Robbins: Why courts matter
Besides the obvious — to enforce compliance with the laws and to peaceably settle disputes — courts matter. To understand why, you have to understand our system of courts, the role of the courts in our complex society and our form of constitutional democracy.
There is one great cleaving of the courts. On the one side are the federal courts — those of the United States as the United States. On the other are the state courts, those of each of the individual states. The differences between the two — state versus federal courts — is best defined by jurisdiction. “Jurisdiction” refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear.
State courts enjoy broad jurisdiction. As such, the cases in which individual citizens are most likely to be involved in — traffic offenses, contract disputes, divorce and family matters — are usually tried in state courts. The only cases state courts do not have jurisdiction to hear are lawsuits against the U.S. and those involving certain specific federal laws: certain criminal offenses, antitrust suits, bankruptcy, patent and copyright disputes, and certain maritime cases.
By contrast, federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear cases in which the U.S is a party, cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under “federal-question” jurisdiction); cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under “diversity jurisdiction”); and bankruptcy, copyright, patent and maritime law cases.
At times, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction which allows the parties to choose whether to go to state court or to federal court.
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Both the state court systems and that of that of the federal courts have a certain hierarchy, a means by which an adverse judgment at a trial level court may be appealed. In Colorado, for example, there are three types of trial-level court: small claims courts for small disputes (those less than $7,500 in disputed amount), county courts whose jurisdictional maximum is $15,000, and district courts for all other civil actions.
Criminal cases — depending on the severity of the alleged crime and potential sentence — are heard in both county and district courts. An adverse judgment in county court may be appealed to the district court. An adverse judgment in the district court may be appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals and, at times, the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Similarly, the federal system has levels of appeal: from the Federal District Courts (of which there are 94), to the Courts of Appeal (13 in number), and, lastly, to the United States Supreme Court.
Key to understanding the place of courts in our democracy is to appreciate the branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial, each of which is meant to “check” the excesses of others.
As the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion in the Texas abortion law case amply demonstrated, what the courts do matters. Let’s look back a moment though, before we catch up to modern times.
In the 1803 U.S. Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, the U.S. Supreme Court declared for the first time that an act of Congress was unconstitutional, thus establishing the doctrine of judicial review.
The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, is considered one of the foundations of United States constitutional law. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Leading the court, Justice Marshall managed to establish the power of the court as the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution and to firmly plant the check on runaway executive authority the founders originally intended.
Marbury changed everything.
In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson — considered by most legal scholars one of the worst if not the worst decision ever rendered by the United States Supreme Court — the court with one dissenting vote (that of Justice Harlan) held that state-mandated segregation laws did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which decision sanctioned “Black Codes” and led to 60 years of racial misery. Stated simply, what the court did, mattered.
In the recent Texas case, in which the court, in essence, let the restrictive abortion law stand and which threatens the settled 1973 abortion rights case of Roe v. Wade, Chief Justice Roberts who joined the dissent wrote that the “clear purpose and actual effect” of the Texas law was “to nullify this Court’s rulings.” That, he said, undermines the Constitution and the fundamental role of the Supreme Court and the court system as a whole.
What Justice Roberts’ remarks pointed to is the notion of “stare decisis,” or precedent, which is the very foundation of our laws. Once a matter has been heard and settled, this principle holds, the court must stand by what has already been decided. Failing to do so introduces instability and uncertainty and unsettles the judicial scheme.
Should the court follow down the path of unsettling Roe, the repercussions — not just as to abortion rights, but also as to faith and certainty in the laws — will undoubtedly be undermined. It is not solely the issue of abortion rights that it at stake here; it is the principle, the roots and fiber of our scheme and system of laws
What the courts do has consequences. What the courts do matters.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Caplan & Earnest LLC. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions; real estate and development; family law, custody and divorce; and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or rrobbins@CELaw.com. His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale)” and “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” are currently available at Amazon.com — and coming soon, “Why I Walk So Slow.”