Courts and Their Jurisdictions
Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer
To competently defend an individual accused of a crime, a criminal defense attorney must have an intimate understanding of not only the court system, but also the judges who will rule on his motions. This summary of our judicial system is for every day citizens who wish to learn the basics of our Federal criminal justice system.
U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court is the final arbiter of questions of Federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Regarded as the “court of last resort.” The court is comprised of a Chief Justice and any such number of associate justices fixed by Congress. Today, there are eight associate justices. The Court often resolves disputes between conflicting opinions of the various Circuit Courts of Appeals. The Court interprets neither state constitutions nor state laws, unless the state constitutions or state laws conflict with the U.S. Constitution or with federal Law.
We are not final because we are infallible, but infallible only because we are final.
~ Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson
U.S. Court of Appeals
First instance appellate courts for appeals from trials and/or decisions of inferior Federal courts, including the federal district courts. There are thirteen federal judicial circuits. Although these courts can have several or more justices, normally three justices sit on a given appeal.
U.S. District Court
Trial court for the federal system. Each state has one or more federal judicial districts, and in each such district there is a district court. The district courts have jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters. These courts exercise federal jurisdiction over cases involving federal laws or offenses and actions between citizens of different states.
Federal Public Defenders
In Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the Supreme Court held that the 6th Amendment Right to Counsel guaranteed impoverished defendants the right to a lawyer paid for by the State or Federal government. Gideon was charged in a Florida state court with breaking and entering into a bar to steal money and alcohol. He argued at his arraignment that he lacked funds to retain a lawyer to prepare his defense. The court refused to appoint him a lawyer, noting that defendants were entitled to appointed counsel in capital cases. Gideon defended himself in the trial; he was convicted by a jury and the court sentenced him to five years in a state prison. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that that the 6th Amendment’s guarantee of counsel was a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial, and made applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Black commented that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”
While the Gideon decision has done much to reduce the number of wrongful convictions, the number of wrongful convictions remains uncomfortably high. As Sandra Day O’Connor noted in a speech before the Minnesota Women Lawyers group:
If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed… Serious questions are being raised about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in this country. Perhaps it’s time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used.
~ Sandra Day O’Connor
Until State and Federal governments offer fair compensation to criminal defense lawyers, court appointed work will continue to attract mostly less qualified lawyers to represent the poor. If a citizen must rely on the least able criminal defense attorneys to safeguard his freedom, his 6th Amendment Right to counsel amounts to little more than an individual, clad in a suit and tie, who offers a few words of encouragement as the court officers whisk him away to a holding cell.