The judiciary's independence and extensive responsibilities reflect the importance of the rule of law in the German system of government. A core concept is that of the Rechtsstaat , a government based on law, in which citizens are guaranteed equality and in which government decisions can be amended. Federal law delineates the structure of the judiciary, but the administration of most courts is regulated by Land law. The Lšnder are responsible for the lower levels of the court system; the highest appellate courts alone operate at the federal level. This federal-Land division of labor allows the federation to ensure that laws are enforced equally throughout the country, whereas the central role of the Lšnder in administering the courts safeguards the independence of the judicial system from the federal government.
Principles of Roman law form the basis of the German judicial system and define a system of justice that differs fundamentally from the Anglo-Saxon system. In the United States, courts rely on precedents from prior cases; in Germany, courts look to a comprehensive system of legal codes. The codes delineate somewhat abstract legal principles, and judges must decide specific cases on the basis of those standards. Given the importance of complex legal codes, judges must be particularly well trained. Indeed, judges are not chosen from the field of practicing lawyers. Rather, they follow a distinct career path. At the end of their legal education at university, law students must pass a state examination before they can continue on to an apprenticeship that provides them with broad training in the legal profession over several years. They then must pass a second state examination that qualifies them to practice law. At that point, the individual can choose either to be a lawyer or to enter the judiciary. Judicial candidates must train for several more years before actually earning the title of judge.
The judicial system comprises three types of courts. Ordinary courts, dealing with criminal and most civil cases, are the most numerous by far. Specialized courts hear cases related to administrative, labor, social, fiscal, and patent law. Constitutional courts focus on judicial review and constitutional interpretation. The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundes-verfassungsgericht) is the highest court and has played a vital role through its interpretative rulings on the Basic Law.
The ordinary courts are organized in four tiers, each of increasing importance. At the lowest level are several hundred local courts (Amtsgerichte ; sing., Amstgericht ), which hear cases involving minor criminal offenses or small civil suits. These courts also carry out routine legal functions, such as probate. Some local courts are staffed by two or more professional judges, but most have only one judge, who is assisted by lay judges in criminal cases. Above the local courts are more than 100 regional courts (Landesgerichte ; sing., Landesgericht ), which are divided into two sections, one for major civil cases and the other for criminal cases. The two sections consist of panels of judges who specialize in particular types of cases. Regional courts function as courts of appeals for decisions from the local courts and hold original jurisdiction in most major civil and criminal matters. At the next level, Land appellate courts (Oberlandesgerichte ; sing., Oberlandesgericht ) primarily review points of law raised in appeals from the lower courts. (For cases originating in local courts, this is the level of final appeal.) Appellate courts also hold original jurisdiction in cases of treason and anticonstitutional activity. Similar to the regional courts, appellate courts are divided into panels of judges, arranged according to legal specialization. Crowning the system of ordinary courts is the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) in Karlsruhe. It represents the final court of appeals for all cases originating in the regional and appellate courts and holds no original jurisdiction.
Specialized courts deal with five distinct subject areas: administrative, labor, social, fiscal, and patent law. Like the ordinary courts, they are organized hierarchically with the Land court systems under a federal appeals court. Administrative courts consist of local administrative courts, higher administrative courts, and the Federal Administrative Court. In these courts, individuals can seek compensation from the government for any harm caused by incorrect administrative actions by officials. For instance, many lawsuits have been brought in administrative courts by citizens against the government concerning the location and safety standards of nuclear power plants. Labor courts also function on three levels and address disputes over collective bargaining agreements and working conditions. Social courts, organized at three levels, adjudicate cases relating to the system of social insurance, which includes unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, and social security payments. Finance, or fiscal, courts hear only tax-related cases and exist on two levels. Finally, a single Federal Patents Court in Munich adjudicates disputes relating to industrial property rights.
Except for Schleswig-Holstein, each Land has a state constitutional court. These courts are administratively independent and financially autonomous from any other government body. For instance, a Land constitutional court can write its own budget and hire or fire employees, powers that represent a degree of independence unique in the government structure.
Sixteen judges make up the Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest and most important judicial body. They are selected to serve twelve-year, nonrenewable terms and can only be removed from office for abuse of their position and then only by a motion of the court itself. The Bundestag and the Bundesrat each choose half of the court's members. Thus, partisan politics do play a role. However, compromise is built into the system because any court decision requires a two-thirds majority among the participating judges. The court is divided into two senates, each consisting of a panel of eight judges with its own chief justice. The first senate hears cases concerning the basic rights guaranteed in Articles 1 through 19 of the Basic Law and concerning judicial review of legislation. The second senate is responsible for deciding constitutional disputes among government agencies and how the political process should be regulated.
Unlike the United States Supreme Court, the Federal Constitutional Court does not hear final appeals--that function belongs to the Federal Court of Justice. The Basic Law explicitly confines the jurisdiction of the Federal Constitutional Court to constitutional issues. By the late 1980s, the majority of the articles in the Basic Law had been subjected to judicial review, and the constitutionality of federal and state legislation had been considered in hundreds of court cases. When lacking the legislative clout to challenge a government policy, the opposition in the Bundestag traditionally has turned to the Federal Constitutional Court to question the constitutionality of legislation.
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