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Chapter 8 The Administration of Justice. The American Court Structure. The U.S. has a dual court system . dual court. One system of state and local courts and another system of federal courts. The American Court Structure.

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Chapter 8

The Administration of Justice


The American Court Structure

The U.S. has a dual court system.

dual court

One system of state and local courts and another system of federal courts.


The American Court Structure

The court’s jurisdiction is set by law and limited by territory and type of case.


The authority of a court to hear and decide cases.


The Federal Courts

The authority for the federal court system is in the Constitution. The system includes:

  • The Supreme Court
  • The federal courts of appeals
  • The federal district courts

United States District Courts

  • Trials in federal district court are usually heard by a judge.
  • General trial courts
  • Federal criminal cases involve:
    • Bank robbery
    • Counterfeiting
    • Mail fraud
    • Kidnapping
    • Civil rights abuses

Circuit Courts of Appeals

A party that loses a case in district court may appeal to a federal circuit court of appeals, or in some cases, directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Circuit Courts of Appeals

  • Circuit courts of appeals review a case for errors of law, not of fact.
  • Normally, three judges sit as a panel to hear cases. Jury trials are not allowed.
  • Texas is in the 5th Circuit along with Louisiana and Mississippi

The United States Supreme Court

  • Court of last resort in all questions of federal law and U.S. Constitution.
  • The court may hear cases:
    • Appealed from federal courts of appeal.
    • Appealed directly from federal district courts.
    • Appealed from the high court of a state, if claims under federal law or the Constitution are involved.

The United States Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is composed of:

  • A chief justice
  • Eight associate justices
  • Each member of the court is appointed for life by the president and affirmed by the Senate.

The United States Supreme Court

  • In order for a case to be heard by the Supreme Court, at least four justices must vote to hear the case.

The United States Supreme Court

When the court decides a case, it can:

  • Affirm the decision of the lower court and “let it stand.”
  • Modify the decision of the lower court, without totally reversing it.



The United States Supreme Court

  • Reverse the decision of the lower court, requiring no further court action.
  • Reverse the decision of the lower court and remand the case to the court of original jurisdiction, for either retrial or resentencing.

The State Courts

The state courts have general power to decide nearly every type of case.

  • There are generally four levels of state courts:
  • Trial courts of limited jurisdiction
  • Trial courts of general jurisdiction
  • Intermediate appellate courts
  • State courts of last resort

Key Actors in the Court Process

The three key actors in the court process are:

  • The prosecutor
  • The defense attorney
  • The judge

The Prosecutor

The prosecutor is a powerful actor in the administration of justice. Prosecutors have the authority to:

  • Decide whether to charge or not charge a person with a crime
  • Decide whether to prosecute or not prosecute a case
  • Determine what the charge will be

The Decision to Plea-Bargain

Probably the most strategic source of power available to prosecutors is their authority to decide which cases to plea bargain.

Justice in America is dispensed mostly through plea bargaining.


The Defense Attorney

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to the “effective assistance” of counsel. Defendants have a right to counsel during many stages in the criminal justice process


The Defense Attorney

A defendant may waive the right to counsel and appear on his or her own behalf.

In the American system of justice, the role of defense counsel is to provide the best possible legal counsel and advocacy within the legal and ethical limits of the profession.


The Court-Appointed Lawyer

In some circumstances, defendants who cannot afford a lawyer are provided with a court-appointed, private attorney.

  • If they are paid at all, court-appointed private attorneys are paid a nominal sum.
  • Many are not knowledgeable in criminal law.

The Public Defender

In many large jurisdictions, people who cannot afford an attorney are provided with public defenders.


The Public Defender

  • Public defenders are paid a fixed salary by the jurisdiction.
  • Although public defenders may have a conflict of interest because of their close working relationship with prosecutors and judges, most defendants prefer them because they specialize in criminal law.

The Contract Lawyer

A relatively new and increasingly popular way to provide for indigent defense is the contract system.

  • Private attorneys, law firms, and bar associations bid for the right to represent a jurisdiction’s indigent defendants, and are paid a fixed dollar amount.

The Judge

Judges have a variety of responsibilities in the criminal justice process:

  • Determining probable cause
  • Signing warrants
  • Informing suspects of their rights
  • Setting and revoking bail



The Judge

  • Arraigning defendants
  • Accepting guilty pleas
  • In some jurisdictions, managing their own courtrooms and staff
  • Allowing the jury a fair chance to reach a verdict on the evidence presented

Selection of Judges

The two most common selection methods are:

  • Election
  • Merit selection

Selection of Judges

In the merit selection process, also known as the “Missouri Plan,”

  • The governor appoints judges from a list of qualified lawyers compiled by a nonpartisan nominating commission.
  • After serving a short term, the judge faces an uncontested election in which citizens vote whether to keep the judge or not.
  • If voters elect to keep the judge, they serve a full term.

Pretrial Stages

The screening process of pretrial stages eliminates from the judicial process about half of all the persons arrested.


Bail and Other Methods of Pretrial Release

A bail bond or bailallows suspects or defendants to remain free while awaiting the next stage in the adjudication process.

It is not a fine, but an incentive to appear.


bail bond or bail

Usually a monetary guarantee deposited with the court that is supposed to ensure that the suspect or defendant will appear at a later stage in the criminal justice process.


Bail and Other Methods of Pretrial Release

The amount of bail generally depends on:

  • The likelihood that the suspect or defendant will appear in court as required
  • The seriousness of the crime
  • The suspect’s prior criminal record
  • Jail conditions and overcrowding

Bail and Other Methods of Pretrial Release

If a judge believes that a suspect or defendant would pose a threat to the community, the judge can refuse to set bail. This is called preventive detention.


Bail and Other Methods of Pretrial Release

For people who cannot afford to post bail, professional bonds people are available to post it for them for a nonrefundable fee, typically 10% of the required amount.

Suspects who post their own bail get it all back after they appear.


Bail and Other Methods of Pretrial Release

When the crime is minor and suspects or defendants have ties to the community, they are generally released on their own recognizance.


Bail and Other Methods of Pretrial Release

  • Other nonfinancial releases are:
  • Conditional release
  • Unsecured bond

conditional release

A form of release that requires that a suspect/defendant maintain contact with a pretrial release program or undergo regular drug monitoring or treatment.

unsecured bond

An arrangement in which bail is set but no money is paid to the court.



  • If the decision is made to prosecute a defendant, in states that do not use grand juries, the prosecutor drafts a document called an information. The information outlines:
  • The charge or charges
  • The law or laws violated
  • The evidence to support the charge or charges

Grand Jury

The alternative to filing an information is a grand jury.


grand jury

Generally a group of 12 to 23 citizens who meet in closed sessions to investigate charges coming from preliminary hearings or to engage in other responsibilities. A primary purpose of the grand jury is to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the accused committed the crime or crimes.


Grand Jury

Before appearing before a grand jury, the prosecutor drafts an indictment.


A document that outlines the charge or charges against a defendant.


Grand Jury

Because the grand jury has to determine only probable cause:

  • Only the prosecution’s evidence and witnesses are heard
  • In most jurisdictions, the defendant does not have a right to be present
  • Prosecutors are allowed to present hearsay or illegally obtained evidence

Grand Jury

In addition, prosecutors have the authority to subpoena witnesses.


Grand Jury

In practice, the grand jury system is criticized for merely providing a rubber stamp for whatever the prosecutor wants to do.

Suspects waive the right to a grand jury hearing in about 80% of cases.


Plea Bargaining

Justice in the U.S. is dispensed mostly through plea bargaining. There are three basic types of plea bargains:

  • The defendant may be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offense.
  • A defendant who pleads guilty may receive a lighter sentence.
  • A defendant may plead guilty to one charge in exchange for the prosecutor’s promise to drop another charge.

Plea Bargaining

The bargain a prosecutor will strike generally depends on three factors:

  • The seriousness of the offense
  • The defendant’s criminal record
  • The strength of the prosecutor’s case

Plea Bargaining

There is neither a constitutional basis nor a statutory basis for plea bargaining.

Plea bargaining developed out of custom, but has been upheld by the Supreme Court.


Plea Bargaining

Plea bargaining is widely used because of several factors:

  • It reduces uncertainty in the criminal justice process.
  • It serves the interest of the participants
    • Prosecutors get high conviction rates.
    • Judges reduce their caseload.



Plea Bargaining

  • Defense attorneys spend less time on each case and avoid expensive trials.
  • Defendants get lighter sentences than they might have gotten from juries, and can avoid conviction on stigmatizing crimes such as child abuse.