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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in November 2013. It is an excerpt from their course US Court Records  by C. Ann Staley, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Contents

Brief Overview of the United States Judicial System

The United States has three branches of Government―legislative, executive and judicial. Each has some control over the other and provides for checks and balances .

Colonial Courts

The judicial system of the American colonies (early to 1775) was generally the practices of the British judicial system—English precedent. At that time the British courts were

  1. Common Pleas (private law);
  2. King’s Bench (criminal law); and
  3. Chancery (equity). The American Colonial System consisted of a variety of similar courts.

After Independence

Following independence the United States provided for two sources of court control―the federal government (Federal Courts) and the individual states (states have a sovereign capacity and courts are established under state statutes). This dual system, surprisingly, still works today .

Types of Law

The types of law which govern the judicial system of the United States come from six basic sources:

  • Constitutional - Federal and State.
  • Case Law - Made by court through the interpretive process. Commonly referred to as common law which originated in England as a result of decisions by courts based on precedent. The common law is not written in statutes or codes, but by decisions of the courts.
  • The Bill of Rights.
  • Administrative Law - Made and enforced by regulatory agencies (i.e. Environmental Protection Agency, Internal Revenue Service, etc.).
  • Statutory Law - Made by legislative bodies such as Congress or a state legislature.
  • Common Law (English) - Originated in England as a result of decisions by courts based on precedent. The common law is not written in statutes or codes, but by decisions of the courts.

Branches of American Government

Copyright 2011, Iowa Judicial Branch. Reprinted from Iowa Judicial Branch. “Courts at a Glance: For Everyone From Students to Seniors” (accessed Dec 2011), p.2. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

Branches of American Government.jpg

The Colonial Court System[1]

Colonial Court System.jpg

American Court System, 1789-Present[2]

American Court System.jpg


Levels of Courts

Levels of Courts.jpg

American Court Systems

Trial Court

The court of local jurisdiction is where evidence of facts and law are presented and ruled upon by a jury or judge. Generally they are divided into two types:

“courts of general jurisdiction, which are general trial courts that usually handle felony criminal trials and major civil cases”

“courts of limited or special jurisdiction, which typically have jurisdiction to try misdemeanor cases, conduct preliminary hearings for felony offenses, try traffic cases, adjudicate civil matters involving small amounts of money, and handle wills and estates.”

Appellate Court - Intermediate and Last Resort (Supreme Court)

This is a court which has the power to review the judgment or decision of a lower court. When a decision is appealed, a copy of the records (or, infrequently, the originals) of the trial court are provided to the appellate court.

Additional Information

References

  1. Copyright 1997, MyFamily.com, Inc. Reprinted from The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Used by permission, all rights reserved. For further family history resources visit Ancestry.com.
  2. Copyright:1997, MyFamily.com, Inc. Reprinted from The Source: A guidebook of American Genealogy. Used by permission, all rights reserved. For further family history resources, visit Ancestry.com.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Court Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 17 September 2014, at 16:48.
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