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US Legal System

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Table of Contents

A Q&A tutorial to the American judicial system.

The Q&A provides a high-level overview of key legal concepts, such as the constitution, system of government, and general legislative process; the primary sources of law; the court structure and hierarchy; the judiciary and its appointment; and the general rules of civil and criminal litigation, such as reporting requirements, evidentiary requirements, the roles of the judge and counsel, burdens of proof, and penalties.

1. How is your constitution structured?

In 1787, twelve of the original thirteen states (excluding Rhode Island) sent delegates to a constitutional conference, where they produced the text that would become the United States Constitution. Public figures like as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Roger Sherman were among the delegates. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in England and France to represent their nation.

To become effective, the agreement required ratification by nine states. The agreement was approved by the ninth state in 1788 and became effective in 1789, succeeding the Articles of Confederation, the preceding governmental text.

Throughout the public discussions over the proposed constitution’s adoption, a recurring theme emerged: the proposed constitution lacked clear protection for individual rights. The Constitution’s authors told the people in those states where this dispute was most heated that the Constitution, if approved, would be changed to incorporate individual rights. This worry led the introduction of twelve constitutional amendments the same year the Constitution took effect. Ten of these amendments were adopted, and they were eventually dubbed the Bill of Rights (see Question 7). Along with the amendments listed in the Bill of Rights, the US Constitution has been changed 17 other times.
Characteristics of the general constitution

2. What is the governing system?

The United States has a representational federal government in which the President and federal lawmakers are elected by the people, while members of the federal court are appointed. The federal government shares authority with the 50 state governments. The US Constitution establishes a divide of authority between the federal and state governments.
State leader

The President is the head of state, who is indirectly chosen by the people via a process known as the electoral college (which is set out in the Constitution). In the United States, the President serves as both the political and ceremonial head of government.

The United States government is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary.
President is a member of the executive branch.
Cabinet members are the executive chiefs of the executive branch’s many departments.

While Congress establishes the executive branch’s departments and regulatory agencies, the President picks cabinet members and heads of regulatory agencies, subject to the Senate’s advice and approval.

Congress, or the legislative branch, is a bipartisan body comprised of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state’s senators and representatives in the House are chosen by the state’s citizens or the congressional district they represent. The Senate is presided over by the Vice President of the United States, who is chosen by the people. The House of Representatives is presided over by the Speaker of the House, who is chosen by the House members. Each of the 50 states elects two senators, for a total of 100 senators serving six-year terms. The House of Representatives has 435 voting members, with each state guaranteed one and the remaining distributed among the 50 states depending on population. Representatives are appointed for two-year periods.

The judicial arm of government is comprised of the United States Supreme Court, the United States Courts of Appeals, and the United States District Courts. There are thirteen distinct federal circuit courts of appeals, which include the following:

Courts of Appeal for the First through Eleventh Circuits of the United States of America.
Circuit of the District of Columbia (DC).
Federal Circuit, a court with jurisdiction based on subject matter rather than location. The Federal Circuit hears appeals from the United States Court of Federal Claims as well as certain kinds of intellectual property matters (among other cases).
Each state and territory in the union has at least one federal district court. Additionally, there are additional specialised courts (see Question 14). See Questions 16 and 17 for information on the judges who sit on these courts.

3. Is there a division of powers in the constitution?

While the US Constitution does not expressly allow for a separation of powers, its structure accomplishes so implicitly via checks and balances on each branch.
The Constitution establishes the following power divisions among the three branches:
The legislative branch enacts the country’s federal legislation.
The executive branch is responsible for enforcing the laws.
The judicial branch interprets federal statutes and (on occasion) state statutes.
Additionally, the Constitution vests each branch with power that acts as a check on the other two. The legislative branch, for example, has the authority to impeach the President, Vice President, and other civil authorities (including federal judges) for grave crimes and misdemeanours.
The judiciary’s authority to reject legislation or executive actions that contravene constitutional provisions acts as a check on both the legislative and judicial branches’ authority. See Question 5 for information on the judicial review doctrine.
The veto authority of the President (see Question 4) is an example of the executive branch exercising a check on the legislative branch. Additionally, the executive branch has authorities that act as a check on the judiciary’s authority. For instance, the President has the authority to pardon persons guilty of federal offences.

4. What is the legislative procedure in general?

Proposal and composition

Members of either the House of Representatives or the Senate may initiate legislation in their respective legislative chambers. Following that, the Bill is sent to a committee for more investigation and debate. Certain bills need further consideration by a more specialised panel.

When a Bill is reported out of committee, it is added to the calendar of the chamber in which it was presented. If a Bill is placed on the schedule for consideration by that chamber, members will debate and discuss it prior to a final vote. If a Bill is accepted by a majority of members, it is sent to the next chamber and must be referred to and passed out of committee before proceeding to the floor (where it will be placed on the calendar for debate and a vote).

If the second chamber edits or accepts a replacement bill and the original chamber does not agree on all of the modifications, the bill is sent to conference committee (which consists of members from both chambers). The conference committee produces a report that serves as a compromise between the two legislation enacted by each house. Before the conference committee report and final legislation are enacted, each chamber must agree with it.

Once adopted by Congress, the Bill is delivered to the White House for signature by the President. After then, the President has ten days to sign or reject the bill. If the President vetoes the Bill, it may still become law if two-thirds of members of the House of Representatives and Senate vote to override the veto. If the ten-day deadline ends without the President signing it, the Bill automatically becomes law, unless Congress is not in session. If Congress has adjourned, the President’s inability to sign constitutes an indirect veto (referred to as a pocket veto) that the legislature cannot overturn.

5. Is there a judicial review system for legislative and executive actions?

Although the US Constitution does not directly allow for judicial review, the Supreme Court reaffirmed in its seminal case, Marbury v Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, that legislative and executive acts were susceptible to judicial review (1803). The Constitution limits the jurisdiction of federal courts to “cases and disputes” (that is, cases where an individual or an entity that has the capacity to sue or be sued has actually been harmed by the action in question). As a result, federal courts are unable to issue advisory opinions on the legislative or executive branches’ acts (even if requested to do so).

6. Is the executive branch reserved for specific emergency powers?

The US Constitution does not clearly authorise the executive branch to employ emergency powers. Throughout history, presidents have exercised such rights at various periods. Congress has restricted the President’s use of these powers by enacting the National Emergencies Act, which imposes certain procedural requirements on his authority and allows Congress to terminate an existing proclaimed emergency by adopting a joint resolution.

7. Are constitutional protections for human rights guaranteed?

The Bill of Rights and other amendments to the US Constitution, such as the Thirteenth Amendment (which outlaws slavery) and the Nineteenth Amendment, safeguard a variety of individual rights (which guarantees women the right to vote). The Bill of Rights comprises the United States Constitution’s first 10 amendments, which were passed in 1791. Certain elements of the Bill of Rights date all the way back to 1215’s Magna Carta (signed by King John of England). Among other things, the Bill of Rights allows for the following:
Religious liberty.
Liberation of expression (which includes the freedom of speech and the press).
Right to assemble.
Associational liberty.
The right to address a government official with a petition.
The right to keep and bear arms
The right to be free from inhumane and degrading treatment.
The right to a jury trial in a fair manner.
Additionally, the Constitution recognises an individual’s right to due process and equal protection under the law. The United States Supreme Court has decided that the due process and equal protection clauses also guarantee a variety of unstated, or implicit, civil rights, including the right against state-sanctioned racial discrimination.
Travel right.
Voting rights.
The right to abortion.
The ability to marry.

8. How is the constitution amendable?

The US Constitution’s Article V establishes a process for altering the Constitution. There are two methods for submitting an amendment:
Congress has the authority to propose amendments if they get a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
States may propose changes through a constitutional convention convened by two-thirds of state legislatures.
Once submitted, an amendment must be approved in order to become part of the Constitution. Ratification of a proposed amendment is possible in one of two ways:

By three-fourths of the states’ legislatures.
Through conventions that three-fourths of the states have requested.
Therefore, in combination, there are four potential methods to modify the Constitution.
System of justice


9. How is your legal system structured?

The following sources of law comprise the US legal system:
The United States Constitution.
Federal law.
Treaties with other countries.
Federal court rulings that interpret federal law, state law, or (in some restricted cases) international law.
The constitutions of the fifty states.
State statutes.
State legal judgments interpreting the United States Constitution, the 50 states’ and District of Columbia’s statutes, and international law (in some limited circumstances).
The English common law, upon which federal and state courts sometimes turn to assess whether certain rights that existed in England at the time the US Constitution was adopted must also be recognised in the US under federal or state law. A case in point is determining whether a plaintiff has a constitutional right to a jury trial under a federal or state act creating a new legal remedy. In such cases, judges consult the English common law to resolve the issue.
The US Constitution contains a provision (known as the supremacy clause) that establishes the Constitution, duly enacted federal laws, and all foreign treaties concluded under US authority as the supreme law of the US, and that judges in each state are bound by the US Constitution, all federal law, and duly adopted foreign treaties. These three sources of federal law pre-empt the legal impact of any provision of state law that is inconsistent with them, including any state rule or regulation and any county or municipal ordinance, so long as the source of federal law remains in force (and, as examples, a federal law is not repealed or a foreign treaty is not rescinded).
Additionally, the US Constitution requires that each state accords full faith and credit to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of other states, and that Congress may prescribe by general law the manner in which such acts, records, and judicial proceedings will be proved and their legal effect. A state court is bound by the final judgement of another sovereign state’s court so long as the other state’s judgement meets with the conditions of the US Constitution’s full faith and credit clause (that is, that states must respect the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state). A state court may also be bound by the precedential impact of another state’s rulings if it determines (via a conflict-of-laws examination) that another state’s substantive law regulates a legal issue in the state court’s ongoing case. Similarly, there are times when a federal court must apply state law to a current legal action and times when a state court must apply federal law, depending on the identification of the parties and the nature of the legal dispute.
One state does not have a system of common law. Louisiana (which was initially claimed by France before being bought by the United States in 1803) has a civil law system.
The primary sources of law

10. What are the primary sources of domestic law?

The primary sources of domestic law and their authority hierarchy are detailed in the response to Question 9. 11. To what degree do foreign sources of law apply?
The US Constitution empowers the President to negotiate treaties on behalf of the US. These treaties may become legally binding and enforceable if two-thirds of the Senate votes in favour of them.
Court organisation and hierarchy

12. What is the overall organisation and hierarchy of the court?

A district court will hear the bulk of federal matters (both civil and criminal). The federal judiciary is comprised of 94 district courts.
Those courts’ decisions may be appealed to a court of appeals. Each of the 94 district courts is divided into 12 regional circuits, each of which has an appeal court. Additionally, there is a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which is a court of appeals having worldwide jurisdiction over a limited number of specialised issues.
After obtaining a ruling from an appeals court, a party may ask the United States Supreme Court (the country’s highest court) to hear an appeal.

13. To what degree are subordinate courts bound by higher court decisions?

Lower courts are constrained by higher courts’ precedents. A district court is governed by the judgments of the circuit court of appeals and the US Supreme Court.

14. Are there courts dedicated to certain legal areas?

There are a number of specialised courts, including the Federal Information Surveillance Court and the International Trade Court. Additionally, Congress has established specialised tribunals that may decide disputes within their subject-matter authority. The United States Bankruptcy Court and the United States Tax Court are two examples. Legislative court judges do not have the same safeguards as judges in constitutional courts (life tenure and salary protection).

15. Is the usage of quasi-legal authorities widespread?

Through executive administrative agencies, the US government governs a variety of specialised businesses. The US Congress establishes and authorises these government entities. Congress may confer on an agency the ability to create rules or the authority to arbitrate certain disputes within its jurisdiction subject to judicial review, or it may confer both powers on an agency.

16. Is there a provision in the constitution for an independent judiciary?

Yes, Article III of the United States Constitution guarantees an independent judiciary by creating lifetime tenure for judges (subject to impeachment by Congress for serious crimes and misdemeanours) and by guaranteeing that judges’ salaries are not diminished.

17. How are judges normally appointed?

The President appoints judges with the Senate’s advise and permission.

The United States Constitution provides no specific standards for judicial credentials.
Disputes (civil and criminal)

18. Are the courts adversarial, non-adversarial, or some other kind of system?

Federal courts must follow an adversarial method of litigation, as required by the US Constitution. While the majority of state courts in the United States of America operate on an adversarial basis, certain state courts have the jurisdiction to issue specific sorts of advisory opinions under their individual state constitutions. For instance, some jurisdictions allow state legislators to seek advisory opinions from their state supreme court about the legality of proposed legislation.

19. Who is in charge of assembling evidence?

In civil or criminal cases, each side may acquire evidence to support its position.

In criminal cases, the government collects evidence (as the prosecuting party) and is required to provide all information obtained (including exculpatory evidence) to the defendant. A US Attorney for the state in which the federal criminal case is being prosecuted or, in certain situations, an attorney with the US Department of Justice is the prosecuting authority for the US government in cases where a defendant is charged with violating a federal criminal statute. If a defendant faces a state criminal process, the criminal action will be prosecuted in the state’s name by a state official designated by legislation to conduct the state criminal proceeding. The state prosecutor’s title and powers differ per state.

20. Is evidence evaluated independently prior to a trial?

There is no obligation that evidence be scrutinised independently prior to trial. When a party wishes to exclude evidence from trial, it may file a move in limine (that is, a preliminary motion) seeking that the court do so. Typically, such motions are based on the proceeding’s evidence rules.

21. Are public trials/hearings held?

Under the US Constitution, both civil and criminal pre-trial processes and trials are presumed to be open to the public. In rare instances, a judge may find that some material must be kept confidential and may order the closure of a portion of the proceedings or trial. The closure should not be more expansive than required. Generally, juvenile procedures and adjudications in state courts are closed to the public.

22. Are normally reporting limits applied in connection with clinical trials?

Generally, there are no reporting requirements for any aspect of criminal or civil proceedings. Due to the fact that the US Constitution safeguards press freedom, reporting limits are strongly opposed. However, in rare instances, media coverage may jeopardise a defendant’s right to a fair trial (which is also guaranteed by the Constitution). In such instances, a judge may impose restrictions on media coverage. However, the limitation must be reasonable and suited to the unique circumstances of each instance.

23. What is the primary purpose of the study, and who are the primary participants?

A trial’s primary purpose is to analyse the claims and put them to the test against the evidence offered. The parties will present evidence and call witnesses for direct and cross questioning. The fact finder will assess guilt or culpability via this method.
The plaintiff or prosecutor, the defendant, their respective counsel, the judge, and (if appropriate) the jury are the principal participants in a trial.

24. What is the judge’s and counsel’s primary duty in a trial?

The judiciary’s function

Generally, the judge will abstain from acting as factfinder. Rather than that, the judge will serve as an unbiased referee who will decide legal disputes.

The legal counsel’s role

The lawyer’s function is to act as an advocate for the parties concerned. In that position, the attorneys will present evidence and cross-examine the other party’s witnesses. Additionally, lawyers will debate and summarise the evidence offered in an effort to convince the fact finder. While attorneys are zealous advocates for their clients, as officers of the court, they owe the court a duty of candour (specific rules of professional conduct impose not only a duty of honesty and integrity, but also a duty of candour, which requires attorneys to disclose certain factual and legal information to the court) and respect under the rules of professional conduct that govern their conduct on behalf of their clients both in and out of the courtroom.

25. To what degree do juries play a role?

Civil legislation

The US Constitution guarantees a right to a jury trial in a majority of civil matters. The right to a jury trial occurs in circumstances involving legal (rather than equitable) rights. For example, a plaintiff has a right to a jury trial if the plaintiff seeks damages for a breach of contract, but not if the plaintiff seeks simply particular performance (an equitable remedy).
Penal law

The US Constitution guarantees a right to a jury trial for severe criminal accusations.

26. Are there any limitations on the kind of evidence that a court may hear?

The admissibility of evidence is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. In general, evidence must be relevant, credible, and not unreasonably damaging to be admitted. Additionally, the Rules give more precise instructions. For example, unless an exemption exists, the Federal Rules of Evidence prohibit the use of hearsay (that is, out-of-court utterances made to establish the truth of a subject alleged). The Rules also restrict the use of character evidence. Additionally, the Rules of Evidence govern the impeachment of a witness (that is, the process of calling into question an individual’s credibility during a trial), the authentication of evidence, and the admission of expert testimony.
Additionally, there are grounds for evidence exclusion under the US Constitution. For instance, courts may also disregard evidence gathered unlawfully. Defendants have the right to face their accusers. Additionally, a person has the right to stay quiet rather than self-incriminate.

27. In a trial, which side bears the burden of evidence and to what extent is this burden met?

Civil legislation

In civil cases, the plaintiff has the burden of evidence. In most circumstances, the majority of the evidence serves as the standard of proof (that is, on the balance of probabilities). The standard of proof for some legal claims (such as fraud and mutual or unilateral error) may be higher than a majority of the evidence. When a defendant asserts an affirmative defence, the defendant is responsible for establishing that defence.
Penal law

In criminal cases, the government has the burden of evidence. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the bar of evidence.

28. What judgments is the court permitted to render?

Civil legislation

If there is a jury and the jury is unable to reach a result, the judge may either find for the plaintiff or the defendant or declare a mistrial. Cases that result in a mistrial may be retried.
Penal law

If there is a jury and the jury is unable to reach a result, the judge may enter a guilty or not guilty verdict or declare a mistrial. Cases that result in a mistrial may be retried.

29. What range of penalties/relief may the court impose in the event of a conviction?

Civil legislation

In civil matters, a court may (among other things): Affirm the aggrieved party’s claim for damages.
Assess the perpetrator with penalties or fines.

Reimburse attorneys’ expenses. In certain circumstances, the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees if and as specified by legislation, contract, or where exemplary or punitive damages (if permitted by state law) are attainable.

Fees, expenditures, and charges associated with filing, as specified and authorised by legislation and court rule.
Issue restraining orders.
Specific performance may be ordered.
Pre- or post-judgment interest may be given, depending on the nature of the relief granted.
Penal law

A criminal court may impose the following penalties:
Financial penalties.
Mental health care.
Sexual offenders must register.
A period of confinement.