Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How the Court System Works 101

It was pointed out to me recently that lawyers often forget that many people don't really know how the different layers of the court system fit together. A more cynical friend says that lawyers get paid because they speak a foreign language nobody else understands. This post is a summary - crash course in how a special education dispute works its way through the court system.

The first step is usually a due process hearing. Most courts require litigants to exhaust their administrative remedies. This means that if you have the option of an administrative hearing, like a due process hearing, you generally must go through the hearing process before filing in a court. NOTE: There are other options, such as mediation, which may be agreed to at any time whether a due process hearing has been requested or not. The hearing, however, is usually the first step. A due process hearing resembles a trial- witnesses testify under oath and exhibits are admitted, but the hearing procedures are a little more relaxed than those of a court.

Most states have a one-tier system and the decision of the hearing officer is the final agency decision. (If the state has a two-tiered system, the hearing officer's decision can be appealed to the second tier hearing officer or state review officer.)

The hearing officer decision can be appealed to court. The appeal can be to state court, but it usually is to federal court. The first level court in the federal system is the U S District Court. This court can accept additional evidence, but usually they consider the administrative record compiled before the hearing officer. (The due process hearing is very important.) The court will usually accept the hearing officer's findings of fact unless there is a pretty good reason not to do so. The judge will, however, apply his own interpretation of the law to the facts.

The decision of the District Court can be appealed to the federal circuit courts of appeal. Each state is in a federal circuit. I am in the Fourth Circuit. New York is in the Second Circuit. California is in the Ninth Circuit. The circuit courts usually only consider legal and not factual issues.

A party can then ask the U S Supreme Court to accept a decision by a circuit court of appeal. The high court does not have to accept such cases, but may do so if the Justices decide to do so.

Decisions by the Supreme Court and the circuit court for your area and your U S District court as well as any decisions by your state high court or appellate court are binding precedent. Decisions by hearing officers or courts not covering your area may be used a helpful and persuasive reasoning, but they are not binding.

Although legal citations may look confusing they are useful. Even if you don't know how to look up a citation, if you type the citation or the names of the parties into a good search engine, you can often find news articles or other websites that provide more information.

Welcome to the world of legal research! Although I still believe that everybody should have their own attorney, I hope that this crash course was helpful.


  1. Nice intro to the system Jim. Another part of our legal system that I find that many people don't understand very well is the Legislative, Judicial, Executive roles at Federal, State, and Local levels. People don't understand how each of these contributes to the law (statute/laws, implementing regulations, and judicial decisions at the different levels). Might be a good follow-up . . .

  2. Thanks Matt,

    That's a good idea for a future post.


  3. Thanks for the overview.

    Please check out my site about Special Education. I have gotten a positive response for visitors.



  4. Jim,
    Great post. Very informative to the layperson. It is extremely difficult as a non attorney to understand the layers of the court system. You just did it in 1 page or less. Thanks. Nanette

  5. Thank you for the kind words Nanette,

    Demystifying the law part of special education law is part of our mission here.


  6. It's amazing and wonderful thoughts .
    Thanks for this .

  7. yh of course .
    this is a great view .
    Special Education Law Blog
    have a great thought .
    Thanks dear .

  8. Teddi,

    Thanks for sharing. I like your website.


  9. S.E. and C.L.,

    Thanks for your support.


  10. Thank you Jim! I have been searching and searching for the difference between the 2 (due process vs federal court) for several days. I'm so glad I found your site! Some people were telling me to go straight to federal court, but it looks like I need to exhaust the due process first.