Civil and Criminal
Although there are many types of laws and terms associated with them, a major
distinction in the U.S. legal system is between civil and criminal law. Criminal law
involves the commission of acts specifically prohibited by written statute. Criminal
law addresses the need for a society to keep order and to assign punishment to
those who commit forbidden acts.
Civil law, in general, is everything else. Civil law provides a means for a person
to enforce a right or to correct (redress) a wrong that is not specified in the
criminal code. Civil law involves relationships between people and private
matters like marriages, wills, contracts, and property.
Both civil and criminal law proceedings may begin with a complaint, but in a
criminal action, the state, acting for its people, usually files the complaint after an
arrest. In civil cases, anyone may file a complaint against another person or
organization for committing a civil wrong.
The Legal Arena
Whether a case is civil or criminal, the path to justice leads through the courts.
Usually these are state courts at first. Federal courts rule on matters directly
bearing on the U.S. government. (It's possible, though, to be tried in both state
and federal court if an offense violates both state and federal law.)
The organization of state courts varies, but generally, local and special courts
hear minor civil and criminal cases. Trial courts (sometimes called county, circuit,
district, superior, or common pleas courts) may rule on appeals from the minor
courts and hear more serious civil and criminal cases. Appellate courts in many
states hear appeals from lower courts, and state supreme courts make a final
ruling on lower court appeals.
It's tempting to think of the U.S. Supreme Court as having a final say, but the
Supreme Court only hears cases that involve federal or constitutional law,
disputes between citizens of different states, or disputes between a state and a
citizen of another state.