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Basics of the Court and Net Neutrality Landing Page

This project provides an overview of the basics of the United States' Court System broken down by State and Federal issues. It also explains and defines the signifiacnce of different sources of law, as well as the concept of neutrality. Within this playlist, there are links that provide greater context to these topics. 

Google Document Link:

  • 1 Sources of Law by Emoni Fitch

    This section identifies the key concepts of different sources of law. The sources of law are what we use to determine the type of legal analysis we use in a particular situation. Within each source of law it is important to understand what is ‘good law.' Good law pertains to legal decisions that are current and valid (the decision has not been overturned in an appeal or determined to be obsolete due to a new change in law). This information is pertinent because many legal issues surround which interpretation of the law (specific precedents) should be applied in a given case with the particular set of facts. In order to understand the legal reasoning in a case, one must understand the source of law to which it applies which can sometimes conflict. 

    Link to Google Document

    Constitutional Law

    - “the Supreme Court incorporated the doctrine of no prior restraint in First Amendment Jurisprudence, when it ruled that under the Free Press Clause there is a constitutional presumption against prior restraint which may not be overcome unless the government can demonstrate that Censorship is necessary to prevent a clear and present danger of a national security breach. In new york times v. united states, 403 U.S. 713 92 S.Ct 2140, 29 L. Ed.2d 822 (1971) the Court applied this presumption against the United States Justice Department which had sought an Injunction to prevent the publication of classified material revealing the secrecy and deception behind American involvement in the Vietnam War. If this classified material, also known as the Pentagon Papers, had threatened American troops by disclosing their location or movement, the Court said, publication would not have been permitted.” (4)

    Statutes/Statutory Law

    • Laws “passed by the legislature on the state or federal level.”
    • Legal Definition: “An act of a legislature that declares, proscribes, or commands something; a specific law, expressed in writing.” (5)
    • Statutes set up general principles of law to be applied in specific situations or cases.
    • Statutes can prohibit a particular act, order an act, “make a declaration,” or create resources by the government to help society (6)
    • Process: “A statute begins as a bill proposed or sponsored by a legislator. If the bill survives the legislative committee process and is approved by both houses of the legislature, the bill becomes law when it is signed by the executive officer (the president on the federal level or the governor on the state level). When a bill becomes law, the various provisions in the bill are called statutes. The term statute signifies the elevation of a bill from legislative proposal to law. State and federal statutes are compiled in statutory codes that group the statutes by subject. These codes are published in book form and are available at law libraries.” (7)

     Administrative/Regulatory Law

    • This type of law governs the function of government agencies (state and federal)
    • These agencies are under the power of Congress (state agencies under power of state legislature)
    • Government agencies are bound by constitutional boundaries
    • These limits have been put into statutes like the Federal Administrative Procedure Act (FAPA)
    • This particular statute is meant to create “uniformity and openness” in the procedures of federal agencies
    • The statute includes an all-encompassing and general set of regulations, adjudications or judgements, and rulemaking (8)
    • Ex. FCC which regulates international and interstate communications via radio, television…etc. in all 50 states, the district of Columbia, and all U.S. territories. This is an independent government agency that is under the delegation of Congress. It is the main source of “communication law, regulation, and technological innovation.”
    • People tend to run into administrative law and agencies when applying for governmental benefits. An example of this is when Congress passed laws in order for disabled individuals to receive assistance. “The Social Security Administration (SSA) is the administrative agency created to implement Congress's social security and disability laws. The SSA receives applications when people apply for disability benefits, determines who is eligible for the benefits, and passes rules and regulations to ensure that only the people who deserve these benefits receive them.” (9)
    • Also, other examples where administrative law is applied includes when“the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) create and enforce workplace safety regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passes regulations and rules to enforce Congress's goal of protecting the environment. States also have their own administrative agencies to implement and execute laws passed by their state legislatures.” (10)

     Executive Actions

    • A presidential order that “implements or interprets a federal statute, a constitutional provision, or a treaty
    • Power comes from Congress and does not require approval (11)
    • Executive Actions vs. Executive Orders
    • Historically have been concerning administrative issues and internal operations of federal agencies but more recently have been used for legislative policies

     Common Law

    • Is a “body of customary law” (laws derived from custom or practice) that is based on judicial decisions and precedent and can be found in reports of decided cases
    • Very different from civil law legal system
    • Derived from the “practice of the people” (12)
    • Common law is rooted in “medieval idea that the law as handed down from the king's courts represented the common custom of the people.” (13)
    • “Common-law courts base their decisions on prior judicial pronouncements rather than on legislative enactments. Where a statute governs the dispute, judicial interpretation of that statute determines how the law applies. Common-law judges rely on their predecessors' decisions of actual controversies, rather than on abstract codes or texts, to guide them in applying the law. Common-law judges find the grounds for their decisions in law reports, which contain decisions of past controversies.” (14)
    • Doctrine of Stare Decisis is important in common law because it directs judges to rely on the decisions of previous cases or precedents.

      Law of Equity

      • “Particular set of remedies and associated procedures.” (15)
      • Different from legal procedures
      • “Equitable relief is generally available only when a legal remedy is insufficient” (16)
      • Arose from English system where there were separate courts for law and equity (17)
      • “The most important remaining distinction between law and equity is the right to a jury trial in a civil case. Where the plaintiff seeks a remedy of money damages, the plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial, provided the amount sought exceeds an amount specified by statute. Where the plaintiff seeks a remedy that is something other than money, the plaintiff is not entitled to a jury trial. Instead, the case is decided by one judge. If a plaintiff asks for both equitable and monetary relief, a jury will be allowed to decide the claims that ask for monetary relief, and a judge will decide the equity claims. Judges are guided by precedent in equity cases, but in the spirit of equity, they have discretion and can rule contrary to apparent precedent.” (18)
      • Equitable Defenses: Clean Hands Doctrine which says that the plaintiff in an equity case “should be innocent of any wrongdoing or risk dismissal of the case.” (19)
      • Ex. an injunction (court order requiring a person do or not do something) is an example of an equity remedy
      • Two types of injunctions: preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order-purpose to ensure that the defendant will not act furthering the “complained-of” or harmful way before the court proceedings (20)
      • Article on the history of equity in the Federal Courts, “Equity Jurisdiction in the Federal Courts




    3. 283 U.S. 697, 51 S. Ct 625, 75 L. Ed. 2d 1357 (1931)



















    • 1.1 Common Law Vs. Equity by Emoni Fitch

      This video gives an explanation of the similarities and differences between common law and the law of equity, two concepts which can often be confused or interchanged with one another.

    • 1.2 Historical Development of the Law of Equity Video

      This video lays out the history of the Law of Equity and also gives an explanation of the principle.

    • 1.3 Common Law Vs. Statutory Law video

      This short video gives an easy to understand explanation of the differences between common law and statutory law.

    • 1.4 President Obama Executive Action Image

      This article provides an image that gives context to the concept of executive action. It depicts President Obama speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House, announcing his executive actions on gun control. 

    • 1.5 What is Statutory Law? video

      This video gives a quick and easy to understand overview of statutory law. 

    • 1.6 Structure of the United States Court System by Emoni Fitch

      Structure of the United States Court System

      The United States’ Court system can seem a bit confusing due to the “overlapping network of different courts,” however there is a clear pattern to how the courts are structured. The state and federal court system are divided into the different areas depicted below.

      Courts of Special Jurisdiction

      These courts are established to hear certain type of cases. An example of these types of courts within the federal system are bankruptcy and tax courts. State systems also have specific courts that deal with certain legal issue such as family courts and probate courts. These courts generally have more simple rules of evidence procedure in order to expedite the process and the judges and lawyers typically have expertise within that specific area of the law.

      Trial Courts

      There are two different types of trial courts which are civil court and criminal court.  Though the structure between these two courts are similar, the procedures and rules are quite different. Within these courts, “Each side in a case has the opportunity to learn or discover as many facts about the case as possible before trial. At the trial, the parties will present their evidence in order to convince a judge or jury that the facts are favorable to their side. The judge and the jury will reach their decision, or verdict, which is the end for most cases.”

      The link below provides more specific information on how a case moves forward in the criminal trial court as well as the structure of the court and the procedures that are followed.

      Appellate Courts

      In the trial courts, if there is a lapse in procedure or interpretation of the law, then either party can appeal the case to the appellate court. These courts do not re-hear the entire case, but instead they focus on the portion of the case that may have been misinterpreted or where the lower court may have made a mistake. Appellate courts can typically take cases from courts of special jurisdiction as well.

      Supreme Court

      This is the highest ranking court in any jurisdiction. If the appellate court makes a mistake, or if the party thinks that a law is unjust, then they can make an appeal from the appellate court to the Supreme Court. There is also the possibility that if at the trial court level, there is a particularly interesting question of the law, the Supreme Court will skip the appellate court step and take the case on directly. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is the end of the process and the rules stands. Though, if a case was appealed to a state supreme court and involves a federal issue, then it can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

      State and Federal Courts

      State and federal courts decide different types of cases. Federal courts decide cases that involve federal issues of law such as constitutional rights or federal crimes. State courts are allowed to decide some federal issues, though they decide all issues regarding state law.

      This information regarding the structure of the U.S. Court System comes from:

    • 1.7 U.S. Court System Visual

      This picture provides a visual representation of the United States Court System. 

    • 1.8 State and Federal Court Stuctures Link

      State and Federal Court Stuctures

    • 1.9 Net Neutrality Explained

      Net neutrality revolves around a key question: Should internet bandwidth be treated equally for everyone? Here's a look at the debate.

  • 2 Introduction to State Courts by Grace Bird

    “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” James Madison, Federalist No. 51 1788

    State courts are designed to diffuse power at a national level. While federal laws apply throughout the United States, state laws are applicable to individuals who live or work in a particular state, commonwealth, territory, country, city, or town. Each state has its own system that rules on criminal, marital, welfare, real estate, and personal issues, among others. State and federal laws often conflict, and their relationship is often ambiguous.

    The authors of the U.S. Constitution decided the federal government’s power should be carefully managed, and thus, enforced state-by-state law enforcement. State courts act as courts of “general jurisdiction,” meaning they are subjected to all cases not specifically selected for federal courts. Just as the federal courts interpret federal laws, state courts interpret state laws. Each state makes and interprets its own laws. Alabama is one of 31 other states that observes capital punishment, for example – an controversial decision that many not-for-profits are currently campaigning against. Each state is able to create its own law to ensure power is dispersed.

    The Constitution’s text and structure are contradictory regarding the function of the state courts. According to Frost, in her dissertation for the Vanderbilt Law Review: “Remarkably, this significant question about the interplay between the state and federal judicial systems lingers unresolved more than two-hundred years after the Constitution’s ratification.” It is widely accepted that state courts are not obligated to abide by lower federal court paradigms. However, although state courts are theoretically equal with federal courts, technically, the former is inferior to the latter. The benefits remain unclear.

    One example of a state law that is conflicting on a federal level, is in Virginia. Virginia continued to maintain a law that criminalized sodomy for minors. However, the federal courts in Virginia deemed sodomy legal, and granted habeas relief to defendants convicted in state courts.

    Another example is in Texas, where the Court of Appeals held in 2000 that the Fifth Amendment requires law enforcement to inform suspects about their right to counsel before an investigation, yet they are not obligated to include the counsel may attend the investigation. This omission conflicts with the 1968 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — a suspect must be aware of their rights, including their capacity to consult counsel before and during an investigation.

    Most laws that affect us are passed by state governments, and thus state courts handle most disputes that govern our daily lives. State courts are responsible for 90% of cases in the U.S.


    Inferiority Complex: Should State Courts Follow Lower Federal Court Precedent on the Meaning of Federal Law? 69 (2016): n. pag. Web.

    • 2.1 Structure of Washington Court System

    • 2.2 Structure of the State Courts

      The Constitution and laws of each state create parameters for the state courts.

      The Supreme Court is the highest court. Some states have an intermediate Court of Appeals, and below these, are state trial courts, otherwise known as Circuit or District Courts. Most states have a multileveled structure, while eight states have a two-tiered system that consist of a trial court and a supreme court.

      Specific legal matters are delegated to the appropriate court — for example:

      • Probate court (wills and estates)
      • Juvenile court
      • Family court


      Parties dissatisfied with the decision of the immediate trial court may take their case to the intermediate Court of Appeals. Parties are able to ask the highest state court to consider their case. However, only certain cases will be heard by the Supreme Court.


      In the Federal court, judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. State court judges are selected by election and appointed for a certain period, usually 6 to 10 years.

      Types of Cases

      • Most criminal cases: probate (involving wills and estates)
      • Most contract cases, tort cases (personal injuries), family law (marriages, divorces, adoptions, etc
    • 2.3 Video: A Conversation with Michelle A. Rhee

      Michael D. Shear speaks with former commissioner of D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee, at the Democratic National Convention. She is now the C.E.O. of the education reform advocacy group, “StudentsFirst.”

    • 2.4 State Courts Case Study

      Washington State's Public School Crisis

      “It is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” WASHINGTON STATE CONSTITUTION ARTICLE IX, SECTION 1

      In 2015, Washington state courts enforced proper education reform and appropriate funding, a decision that has impacted the nation. Legally, education is a concern of the state, and it is an area of consistent debate. Of 50 states, 46 have been taken to court for issues related to public education. During the 1970s and 1980s, the states were sued for not evenly distributing resources across the state. Since the 1980s, the argument pertains to whether states have sufficiently funded their education systems. Plantiffs maintain it is the state’s responsibility to ensure all children have access to quality education, however, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a state’s education system. Between 1989 and 2015, 22 state courts have deemed their state’s resources inadequate to provide a quality education. 15 state courts have determined their education system to be sufficient. 15 states are pending in their decision — a symptom of the long, complex nature of these types of cases, as they move up and down the judicial ladder of appeals.

      In 2007, a group of citizens and a statewide coalition of community groups, school districts, and education organizations filed a lawsuit concerning the adequacy of resources for Washington’s public schools. In 2009, it was resolved in favor of the Plantiffs, that a minimum standard of education should be established, with an empirical figure that represents cost to educate per student. An education reform bill was passed accordingly. However, in 2012, it was determined that this bill had not been properly observed. The Washington Supreme Court decided that state funding “consistently failed to provide adequate funding for the program of basic education, including funding for essential operational costs such as utilities and transportation, which resulted in local school districts turning increasingly to local [tax levies] to make up the shortfall.” (p. 77). In 2014, when Washington’s education landscape remained unchanged, the Washington Supreme Court uniquely decided to “(hold) the state in contempt” (p. 77). If results do not change by the 2015 legislative session, the court will reconvene to implement sanctions, among other efforts to for improvement. In June 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ordered the legislature to create a plan to overwrite the current education system in Washington for each grade, to be completed for the 2017 – 2018 school year. The plan, approved by the Supreme Court, plans to ensure fully funded, quality education, implemented in by 2018 in three phases:

      • Phase I: Full state funding of transportation; maintenance, supplies and operating costs; full day kindergarten; and lower class size in grades K–3 (maximum 17 students per teacher)
      • Phase II: Full state funding of the salaries of current educational staff
      • Phase III: State funding for enhanced levels of educational staff and enhanced salaries

      The McCleary vs. Washington case is an example, and a warning, to other states, particularly when most have made reductions to public school funding. The case in Washington exemplifies the time consuming and complex nature of the U.S. legal system, yet its capacity to provoke change regardless.


      Underwood, Julie. “State Education Funding Is in the Legal Spotlight: Washington State Courts Have Boldly Ordered Education Funding and Implementation, a Legal Dispute That Could Have Implications across the Country.” Phi Delta Kappan (2015): n. pag. Web. 
    • 2.5 McCleary v. State of Washington Timeline

      McCleary v. State of Washington Timeline

    • 2.6 McCleary v. State of Washington Breakdown

      A useful infographic breaking down the McCleary v. State of Washington case. 

  • 3 FCC’s current doctrine on net neutrality by Bill Putnam

    FCC’s current doctrine on net neutrality and the cases that surround it
    • 3.1 Net Neutrality Explained

      Net neutrality revolves around a key question: Should internet bandwidth be treated equally for everyone? Here's a look at the debate.

    • 3.2 Net Neutrality: Is the Internet a Public Utility? | Idea Channel

      The views discussed in this episode do not necessarily reflect the views of PBS or its member stations. All thoughts and opinions presented are the province of Mike Rugnetta.

    • 3.3 Net Neutrality Legal Summary

      Net Neutrality Legal Summary

      History of net neutrality legislation and court actions

      Whilst net neutrality isn’t new, the idea of slowing down content is. In October 2007 Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider slowed down service for BitTorrent users by creating “reset packets.” The corporation and BitTorrent arranged a solution to the issue after complaints. In August 2008 the Federal Communications Commission ruled 3-2 against Comcast had illegally inhibited users of it’s high-speed broadband service so that everyone could have equal bandwidth.

      In February 2014 the FCC announced a plans for new rules on net neutrality that would comply with previous court rulings1. One plan would for a two-lane system, the other would be to classify broadband as a telecommunication service and under the authority of Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. On April 13 2015 the FCC published the final rules and they took effect June 12, 20152 and the said the internet is a “common carrier” public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

      The Congress has tried several times to enact net neutrality into law. Starting with the “Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 20063” and most recently with the “Data Cap Integrity Act of 20124.” But most of these bills have either died in committee or were passed Senate and House committees but never made it to the floor of each respective chamber. The only one to reach the floor of the House was “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Bill of 20065” and Data Cap Integrity Act of 2012, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

      In September 2013 Verizon sued the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit6. In their decision, announced Jan. 15, 2014, the court said the FCC had stepped out of bounds but did say the FCC could levy stronger rules. The FCC has signaled it may allow broadband providers to charge for faster delivery to users. The ACLU7 says this will “effectively kill a major component of net neutrality.”

      Internet Service Providers like AT&T and CenturyLink took the FCC back to court in October 2015.8 In the suit the petitioners weren’t opposed to net neutrality rules but said the new regulations are “arbitrary and capricious.”9 A ruling from the court is expected this year.

      Here is a video from the Wall Street Journal explaining what’s at stake, and another on whether the internet is a public utility.


      1. Comcast v FCC, April 6, 2010.
      2. FCC, FCC-15-24, Released March 12, 2015.
      3. 3. 109th Congress, 2nd Session, S.2360, March 2, 2006.
      4. 4. 112th Congress, 2nd Session S.3704, Dec. 20, 2012.
      5. 5. 109th Congress, H.R. 5252, May 1, 2006.
      6. 6. Verizon v FCC, Sept. 9, 2013.
      7. 7. ACLU “What Is Net Neutrality?”
      8. 8. United States Telecom Association v FCC, Oct. 5, 2015.
      9. 9. NPR, “5 Things To Know: Net Neutrality Is Back In Court” Dec. 4, 2015.
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