This article has been written by Nagesh H. Karale pursuing a Diploma in US Intellectual Property Law and Paralegal Studies course from LawSikho.

 This article has been edited and published by Shashwat Kaushik.


The US Constitution was written in 1789, ratified in 1788, and has been in operation since 1789. The main authors of the Constitution were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. The US Constitution establishes the form of the national government and defines the rights and liberties of the American people. It is based on the idea of separation and balance of powers. Different segments of government possess different powers. These different segments of governments are used as a check against abuse of power by any one segment.

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The common law system is the basis of the US legal system. The US Constitution sets up a federal system by dividing powers between the national and state governments. It also establishes a balanced national government by separating powers among three independent branches — the executive, the legislative, and the judicial.

  1. The executive branch, led by the President, assisted by the Vice President and Heads of Agencies, enforces national laws.
  2. The legislative branch, the Congress, consisting of the Senate and House of Representatives, makes national laws.
  3. The judicial branch, the Supreme Court, and other federal courts apply and interpret laws when deciding legal disputes in federal courts.

The state government has the same type of branch. Most federal environmental legislation is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Each state has a sovereign government. The state government creates and delegates varying degrees of authority and autonomy to local governments. 

Federal court system

The U.S. Supreme Court was created according to Article III, Section 1 of the American Constitution.. Congress has the authority to create the lower federal courts.

The federal court system has three main levels:

  1. District courts, which are also called trial court,
  2. Circuit courts, which are the first level of appeal, and
  3. The Supreme Court of the United States, which is the final level of appeal in the federal system.

In the US, there are a total of 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court. The federal district court is the lowest level of the federal court system.

District courts handle trials for both civil and criminal cases within the federal court system. In the US, there are over 670 district court judges. Federal magistrate judges are also delegated some tasks by the district court.

A few subject-specific areas, such as bankruptcy, tax related issues, claims against the federal government, and international trade, are handled by federal trial courts.

The aggrieved party can appeal the verdict of a federal district court to a United States court of appeals. In the US, there are twelve federal circuit courts. The entire circuit court may consider certain appeals in a process called an “en banc hearing.” A few courts have specially dealt with appeals on specific subjects, such as veterans’ claims and military matters. In the case of diversity jurisdiction, a plaintiff is allowed to file a lawsuit in federal court. Diversity jurisdiction is applicable when the defendant is located in a different state. The second condition is that the “amount in controversy” must be more than $75,000.

In the US judicial system, the Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court. It has the power to decide appeals on all cases brought in federal court or those brought in state court but dealing with federal law. After the verdict of the circuit court or state supreme court, either party may choose to appeal to the Supreme Court. To hear the case, the parties may file a “writ of certiorari” with the court. The cases are heard when there are errors or conflicting decisions across the country on a particular issue. The US Supreme Court is situated in Washington, D.C.

Cases involving the constitutionality of a law, such as US laws and treaties, issues related to ambassadors and public ministers, disputes between two or more states, admiralty law, bankruptcy, and Habeas corpus issues, are dealt with by the Federal Court System.

State court systems  

The structure of the state court system is similar to that of the federal court system. It is generally composed of three main levels: trial courts, state appellate courts, and a state Supreme Court. A decision on federal matters made in a state Supreme Court will be rarely petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has the final authority to interpret the Constitution. It can set aside any law — federal, state, or local that conflicts with any part of the Constitution. In some cases, the national and state governments have concurrent powers.

The State Court System deals with mostly criminal cases, probate involving wills and estates, contracts, tort (personal injuries), and family law (marriages, divorces, adoptions), etc.

Legal actors in the US 

Federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Federal judges may be removed from office for misbehaviour through impeachment proceedings. Federal magistrate judges are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges. Some tasks of the district court are delegated to federal magistrate judges. They serve for a term of eight years full-time and four years part-time and they can be reappointed after the completion of their term.

The federal judges and the members of the Supreme Court are referred to as “justices.” The chief justice is an administrator of the court.

State court judges are selected by election, appointment for a given number of years, appointment for life, or combinations of these methods.

The United States Attorney (USAO) has responsibilities including prosecuting criminal cases, representing the United States in civil cases and collecting debts owed to the federal government when administrative agencies are unable to do so. U.S. attorneys must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. He serves a four-year term.

Jury service is a civic duty. A jury participates in deciding the outcome of legal disputes. Juries are usually made up of 12 jurors. They are randomly selected as qualified citizens from counties within the district by the courts. There are two types of juries serving different functions in the federal trial courts: petit juries and grand juries. Petit juries are also known as trial juries. They decide both criminal and civil cases. A grand jury mainly deals with criminal matters and assesses evidence presented by a prosecutor. A jury must be unanimous for either a guilty or not guilty decision. If a jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, then the case may be retried with a new jury. However, the judge decides questions of law. Federal jurors are paid $50 for each day of service. They may also be eligible for certain travel reimbursements and allowances.

Advocates are legal professionals who are trained and licensed. They represent individuals, organisations, or groups in legal matters. Their role extends to providing legal advice, negotiating settlements, drafting legal documents, and advocating for their clients’ interests. They can specialise in various areas such as criminal law, civil litigation, corporate law, family law, intellectual property law, environmental law, and many more.

Legal procedures and due process 

Legal procedures in the United States are complex. Legal procedures vary depending on the type of case and the jurisdiction. The American legal system is based on a system of federalism. Generally, state civil procedure mirrors many of the federal rules.

In general, state civil procedure mirrors many of the federal rules. This is because the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were adopted by the Supreme Court in 1938 to create a uniform set of rules for all federal civil cases. Many states have adopted similar rules for their own state courts.

However, there are some key differences between federal and state civil procedures. For example, the rules governing discovery are more limited in federal court than in state court. This is because the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are designed to streamline the litigation process and reduce costs.

Another key difference is that state courts have more flexibility to create their own rules of procedure. This is because the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are only binding on federal courts. State courts are free to adopt their own rules, as long as they are not inconsistent with the federal rules.

As a result of these differences, it is important for attorneys to be familiar with both federal and state civil procedure rules. This will ensure that they are able to effectively represent their clients in court.

Here are some of the key features of the American legal system:

  • The Constitution: The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It establishes the framework for the federal government and defines the rights of citizens.
  • The courts: The federal courts are responsible for interpreting the Constitution and federal laws. The state courts are responsible for interpreting state laws.
  • The jury system: The jury system is a fundamental part of the American legal system. Juries are made up of ordinary citizens who are responsible for deciding the facts of a case.
  • The right to counsel: The right to counsel is guaranteed by the Constitution. This means that everyone who is accused of a crime has the right to an attorney.
  • The rule of law: The rule of law means that everyone is subject to the law, including the government.

Due process of law is a fundamental principle that ensures fairness, justice, and the protection of individual rights in legal proceedings. It serves as a safeguard against arbitrary actions by the government and upholds the rule of law. Due process can be traced back to the Magna Carta in 1215. Due process guarantees that no person will be deprived of life, liberty, or property except by the lawful judgement of their peers or the law of the land. The concepts of due process, the rule of law, and democracy are closely interconnected. 

Evolving legal landscape

Today, law firms are facing the following challenges:

  1. With the help of advanced technologies, law firms are enhancing efficiency, improving client service, and streamlining legal processes. However, it also presents challenges such as data security, revolutionised legal research, and vast amounts of electronic evidence in litigation. Cyber security Risks are increased. Secure cloud-based platforms can enhance data protection. Additionally, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can automate repetitive tasks, increasing productivity and reducing costs.
  2. Today’s clients demand more transparency, quicker response times, enhanced communication, and cost-effective solutions. Client relationship management (CRM) systems can help law firms better understand client preferences, provide personalised attention, and deliver tailored services.

Critiques and reforms

Some of the main flaws of the legal system in the US include the following:

  • In the US, many poor people are unable to afford lawyers for litigation due to the high cost of legal services. Jury trials are expensive and require twelve people.
  • The legal system is biased against the poor. So many innocent people are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.    
  • It is difficult for US citizens to understand their rights and obligations due to the complexity of the US legal system. It is not only clouded by politics but also influenced by money. 
  • Innocent defendants get pressured to plead guilty. Today, American criminal justice has mostly become a system of pleas, not a system of trials.
  • For relatively minor offences, people are sent to prison. The appellate process is lengthy. The US system uses force against peaceful people. America became a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. This indicates the immense failure of dispensing basic human rights.
  • White males in the US dominate the legal profession. There is unfairness and discrimination against other groups, such as women and minorities. In the US criminal justice system, personal backgrounds, unconscious biases about race, gender, and appearance play a more important role in outcomes than the actual law. One study by researchers at Cornell found that defendants with more stereotypically “black features” were more likely to be sentenced to death. People with thicker lips, wider noses, and darker skin have been more likely to receive the death penalty.
  • Due to the overcrowded and inefficient American justice system, cases can take years to wind their way through the courts. More than 90 percent of lawsuits are settled before trial. Many of those cases that are tried are settled before a final verdict.
  • The system is too lenient on criminals. A lot of the US legal system is based on incorrect assumptions about human behaviour.
  • In America’s criminal justice system, police and prosecutors have no accountability for law enforcement. US cops are almost never prosecuted for the crimes they commit under the colour of law.
  • In the US courts, eyewitness identifications are highly unreliable. It became more unreliable, especially where the witness and the perpetrator are of different races. Due to mistaken eyewitness testimony, there have been more than a third of wrongful conviction cases in US courts. Forensic fingerprint identification almost never deals with whole fingerprints.
  • The US Supreme Court has been criticised for giving the federal government too much power to interfere with state authority.
  • In the US, there is judicial interference in political disputes. The US Supreme Court is not very open and transparent about how it makes decisions.

According to the Centre for American Progress, the national dialogue around reform during the summer of 2020 has suggested some solutions.

  1. Americans are demanding more investments in safety beyond policing. They expect investments in civilian first-responder programmes, community-building solutions, and violence intervention models. 
  2. There is a need to promote police accountability for the harmful and, in some cases, deadly consequences of their actions.
  3. It is required to end unjust punishments for substance use, particularly for communities of colour.
  4. It is very essential to eliminate racial disparities across the justice system.
  5. It is a great demand to remove barriers facing individuals affected by the justice system after serving their sentences.

American legal framework regarding the right to freedom of expression

Here are some of the key features of the American legal framework regarding the right to freedom of expression:

  • The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is the most important source of protection for the right to freedom of expression. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, religion, and assembly.
  • The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to protect a wide range of speech, including political speech, religious speech, and commercial speech.
  • There are some limitations on the right to free speech. For example, the government may restrict speech that is likely to incite imminent lawless action, such as a riot. The government may also restrict speech that is obscene, defamatory, or that reveals national security secrets.
  • In addition to the First Amendment, there are a number of other laws that protect the right to freedom of expression. For example, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives the public the right to access government information. The Privacy Act protects the privacy of personal information held by the government. And the Copyright Act protects the rights of authors and artists to their creative works.
  • The American legal framework regarding the right to freedom of expression is a complex and ever-evolving system. It is a system that is essential to the functioning of a democratic society. By protecting the right to freedom of expression, the American legal system helps to ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard and that the government is held accountable.


The U.S. legal system is based on fairness, rules, and a balance of power. The system is designed to prevent abuse of power through a division of authority between the federal and state levels. It involves three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial. All the branches play a different vital role.

Judges, attorneys, and juries play important roles in the legal system. The concept of due process guarantees fairness and justice for all. The legal system faces challenges like technological advancements and changing client expectations.

However, the US legal system faces critiques such as high legal costs, complexity, and issues of bias. Legal reforms are required to improve the legal system and make it more fair, open, and equal for everyone.



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