As the marriage equality tsunami swept through the federal judiciary last year, it certainly was confusing every time a ruling was announced. Sixth Circuit, 1st District appellate, State Courts. This year the stage is set for even more people to be confused as the various “religious freedom” or “right to discriminate” laws percolate through the legal system.
Below is a simplified guide to the maze of our federal judiciary:
It’s not who you sue, but why you are suing
There are 2 separate issues when challenging a law: What types of cases a jury decides and which cases only a judge can decide. This has to do with what type of relief a plaintiff requests.
If a plaintiff requests damages in the form of money or the return of some type of property, the remedy is considered “legal”, and a jury is available as the finder of fact. (or a judge in certain circumstances)
If the plaintiff asks for a non-monetary form of relief, like an injunction or declaratory judgment (like declaring a law unconstitutional), the claim is considered to be one of “equity”, and only a judge can rule on it.
If a party files a challenge to a law passed by a state, claiming that the new law violates the “state” constitution, then it has to follow the state's specific rules as to where to file first and how.
Each state has its own regulations for how a plaintiff can file these challenges. In some states, the party needs to start with the state’s own highest court, while in other states the appeal can only be filed in the capital city.
Note: If the claim is that a state law violates state constitution, then the state's highest court has the final word on the challenge. If the claim is that the state enacted a law which violates the federal Constitution, it is a different issue.
There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state. The party starts its challenge by filing in one of these 94 courts, the one in which the alleged violation of the Constitution has occurred. The judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has its own Court of Appeals. A Court of Appeals hears from all of the district courts located within its circuit. You file in your closest federal judicial court, and if you lose you can appeal to the Court of Appeals that covers your district.
Finally, if the party that began its challenge in state court loses again, it can obtain a writ of certiori to the US Supreme Court, which has final say on all constitutional questions in the United States.
With both sides of the “religious liberties” issue unwilling to compromise, it is likely that court cases will wind their way up through the state courts, into the federal districts, and ultimately to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the meantime, oral argument for the landmark case that would bring marriage equality to all 50 states has been heard April 28 and will be decided this June! Stay tuned...