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The Law and Federal, State, and Local Courts, State and Local Courts

local systems, judicial cases, desegregation, state governors, state judges

Despite their high visibility, the federal courts deal with only one percent of the nation’s judicial business. The state and local courts—the latter usually at the county, municipal, and township level—hear most of the judicial cases. Annually over 25 million cases enter state and local systems; every year, one in nine Americans is directly involved in some sort of litigation or court proceeding.

At the state level, courts are assigned what are called police powers over the health, morals, and safety of their citizens. Thus, by the authority of its health power, a state legislature may require all schoolchildren to be vaccinated; any challenge to this law would be considered in state court. To protect community health in the late 19th century, state courts approved a controversial quarantine of immigrants before they entered the United States. The states’ authority in these matters can be found in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government to the states. At the same time, many state constitutions include their own Bill of Rights, which limits the power of states over the people.

By constitution or by statute, state governments create the local courts that have jurisdiction over minor state offenses and the violation of local ordinances, such as those involving zoning or disturbing the peace. Some local courts have specialized jurisdiction over juveniles and domestic relations.

Like those at the federal level, state court systems are arranged into a three-tiered system of trial, appellate, and supreme courts. Decisions by the state supreme courts can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which can overturn state laws. An example of the relation between state and federal courts occurred in the 1960s. At that time, state laws that impeded desegregation were overturned because in the view of the Supreme Court, the laws violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Unlike federal judges, who are appointed by the president with the Senate’s approval, state judges come to the bench in a variety of ways. Some judges are appointed by state governors and, after a period of time, stand for elections. Other judges are elected from the beginning. Sometimes these elections are contested and partisan; often they are not. In recent years states have tried to improve the quality of state and local judges by creating panels of qualified lawyers from which state governors choose the judges they appoint.

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