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United States Legal System and Different Courts

UNITED STATES LEGAL SYSTEMSources of United States Law

The Constitution

The legal system of the United States is based, first and foremost, on the Constitution. The Constitution provides the basis for our government, and can be interpreted only by a federal court.


Statutes are laws. Federal statutes are published ultimately in the United States Code. Challenges to federal statutes are made in federal court. States also have statutes that apply within that state only; challenges to state statutes are made in state court, unless they speak to the subject matter of or are in conflict with federal law, in which case a federal court may hear any dispute arising therefrom.

International Treaties

Treaties to which the United States is a party are binding on the United States, and are usually implemented into national law by federal statutes. Occasionally, a treaty will be in conflict in some way with a federal statute; in such cases the prevailing law is generally that which is more recent or more specific.

Agency Rules

Agencies are administrative bodies that exist both on the federal and state levels. Administrative agencies have the power to make certain rules and regulations, and also have limited power to adjudicate (that is, act as courts and make judicial decisions). However, almost all administrative bodies are subject to oversight from at least one court so if you push your case far enough you will have the opportunity to be heard in a court of competent jurisdiction.

Executive Orders

The President of the United States has the power to issue executive orders, which are directives to other members of the executive branch of government.

Case Law

The United States is a common law country, which means that judges establish applicable law through their rulings, and subsequent rulings are based on interpretations of prior case law.


The United States legislature is the Congress, which has the power to enact federal legislation, or laws. The process is as follows:

1. A BILL, or suggestion for what should become law, is introduced by a Senator in the Senate or by a Representative in the House of Representatives.
2. The bill is assigned to one or more committees in the chamber (Senate or House of Representatives) in which it was introduced; a committee may recommend, ignore, or amend a bill, and must submit a report explaining their decision.
3. After the committee consideration stage, a bill is presented on the “floor” of the House or the Senate, and a debate ensues, followed by a vote by all members of the chamber.
4. If a bill passes the chamber in which it was introduced, the process is repeated in the other chamber; if the second chamber amends the bill, it returns to the first chamber for approval of the amendments.
5. A joint committee, with members of both chambers, will work together to attempt to reach a compromise version of the bill acceptable to both chambers; the bill is then returned to both chambers for a vote.
6. Once a bill passes both the house and the senate, it is sent to the President for his consideration; the President may sign it into law; leave it alone, in which case it automatically becomes law after 10 days if Congress is still in session or expires if Congress is no longer in session; or reject it via Presidential Veto.
7. If the President vetoes a bill, it can still become law if Congress overrides the veto, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in each of the two chambers.

The state legislation process differs from state to state, but is generally based on the federal system. Specifics of state legislative processes can be found in a respective state's constitution and statutes.

United States Court System

The top court in the judicial hierarchy of the United States is the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court consists of nine justices, appointed for life tenure, and hears only certain cases, including those involving interpretation of the Constitution.

Below the Supreme Court in the hierarchy are the United States Court of Appeals: 11 numbered circuits, representing regions of the nation, and one circuit representing the District of Columbia. These courts hear federal cases that are appealed from federal district courts, of which there are 94 nationwide, and from United States Bankruptcy and Tax Courts.

There is also a District Court for the Federal Circuit. This court hears appeals from the United States Court of International Trade, United States Court of Federal claims, and United States Court of Veterans Appeals.

State court systems vary among states, but generally include trial courts are the first “tier,” followed by courts of appeal (which may be referred to as "superior" or "intermediate" courts), and a state supreme court at the top of the hierarchy.

Note: military courts are separate, with their own rules and procedures, although the ultimate authority on military issues is the United States Supreme Court.----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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