The original American colonies had their own court system for resolving civil and criminal disputes. The Massachusetts Bay Colony created a General Court in 1629. The courts were composed of a governor, the deputy, 18 assistants, and 118 elected officials. The General Court was a combined legislature and court that made laws, held trials, and imposed sentences. By 1639, county courts were created, and the General Court took on hearing of appeals as its primary job, retaining original jurisdiction only in cases involving try alls of life, limb, banishment or divorce.
(Schmalleger, 2009) Pennsylvania believed that every man could serve as his own lawyer. The Pennsylvania system used common peacemakers who served as referees in disputes. Parties to a dispute, including criminal suspects, could plead their case before a common peacemaker they had agreed on. The decision of the peacemaker was binding on the parties. Although the Pennsylvania referee system ended in 1766, lower-level judges are still referred to as justices of the peace in Pennsylvania and a few other states, many other jurisdictions call them magistrates. (Schmalleger, 2009).
By 1776, all of the American colonies had established full functioning court systems. The practice of law was substantially affected by a lack of trained lawyers. A large amount of the early colonies displayed a strong reluctance to recognize the practice of law as a profession. A Virginia statute enacted in 1645 provided removal of the mercenary attorneys from office and prohibited the fees for practicing law. Most other colonies retained strict control over the number of authorized lawyers by requiring formal training in English law schools and appointment by the governor. New.
York provided the appointment of “counselors at law,” permitting a total of 41 lawyers to practice law between 1695 and 1769. A large part was because of a widespread distrust of formally trained attorneys. (Schmalleger, 2009) The lawyer’s status in the colonies was highlighted by the 1735 trial of John Zenger in New York. Zenger, editor of the New York Journal was accused of slandering Governor William Cosby. When Cosby threatened to disbar any lawyer who defended Zenger, the editor hired Pennsylvania lawyer Andrew Hamilton, who wasn’t bothered by the governor’s threats because he was from out of state.
Colonial courts provided the organizational basis for the growth of fledgling state court systems following the American Revolution. Because there had been considerable diversity in the structure of colonial courts, state courts did not have uniformity. (Schmalleger, 2009) Most states made no distinction between original jurisdiction, the court has a lawful authority to hear cases that arise within a specified geographic area or that involve particular kinds of law violations, and appellate jurisdiction.
Appellate jurisdiction is the lawful authority of a court to review a decision made by a lower court. Many had no provisions for appeal. Until 1897, Delaware did not allow appeals in criminal cases. States that did permit appeals often lacked any established appellate courts. They also used state legislatures for that purpose. (Schmalleger, 2009) An increase in population, growing urbanization, the settlement of the West, and other far-reaching changes in the American way of life led to a tremendous increase in civil litigation and criminal arrests by the late nineteenth century.
Legislatures were overwhelmed by the rising tide of cases. States created many courts at the trial, appellate, and Supreme Court levels. They were called by a variety of names and were assigned functions that sometimes were completely different from those of similar courts in neighboring states. (Schmalleger, 2009) City courts were limited in their jurisdiction by community boundaries. They are responsible for handling special problems of urban life, such as disorderly conduct, property disputes, and the enforcement of restrictive and regulatory ordinances.
Juvenile courts were developed to handle special kinds of problems or special clients. Some, like magistrate’s courts or small-claims courts, handled only minor law violations and petty disputes while whereas others like traffic courts, were very narrow in focus. The result was a patchwork quilt of hearing bodies, some only vaguely resembling modern notions of a trial court. (Schmalleger, 2009) State court systems were developed by following several models. One was the New York State Field Code of 1848, which clarified jurisdictional claims and specified matters of court procedure.
Even though many states copied the plan of the Field Code, it was later amended so extensively that its usefulness as a model dissolved. The federal Judiciary Act of 1789 and later the federal Reorganization Act of 1801 provided other models for state court systems. States that followed the federal model developed a three-tiered structure of trial courts of limited jurisdiction, trial courts of general jurisdiction, and appellate courts. (Schmalleger, 2009) The three-tiered federal model was not perfect but the courts proliferated within the structure it provided.
Traffic courts, magistrate’s courts, municipal courts, recorder’s courts, probate courts, and courts held by justices of the peace were some of the courts that functioned at the lower levels. The American Bar Association and the American Judicature Society led the movement toward simplification of state court structures in the early twentieth century. Proponents of state court reform sought to unify redundant courts that held overlapping jurisdictions. (Schmalleger, 2009).
Most reformers suggested a uniform model for all states that would build on a centralized court structure composed of a clear hierarchy of trial and appellate courts, the consolidation of numerous lower-level courts with overlapping jurisdictions, and a centralized state court authority that would be responsible for budgeting, financing, and managing all courts within a state. (Schmalleger, 2009) The court reform movement still continues today. Although reformers have made substantial progress in many states, there are still many differences between and among state court systems.
Reform states are characterized by streamlined judicial systems consisting of precisely conceived trial courts of limited and general jurisdiction, supplemented by one or two appellate court levels. Non-reform, or traditional, states retain judicial systems that are conglomerations of multilevel and redundant courts with poorly defined jurisdictions. Even non-reformed states criminal courts can be classified within the three-tiered structure of two trial court echelons and an appellate tier. (Schmalleger, 2009).
The dual-court system is combined of two types of courts, state and Federal that function within the American criminal justice system. This system was concluded after the agreement among the nation’s founders about the need for individual states to retain significant legislative authority and judicial autonomy separate from federal control. Under this concept, the United States developed a federation of semi-independent provinces. New states joining the union were assured of limited federal intervention into local affairs.
State legislatures were free to create laws, and state court systems were needed to hear cases in which violations of those laws occurred. (Schmalleger, 2009) State courts, to this day do not hear cases involving alleged violations of federal law. Federal courts do not involve themselves in deciding issues of state law unless there is a conflict between local or state statutes and federal constitutional guarantees. When such conflicts arise, claimed violations of federal due process guarantees can provide the basis for appeals made to federal courts by offenders convicted in state court systems. (Schmalleger, 2009).