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A judicial tribunal established to administer justice. An entity in the government to which the administration of justice is delegated. In a broader sense, the term may also refer to a legislative assembly; a deliberative body, such as the General Court of Massachusetts, which is its legislature. The words court, judge, or judges, when used in laws, are often synonymous. A kangaroo court is a mock legal proceeding that disregards law and justice by issuing a biased, predetermined judgment regardless of the evidence presented before it.

Judicial courts are created by the government through the enactment of statutes or by constitutional provisions for the purpose of enforcing the law for the public good. They are impartial forums for the resolution of controversies between parties who seek redress from a violation of a legal right. Both civil and criminal matters may be heard in the same court, with different court rules and procedures for each.

The public has a right to attend judicial proceedings. This right ensures that the proceedings will be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner. Anyone who wants may attend trials as a spectator unless a judge has closed a courtroom for particular proceedings in order to maintain order, to assure Due Process of Law, or to protect a witness's identity.

The U.S. Judicial System consists of 52 separate court systems, plus territorial courts, in the United States. Each state and the District of Columbia has its own independent system, and the United States government maintains federal courts throughout the country. The federal courts and state courts are independent of each other. The federal courts are authorized by Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution to hear controversies that especially affect federal interests. Sometimes the existence of two parallel court systems in every state creates a strain and raises important issues concerning Federalism, the relationship between the states and the United States. For some of these questions, the Supreme Court of the United States makes the final determination that is binding on everyone.

Most courts have a multilevel structure. A few states have a two-tiered system, but the federal government and most states use a three-tiered model. All litigants have an opportunity to argue their cases before a trial-level court, and subsequently they may be able to pursue the matter further up through two levels of appeals courts.

In the federal court system the trial-level court is the district court. Each state contains at least one district court, and most of these courts have more than one judge available to try cases. Litigants may file an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals that has jurisdiction over that district if they are unhappy with the lower court's decision, and the decision is the type that may be appealed. The United States is divided into 13 judicial circuits, and one court of appeals sits in each of twelve geographical circuits. The Court of Appeals for the Federal District sits in the thirteenth district to hear cases formerly entertained in the Court of Claims and the Court of Customs and Patents Appeals, which were abolished by the enactment of the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1982 (28 U.S.C.A. § 1 note). Each court of appeals has four or more judges who sit either as panels of three or as a whole to review the decisions of district courts and to review or enforce the orders of many federal. administrative agencies. If a court sits as a whole, it is called an en banc court. Litigants who lose a cause in a court of appeals may be able to carry the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The First Virtual State Court

U.S. courts have adopted various new technologies that can assist in the administration of justice, but the state of Michigan took the most radical step in 2002 when it authorized the creation of the first fully functioning cybercourt in the country. This virtual court, once fully operational, would allow attorneys to file court appearances, briefs, and other court documents online. Specially trained district and circuit judges would serve three-year assignments on this court.

The cybercourt in its first incarnation is to be limited in jurisdiction to business disputes with an amount in controversy exceeding $25,000. The court would not use juries, as it was designed to assist businesses that need quick resolutions of disputes, such as those involving trade secrets. Critics have pointed out that the system would not allow judges to examine evidence physically or even to view evidence with any certainty, given the limitations in viewing screen resolution in many video or real-time communications. In addition, critics contend that many business disputes involve issues of federal law and diversity jurisdiction, thereby denying this court the opportunity to hear many cases.

The Michigan Supreme Court proposed new rules to govern the operation of the cybercourt. These rules addressed: the filing of pleadings and other documents via the Internet; the prevention of tampering with electronic documents; how testimony would be given via the Internet, videoconferencing, or interactive video; how serving notice on parties to a lawsuit via E-Mail will work; and how court proceedings will be made accessible to the public.

The Michigan cybercourt was supposed to be operational by late 2002 but by mid-2003 it was still on the drawing board. In June 2003 the state legislature debated whether to provide $2 million to establish it in three locations.

Further readings

Issenberg, Doug. 2001. "See You in Cybercourt?" Internet World (April 1).

"Michigan Bill Will Create Cybercourt." 2002. Associated Press (January 9). Available online at <> (accessed September 1, 2003).

"Michigan House Battles Over Cybercourt Funding." Michigan Technology News. Available online at <> (accessed July 1, 2003).

"Michigan Wants to Speed Business Dispute Resolution with Cybercourt." 2001. Associated Press (February 23). Available online at <> (accessed September 1, 2003).

Stephens, Gene. 2001. "Trial Run for Virtual Court." Futurist (November-December).

"Website of the Week." 2002. National Law Journal (February 11).

"Wired Future for Courtrooms." 2001. Associated Press (March 1). Available online at <> (accessed September 1, 2003).


Courtroom Television Network; Internet.

Cases in state courts may also proceed from the trial-level court up through appeals in an appellate court and then to a state supreme court. Different systems assign different functions to the state supreme court, which is usually the court of last resort, but this is not the case in every state. When an issue based on the federal Constitution, a treaty, or a federal statute is involved, the U.S. Supreme Court may agree to hear an appeal from the state supreme court.The organization of a court and its personnel is determined by the law that created that court and by the court's own rules. Generally, the papers for each lawsuit must be filed with the clerk of the court. The clerk and his or her staff organize all of the records for the judges assigned to the court. Each judge may have a law secretary or law clerk, or there may be several clerks who perform legal research and assist in the drafting of decisions, orders, and memoranda. Court officers, court attendants, or bailiffs are available to give information and to maintain order and peace around the courthouse. Interpreters may be kept on call to translate for witnesses and parties who do not speak English well. A county sheriff or federal marshal has the responsibility for enforcement of various judicial orders. Probation officers are usually civilian employees who assist the court by administering the probation system for criminal offenders and supervise court-ordered custody or payments of money, especially Child Support. A court stenographer, or court reporter creates a written record of proceedings word for word.

Attorneys are called officers of the court because they have a dual responsibility to protect the integrity of the legal system and pursue their clients' claims. An attorney who has been admitted to the bar in one state is entitled to practice in the courts of that state but that does not entitle him or her to practice in the courts of another state, in a federal court, or in the Supreme Court. In order to do so, he or she must qualify and be sworn in separately.

A term is the time during which a court is authorized to hear cases, and a session is one of those periods in a term when a judge is actually hearing cases. A regular term is one called for by law, and a special term may be called by a judge or other official when the circumstances warrant it. A jury may hear a case during the jury term while a motion for relief may be made to the court during the motion term. A general term sometimes means the time that all of the judges of a court sit together, or en banc, but occasionally it refers to a single judge's hearing all of the cases on a particular subject.

Laws or court rules fix the particular terms or sessions when a court is open for judicial business. If none is fixed, a court is open at all times. Any judicial action taken by a judge of the court is not invalid in such circumstances because of the time when it was taken, but it does not necessarily mean that the courthouse doors are unlocked 24 hours a day.

Rules of Civil Procedure and of Criminal Procedure regulate practice in the courts. The rules spell out rights and the manner of proceeding in regard to a court's jurisdiction and venue, the commencement of an action, parties, motions, subpoenas, pretrial discovery, juries, evidence, the order of a trial, provisional remedies, judgments, and appeals.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. any official tribunal (court) presided over by a judge or judges in which legal issues and claims are heard and determined. In the United States there are essentially two systems: Federal courts and state courts. The basic Federal court system has jurisdiction over cases involving Federal statutes, constitutional questions, actions between citizens of different states, and certain other types of cases. Its trial courts are District Courts in one or more districts per state, over which there are District Courts of Appeal (usually three-judge panels) to hear appeals from judgments of the District Courts within the "circuit." There are 10 geographic circuits throughout the nation. Appeals on constitutional questions and other significant cases are heard by the Supreme Court, but only if that court agrees to hear the case. There are also special Federal courts such as bankruptcy and tax courts with appeals directed to the District Courts.

Each state has local trial courts, which include courts for misdemeanors (non-penitentiary crimes), smaller demand civil actions (called municipal, city, justice or some other designation), and then courts, usually set up in each county, (variously called Superior, District, County, Common Pleas courts) to hear felonies (crimes punished by state prison terms), estates, divorces, and major lawsuits. The highest state court is called the State Supreme Court, except in New York and Maryland, which call them Court of Appeals. Some 29 states have intermediate appeals courts which hear appeals from trial courts which will result in final decisions unless the state supreme court chooses to consider the matter. Trial courts for felonies and significant civil matters go by such names as district courts, county courts, superior courts, courts of common pleas, circuit courts, among other designations. Below them to handle lesser matters and criminal misdemeanors are municipal, city, police and justice courts. Some states have speciality courts such as family, surrogate, and domestic relations. Small claims courts are an adjunct of the lowest courts handling lesser disputes (although California's limit is $5,000) with no representation by attorneys, and short and somewhat informal trials conducted by judges, commissioners or lawyers.

The great number of law cases and lawyers' procedural maneuvers has clogged courts' calendars and has induced many states or local courts to set up mediation, arbitration, mandatory settlement conferences and other formats to encourage settlement or early judgments without the cost and wait of full court trials.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


1 an authority having power to adjudicate in civil, criminal, military, or ecclesiastical matters; the judge or judges having such authority.
2 the regular sitting of a judicial authority.
3 the room or building in which a judicial authority sits, hence court room, or court building or court house.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

COURT, practice. A court is an incorporeal political being, which requires for its existence, the presence of the judges, or a competent number of them, and a clerk or prothonotary, at the time during which, and at the place where it is by law authorized to be held; and the performance of some public act, indicative of a design to perform the functions of a court.
     2. In another sense, the judges, clerk, or prothonotary, counsellors and ministerial officers, are said to constitute the court.
     3. According to Lord, Coke, a court is a place where justice is judicially administered. Co. Litt. 58, a.
     4. The judges, when duly convened, are also called the court. Vide 6 Vin. Ab. 484; Wheat. Dig. 127; Merl. Rep. h.t.; 3 Com. Dig. 300; 8 Id. 386; Dane's Ab. Index, h.t.; Bouv. Inst. Index, h.t.
     5. It sometimes happens that the judges composing a court are equally divided on questions discussed before them. It has been decided, that when such is the case on an appeal or writ of error, the judgment or decree is affirmed. 10 Wheat. 66; 11 Id. 59. If it occurs on a motion in arrest of judgment, a judgment is to be entered on the verdict. 2 Dall. Rep. 388. If on a motion for a new trial, the motion is rejected. 6 Wheat. 542. If on a motion to enter judgment on a verdict, the judgment is entered. 6 Binn. 100. In England, if the house of lords be equally divided on a writ of error, the judgment of the court below is affirmed. 1 Arch. Pr. 235. So in Cam. Scacc. 1 Arch. Pr. 240. But in error coram nobis, no judgment can be given if the judges are equally divided, except by consent. 1 Arch. Pr. 246. When the judges are equally divided on the admission of testimony, it cannot be received. But see 3 Yeates, 171. Also, 2 Bin. 173; 3 Bin. 113 4 Bin. 157; 1 Johns. Rep. 118 4 Wash. C. C. Rep. 332, 3. See Division of Opinion.
     6. Courts are of various kinds. When considered as to their powers, they are of record and not of record; Bac. Ab. Courts, D; when compared. to each other, they are supreme, superior, and inferior, Id.; when examined as to their original jurisdiction, they are civil or criminal; when viewed as to their territorial jurisdiction, they are central or local; when divided as to their object, they are courts of law, courts of equity, courts martial, admiralty courts, and ecclesiastical courts. They are also courts of original jurisdiction, courts of error, and courts of appeal. Vide Open Court.
     7. Courts of record cannot be deprived of their jurisdiction except by express negative words. 9 Serg. & R. 298; 3 Yeates, 479 2 Burr. 1042 1 Wm. Bl. Rep. 285. And such a court is the court of common pleas in Pennsylvania. 6 Serg. & R. 246.
     8. Courts of equity are not, in general, courts of record. Their decrees touch the person, not lands. or goods. 3 Caines, 36. Yet, as to personalty, their decrees are equal to a judgment; 2. Madd. Chan. 355; 2 Salk., 507; 1 Ver. 214; 3 Caines, 35; and have preference according to priority. 3 P. Wms. 401 n.; Cas. Temp. Talb. 217; 4 Bro. P. C. 287; 4 Johns. Chan. Cas. 638. They are also conclusive between the parties. 6 Wheat. 109. Assumpsit will lie on a decree of a foreign court of chancery for a sum certain; 1 Campb. Rep. 253, per Lord Kenyon; but not for a sum not ascertained. 3 Caines, 37, (n.) In Pennsylvania, an action at law will lie on a decree of a court of chancery, but the pleas nil debet and nul tiel record cannot be pleaded in such an action. 9 Serg. & R. 258.

COURT, INSTANCE. One of the branches of the English admiralty is called an instance court. Vide Instance Court.

COURT, PRIZE. One of the branches of the English admiralty, is called a prize court. Vide Prize Court.

COURT, SUPREME. Supreme court is the name of a court having jurisdiction over all other courts Vide Courts of the United States.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.