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Court, judicial portion of government, responsible for the administration of justice. The term also refers to the building in which courts sit and to the proceedings themselves. A typical U.S. court consists of 1 or more judges, a jury when required, attorneys for both parties to the dispute, a bailiff or marshal who carries out court orders and preserves order, and a clerk who records the proceedings.

As a formal institution with definite rules of procedure, the court emerged during the late Roman Empire. Christians, however, were not allowed to participate in courts “of this world,” so bishops and ecclesiastical courts ruled on cases involving Christians and developed a body of canon law. After the Norman Conquest (1066), England pioneered in the development of a complex national court system, and the royal courts were soon administering justice to all the king's subjects. Justices of the peace acted as inferior (lower) courts to deal with minor offenses. These courts gradually established a system based not on the power of the king but upon the power of the law. In their decisions, the British courts were in effect creating law by setting judicial precedents that were followed by succeeding courts. As Parliament (originally established as a court to reach decisions in the name of the king) grew in power and the legal precedents set up in earlier courts expanded and became accepted, the courts judged cases according to their merits under this body of common law.

The United States has 2 distinct but related court systems. The state system, which includes county and city courts, hears actions between citizens of that state and cases involving violations of state and local laws. Although all criminal jury trials proceed on lines provided by the Constitution, the composition of municipal courts varies according to local custom. The states generally maintain a system of appellate courts to review lower-court decisions, as well as a state supreme court or its equivalent. The federal judicial hierarchy consists of a 9-member Supreme Court, intermediate courts of appeals, and a large number of district courts, as well as various special courts, such as the Tax Court, Court of Claims, and the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. In general, the jurisdiction of federal courts is limited to cases arising under the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties; cases affecting ambassadors and consuls; disputes among states or between a state and citizens of another state; controversies to which the U.S. government is a party; maritime cases; and disputes with international aspects. The Supreme Court has original (as opposed to appellate) jurisdiction only in cases to which a state is a party or that involve ambassadors, public ministers, and consuls. For the other types of federal questions, it is only authorized to hear appeals. The Supreme Court's most significant decisions are rulings on such appeals, establishing precedents in constitutional law.

International disputes brought about a movement in the latter part of the 19th century to establish courts to rule on such issues. The First Hague Conference (1899) established the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The League of Nations included a Permanent Court of International Justice. At present, the International Court of Justice functions as an organ of the United Nations. These courts, however, have exercised only marginal influence on international law, for they do not have the power to compel nations and individuals to submit to their jurisdiction.

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