointed for them if they financially unable to hire an attorney for their defense. In many cases, the appointed attorney will be from the Federal Public Defenders Office. Defendants are also allowed to represent themselves, and this is called pro se.
Most crimes are a violation of state law, not federal law, and thus would be prosecuted in the state court system. Only crimes that break a law of the U.S. government will be prosecuted in the federal courts. Some examples of federal crimes include:
- Financial fraud
- Bank robbery
- Threatening the president or other federal officials or buildings
- Committing a crime on federal property
- Committing a crime using interstate commerce
- Committing a crime that involves a conspiracy
- Using a firearm to commit a crime
- Manufacturing and distributing controlled substances
The 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to sue someone for loss or damages they have caused you. This is called a civil law suit. In a civil suit, the person bringing the case against another party is called the plaintiff. The party the plaintiff is suing is called the defendant. Though you have the right to sue someone in federal court, not every civil law suit is a federal case. See below to figure out which civil cases might be heard in federal court.
Though the U.S. Constitution gives everyone a right to have an attorney if accused of a crime, there is no such guarantee for civil cases. Therefore, if you choose to bring suit against someone, or someone brings suit against you, you will need to hire a private attorney. In some cases, there are legal aid resources for people who can’t afford an attorney, but those vary by community. When attorneys help someone for free by donating their time, this is called pro bono work. Parties to a law suit are also allowed to represent themselves, and this is called pro se.
Like criminal cases, the majority of civil disputes are left to the state courts to settle. The federal courts only deal with civil cases that either:
A) involve a question of federal law, or
B) involve parties with “diversity of citizenship.” This means that the parties are from two different states. In order for this type of civil case to be under the jurisdiction of the federal court, the dollar amount of the loss must exceed $75,000.
Some examples of civil disputes that could be filed in federal court are:
- Suing for civil rights violations or discrimination
- Suing for first amendment violations of free speech, free expression of religion, etc
- Suing people for a loss they caused, if they are from another state