What=s the Difference between Civil Cases and Criminal Cases?
Civil cases are different from criminal cases. Civil cases usually involve disputes between persons or organizations while criminal cases involve some criminal action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole.
Lawyers use the term party or litigant to describe a participant in a civil case. A person who claims that another person has failed to carry out a legal duty or violated his or her rights, such as those under the Constitution or other federal law, may ask the court to tell the person who violated the right to stop doing it and make compensation for any harm done. For example, Congress has passed a law saying that people have a right not be denied employment because of their gender. Suppose an employer refuses to hire women as construction workers. Women who have applied and have been qualified for jobs might bring a civil case against the employer B sue the employer B for lost wages and seek an order requiring the company to hire them.
Another legal duty is the duty to honor contracts. If a lumberyard promises to sell a specific amount of wood to a construction company for an agreed-upon price and then fails to deliver the wood, forcing the construction company to buy it elsewhere at a higher price, the construction company might sue the lumberyard for damages.
When a jury (or judge in cases in which the defendant waived a jury) determines that an individual committed a crime, that person may be fined, sent to prison, or placed under the supervision of a court employee called a U.S. Probation Officer, or some combination of these three things. The person accused is charged in a bill of indictment or information, which is a formal accusation that the person has committed a crime. The government, on behalf of the people, prosecutes the case. It is not the victim=s responsibility to bring a criminal case. In fact, there may not always be a specific victim. For example, the federal government prosecutes people accused of violating federal laws against spying because of the danger spying presents to the county as a whole.
Federal court jurisdiction is limited to specific types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear cases in which the United States is a party, cases involving violations of the Constitution or federal laws, cases between citizens of different states, and some special kinds of cases, such as bankruptcy cases, patent cases, and cases involving maritime law.
Some cases are such that only federal courts have jurisdiction over them. In other cases, the parties can choose whether to go to state court or to federal court. In most cases, however, they can only go to state court.
Although the federal courts hear significantly fewer cases than the state courts, the cases they do hear tend more often to be of national importance, because the federal laws they enforce and the federal rights they protect.
Most cases in federal courts are civil rather than criminal. As described in AWhat=s the difference between civil and criminal cases?,@ one type of federal civil case might involve a claim by a private citizen that a company failed to carry out its duty under the law B for example, that the company refused to hire the person simply because she was a woman. Another kind of federal civil case might be a lawsuit by a private citizen claiming that he is entitled to receive money under a government program, such as benefits from Social Security. A third type of federal civil lawsuit might require the court to decide whether a corporation is violating federal laws by having a monopoly over a certain kind of business.
Appeals for review of actions by federal administrative agencies are also federal civil cases. Suppose, for example, that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to a paper mill to discharge water used in its milling process into the Scenic River, over the objection of area residents. The residents could ask for federal court to review the agency=s decision.
There are many more federal civil cases than criminal cases because most crimes concern problems that the Constitution leaves to the states. We all know, for example, that robbery is a crime. But what law says it is a crime? There are only a few federal laws about robbery, such as the law that makes it a federal crime to rob a bank whose deposits are insured by a federal agency. Examples of other federal crimes are sale or possession of illegal drugs and use of U.S. mails to swindle consumers.
Federal Courts also hear bankruptcy matters. Bankruptcy laws enable people or businesses who can no longer pay their creditors as their debts come due to organize their affairs, liquidate their debts or create a plan to pay them off, and get a fresh start. There is a while code of laws that sets out how the parties involved in a bankruptcy case should proceed: the bankruptcy code. Bankruptcy judges decide matters that arise under this code.
State courts are essential to the administration of justice in the United States because they handle by far the largest number of cases and have the most contact with the public. State courts handle the cases that people are most likely to be involved in, such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes.
The state courts have such a heavy caseload because their general, unlimited jurisdiction allows them to decide almost every type of case. Jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear. In recent years, the annual number of state court cases has been roughly 50 million. By contrast, in the same period, about 2 million cases have been brought each year in the federal courts; approximately 80% of these were bankruptcy filings, 15% were civil cases, and the rest were criminal cases. The number of judges in each system further illustrates the difference: There are some 1,700 judges in the federal courts, but more than 30,000 in the state courts.
Courts can=t reach out to decide controversies on their own initiative. The must wait for someone to bring the controversy to them. Moreover, courts only decide legal controversies. They are not intended to decide every disagreement that individuals have with one another, or to give advice.
Civil Cases. A federal civil case begins when someone B or most likely, someone=s lawyer B files a paper or electronic document with the clerk of court that states a claim against another person believed to have committed a wrongful act. In legal terminology, the plaintiff files a complaint against the defendant. The defendant may then file an answer to the complaint. These written statements of the parties’= positions are called pleadings.
Criminal Cases. Beginning a federal criminal case is more complicated. A criminal case usually begins when a lawyer for the executive branch of the U.S. government B the U.S. Attorney or an Assistant U.S. Attorney B tells a federal grand jury about the evidence that, according to the government, indicates a person committed a crime. That person may or may not already have been arrested when the grand jury meets. The U.S. Attorney will try to convince the grand jury that there is enough evidence to show that the person probably committed the crime and should be formally accused of it. If the grand jury agrees, it issues a formal accusation, called an indictment.
A grand jury is different from a jury trial, also called a petit jury. A grand jury determines whether the person should be released or held for further proceedings; a petit jury listens to the evidence presented at the trial and determines whether the defendant is guilty of the charge. APetit@ is the French word for Asmall@; petit juries usually consist of twelve jurors in criminal cases and a minimum of six jurors in civil cases. AGrand@ is the French word for Alarge@; grand juries have from sixteen to twenty-three jurors.
After the grand jury issues the indictment, the accused person (the defendant) is arrested, if not already under arrest. The next step is an arraignment, where the defendant is brought before a judge and asked to plead Aguilty@ or Anot guilty@ of the crime. If the plea is Aguilty@, a time is set for the defendant to return to court to be sentenced. If the defendant pleads Anot guilty@, a time is set for the trial.
Grand jury indictments are most often used for felonies, which are the more serious crimes, such as bank robberies. Grand jury indictments are not usually necessary to prosecute less serious crimes, called misdemeanors, and are not necessary for all felonies. Instead, the U.S. Attorney issues an information, which takes the place of an indictment. Typical misdemeanors are disturbing the peace (a state misdemeanor) and speeding on a highway in a national park (a federal misdemeanor).
Although there is an absolute right to trial in both civil and criminal cases, trials are often emotionally and financially costly, and a person may not want to exercise the right to trial. So usually the parties agree to settle the case without going to trial. Some civil cases are decided by the judge, who may decide based on the facts presented that there is no need to have a trial. Thus, more than nine out of ten civil cases never come to trial, and about eight out of ten defendants in criminal cases plead guilty rather than stand trial. If you watch a trial in progress, remember that what you=re seeing is only one part B though a very important part B of the total legal process.
The federal courts are open to the public and have always encouraged citizens to observe trials and other public proceedings. Be sure to remember when you=re in a courtroom that the trial is very important to the parties involved, who may lose their freedom or gain or lose a great deal of money as a result of the court’s decision. Behave in a manner befitting the formality of the courtroom. Don=t talk or laugh during the proceedings, and stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom. Exit quietly if the court is still in session when you leave, and comply with the federal court rules that forbid spectators to take photographs or use tape recorders while the court is in session.
Role of judge and jury. If the parties in a civil case can=t agree on how to settle the cases on their own, or if a defendant in a criminal case pleads not guilty, the court will decide the dispute through a trial. In a civil case, the purpose of a trial is to find out whether the defendant failed to fulfill a legal duty to the plaintiff. In a criminal case, the purpose of a trial is to determine whether the defendant committed the crime charged.
If the parties choose to have a jury trial, determining the facts is the task of the petit jury. If the decide not to have a jury trial, determining the facts is the task of a petit jury. If they decide to not have a jury, and to leave the fact-finding to the judge, the trial is called a bench trial. In either kind of trial, the judge makes cure the correct legal standards are followed. If there is a jury, the judge tells the jury what the law governing the case is. For example, in a robbery case in which an unloaded gun was used, the judge would tell the jury that using an unleaded gun to rob a store is legally the same as using a gun that is loaded. But the jury would have to decide whether the defendant on trial was actually the person who committed the robbery and used the gun.
Adversary Process. Courts use the adversary process to help them reach a decision. Through this process, each side in a dispute presents its most persuasive arguments to the fact finder (judge or jury) and emphasizes the facts that support its case. Each side also draws attention to any flaws in its opponent=s arguments. The fact finder then decides the case. American judicial tradition holds that the truth will be reached most effectively through this adversary process.
The evidence the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) relies on to decide the case consists of two types: (1) physical evidence, such as documents, photographs, and objects, and (2) the testimony of witnesses who are questioned by the lawyers.
Standards of Proof. The courts, through their decisions, and Congress, through statutes, have established standards by which facts must be proven in criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases (federal or state) the defendant may be convicted only if the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) believes that the government has proved the defendant=s guilt Abeyond a reasonable doubt.@ Remember that for the grand jury to issue an indictment, it only has to believe that the defendant probably committed the crime. But for the petit jury to find the defendant guilty, it must be certain that the defendant committed the crime; it can have no Areasonable doubt@ about it. A jury verdict must be unanimous, meaning that all jurors must vote either Aguilty@ or Anot Aguilty.@ If the jurors cannot agree, the judge declares a mistrial and the prosecutor must then decide whether to ask the court to dismiss the case or have it presented to another jury.
In civil cases, in order to decide for the plaintiff, the jury must determine by a Apreponderance of the evidence@ that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty and violated the plaintiff=s rights. A preponderance of the evidence means that more of the evidence favors the plaintiff=s position than favors the defendant=s.
Much of the way our court system works can be traced back to developments in England in the seventeenth century, at the time when America was a group of English colonies. During that century, England abolished the hated Court of the Star Chamber, a court that was tied closely to the prosecutor and that brought enemies of the king to trial for treason and other serious crimes, invariably finding them guilty. A century of criminal justice reforms in England resulted in a number of protections for individuals accused of crimes and adoption of the idea that courts should make their judgments free of pressure from prosecutors. American courts inherited these traditions rom England and incorporated them into our judicial system.
The judge. The judge presides over the trial from a desk, called a bench, on an elevated platform. The judge has five basic tasks. The first is simply to preside over the proceedings and see that order is maintained. The second is to determine whether any of the evidence that the parties want to use is illegal or improper. Third, before the jury begins its deliberations about the facts in the case, the judge gives the jury instructions about the law that applies to the case and the standards it must use in deciding the case. Fourth, in bench trials, the judge must also determine the facts and decide the case. The fifth is to sentence convicted criminal defendants.
Federal appellate and district judges are appointed to office by the President of the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Senate. Federal Judges come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Some were private attorneys before they were appointed. Somewhere judges in state courts, federal magistrate or bankruptcy judges, or U.S. Attorneys. A few were law professors. Once they become judges, they are strictly prohibited from working as lawyers. They must be careful not to do anything that might cause people to think they would favor one side in a case over another. For this reason, they can=t give speeches urging voters to pick on candidate over another for public office, or ask people to contribute money to civic organizations.
Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges are appointed by the courts they serve. They conduct some of the proceeding held in federal courts. They also assist the district judges. Bankruptcy judges handle almost all bankruptcy matters. Magistrate judges often conduct proceedings before trial to help prepare the district judges= cases for trial. They also may preside over misdemeanor trials and may preside over civil trials when both parties agree to have the case heard by the magistrate judge instead of a district judge. Magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges don=t have the same protections as judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution.
The jury. The group of people seated in the boxed-in area on the one side of the courtroom is the petit jury or trial jury. You won=t be able to observe the grand jury during your visit because its proceedings are always secret.
Juries were first used hundreds of years ago in England. The jury was a factor in Events that lead to the Revolutionary War. The Declaration of Independence charged that King George III deprived the colonists Ain many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.@ Thus, our Constitution now guarantees the right to a jury trial to most defendants in criminal cases and to the parties in most civil cases.
In federal criminal cases, there are usually twelve jurors and depending on the case, there can be between one and six alternate jurors. Alternate jurors replace regular jurors who become ill, disqualified, or unable to perform their duties. In federal civil cases, there are no alternate jurors. All of the jurors are required to join in the deliberation of the verdict unless the court excuses a juror from service during the trial or deliberations.
The lawyers. The lawyers for each party will either be sitting at the counsel tables facing the bench or be speaking to the judge, a witness, or the jury. Each lawyer=s task is to bring out the facts that put his or her client=s case in the most favorable light, but to do so using approved legal procedures. In criminal cases, one of the lawyers works for the executive branch, which is the branch that prosecutes cases on behalf of society. In federal criminal cases, that lawyer is the U.S. Attorney or an Assistant U.S. Attorney. A U.S. Attorney is chosen by the President, which the approval of the Senate, for each of the 94 judicial districts. The U.S. Attorney also represents the United States in civil cases in which the U.S. government is a party.
Under the Constitution, as the Supreme Court has interpreted it, persons accused of serious crimes who can=t afford to hire a lawyer may have lawyers appointed to represent them. In the federal courts, these lawyers are usually from the Federal Defenders Office, a federal agency, or from private defense organizations, or from panels of private lawyers deemed qualified to represent such persons. Although the judge may appoint these lawyers, and they are usually paid with public funds, they don=t work for the judge B they work for their client, the defendant.
On certain occasions, defendants in criminal cases or parties in civil cases attempt to present their cases themselves, without using a lawyer. Parties who act on their own behalf are said to act pro se, a Latin phrase meaning Aon one=s own behalf.@
The parties. The parties may or may not be present at the counsel tables with their lawyers. Defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to be present. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides that >the accused shall enjoy the right...to be confronted with the witnesses against him.@ Parties in civil cases may be present if they wish, but are often absent.
The witnesses. Witnesses give testimony about the facts in the case that is in dispute. During their testimony, they sit on the witnesses stand, facing the courtroom. Because the witnesses are asked to testify by one party or other, they are often referred to as plaintiff=s witnesses, government witnesses, or defense witnesses.
The courtroom deputy or clerk. The courtroom deputy or courtroom clerk, who is usually seated near the judge, administers the oaths to the witnesses, marks the exhibits, and generally helps the judge keep the trial running smoothly. Sometimes the deputy or clerk is away from the courtroom performing other tasks on the computer during parts of the trial. The courtroom deputy is employed by the office of the Clerk of Court. The clerk of court is appointed by all the judges on the court and works closely with the chief district judge, who is responsible for the court=s overall administration.
The court reporter. The court reporter sits near the witness stand and usually types the official court record of the trial (everything that is said or introduced into evidence) on a stenographic machine. Federal law required that a word-for-word record be made of every trial. The court reporter also produces a written transcript of the proceedings if either party appeals the case or requests a transcript to review.
The law clerk. The law clerk sits near the judge and helps him or her prepare for hearings and trials. The law clerk researches legal issues, prepares jury instructions, and coordinates with the courtroom deputy about scheduling cases. Some law clerks are hired by judges right after law school and work for a year or two before they practice law as attorneys. Other law clerks work for judges for a longer period of time as their career, like other lawyers who serve in the government.
The court security officer or CSO. Court security officers not only screen people and their belongings before the enter the federal courthouse, but CSO=s stand quietly to the right of the witness box and are usually positioned in the back of the courtroom as well. Their main duty is to keep a stern eye on the happenings in the courtroom and act as a messenger from the jury to the court.
The United States Marshal. The United States Marshal=s Service is the federal law enforcement agency which serves civil and criminal process for the federal courts. U.S. Marshal=s are also responsible for transporting federal prisoners to and from the court, and serve to protect witnesses.
Pretrial activity in civil cases. In most cases, the lawyers and judge agree before the trial, often at pretrial conferences, what issues are in dispute and most be decided by the jury and what issues are not in dispute. Both sides reveal whom they intend to call as witnesses and generally, what evidence they will introduce at the trial. However, just because they agree on these matters before the trial doesn’t mean that they agree on how the case should be decided. Rather, the judge holds a conference to avoid wasting time during the trial on issues that can be decided before.
During the pretrial discovery process, the lawyers try to learn as much as possible about their opponent=s case, as well as build people who know something about what happened. If the lawyers have done a thorough job of preparing the case, they shouldn’t be surprised by any of the answers the opposing attorney=s witnesses give to their questions during trial. One of the basic rules trial lawyers follow is ADon=t ask a question if you don=t know what the answer will be.@ The lawyers and witnesses for each side also prepare for the trial by rehearsing their questions and answers.
Frequently, all of this pretrial activity in a civil case results in a decision by both parties to settle the case without going through a trial. Settling does not necessarily mean that the parties have reconciled their dispute; they have merely agreed to a compromise out of court. Often it means that the plaintiff has agreed to accept an amount for damages that is less than the amount he or she originally claimed.
Pretrial activity in criminal cases. A good defense lawyer will also conduct a thorough investigation before trial in a criminal case, interviewing witnesses, visiting the scene of the crime, and examining any physical evidence. An important part of this investigation is determining whether the government can use certain items of evidence. For example, the government cannot use evidence that the defendant committed a previous crime to prove that the defendant committed a crime in another case. But there are some circumstances in which evidence of a previous crime may be used. Or, the defendant may argue that the government cannot use the defendant=s confession because it was obtained in violation of the defendant=s rights. Resolution of these evidentiary issues before the trial can result either in the government=s dropping the charges or in the defendant= deciding to plead guilty.
Jury selection. If the parties have chosen a jury trial, it begins with the selection of jurors. Citizens are selected for jury service through a process that is set out in laws passes by Congress and in rules adopted by the federal courts. First, citizens are called to court to be available to serve on juries. These citizens are selected at random from lists of all registered or actual voters in the district. The judge and the lawyers in each case then choose the person who will actually serve on the jury.
To choose the jurors, the judge and sometimes the lawyers ask prospective jurors questions to determine if they will be able to decide the case fairly. This process is called voir dire. The lawyers may ask the judge to excuse any jurors they think may not be able to be impartial, such as those who know either party in the case or who have had an experience that might make them favor one side over the other. The lawyers may reject a certain number of jurors without giving any justification. Lawyers may not, however, reject jurors on the basis of race or gender.
Opening Statements. Once the jury has been selected, the lawyers for both sides give their opening statements. The purpose of the opening statements is to allow each side to present its version of the evidence to be offered.
Direct and cross-examination. Introduction of evidence begins after the opening statements. First the government=s attorney, or the plaintiff=s lawyer, questions his or her witnesses. When lawyers question the witnesses whom they have called to testify, it is called direct examination. After the direct examination of a government or plaintiff=s witness, the defendant=s lawyer may question the witnesses; this is called cross-examination. If after the cross-examination, the plaintiff=s lawyer wants to ask additional questions, he or she may do so on a redirect examination, which the defendant=s lawyer has an opportunity for a re-cross-examination. After all the plaintiff=s witnesses have been examined, the defense calls its witnesses, and the same procedures are repeated.
The lawyers often introduce documents, such as bank records, or objects, such as firearms, as additional evidence. These items are called exhibits.
Inadmissible evidence. The courts have established rules that must be observed in court proceedings to determine facts. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant=s out-of-court confession to a crime may not be used in a trial as evidence of the defendant=s guilt if the confession resulted from coercion. The courts adopted this rule because forced confessions obviously aren=t trustworthy.
The federal courts have also adopted a rule to prevent repeated injuries to others following a plaintiff=s injury. To encourage the defendant to repair the faulty condition that may have caused the injury, the rule forbids the introduction of any evidence of such repair, which could be seen as an admission of guilt. Thus a lawyer for a plaintiff who slipped on a wet sidewalk cannot introduce evidence that the defendant put up a >slippery when wet@ sign after the plaintiff=s accident. Without this rule, the act of putting up the sign could be interpreted as an admission that the sign should have been there at the time of the plaintiff=s accident and that the defendant had a duty to warn the plaintiff of the hazardous condition. Such an admission would damage the defendant=s case.
Another rule concerning the introduction of evidence prohibits the use of secondhand testimony, called hearsay. Under this rule, witnesses may not testify to something that they heard about from someone else. If John Smith, for example, testified, ABill Jones told me he saw Frank Williams rob the Green Valley Bank, A the testimony would be inadmissible as evidence. The courts have decided that hearsay is usually not very reliable and, therefore, cannot be used as evidence in a trial.
Sometimes a lawyer will break one of these rules, either inadvertently or on purpose, and will try to present evidence to the jury that it shouldn’t be permitted to hear. If an opposing lawyer believes that testimony asked for or already given is improper, the lawyer may object to it and may ask the judge to instruct the witness not to answer the question or to tell the jury to disregard an answer that has already been given. The judge can either sustain the objection and do as the objecting lawyer requests, or overrule it and permit the testimony. When an objection is made, the judge alone decides whether the testimony is admissible.
Occasionally, the judge and the lawyers for both sides confer at the bench B sometimes called at sidebarB out of the jury=s earshot but with the court reporter present to record what they say. At other times, they might confer in the judge=s chambers. Often, they are discussing whether a certain piece of evidence is admissible. The court doesn’t want the jurors to hear such a discussion because they might hear something that can=t be admitted into evidence and that might prejudice them in favor of one side or the other.
Closing arguments and instructions. After the evidence has been presented, the lawyers make their closing arguments to the jury, concluding the presentation of their cases. Like the opening statements, the closing arguments don=t present evidence but summarize the most important features to each side=s case. Following the closing arguments, the judge gives jury instructions to the jury, also known as a jury charge, explaining the relevant law, how the law applies to the case being tried, and what questions the jury must decide. The jury then retires to the jury room to discuss the evidence and reach a verdict. In criminal cases, the jury=s verdict must be unanimous. In civil cases, the verdict must also be unanimous, unless the parties have agreed before the trial that they will accept a verdict that is not unanimous.
By serving on a jury, citizens have a unique opportunity to participate directly in the operation of our government. Jurors serve as a direct voice of the community in the judicial branch. They also make vital contribution to the smooth functioning of our judicial system. To encourage citizens to participate, the court tries to make jury service as comfortable and rewarding as possible.
Post-trial maters and sentencing. In federal criminal cases, if the jury (or judge, if there is no jury) decides that the defendant is guilty, the judge sets a date for imposing the sentence. In federal courts, the jury doesn’t decide the punishment; the judge does. But the judge=s determination is controlled by sentencing statutes passed by Congress and assisted by a set of guidelines, called sentencing guidelines, which take in account the nature of the particular offense and the offender=s criminal history. A presentence investigation report, prepared by one of the court=s probation officers, assists the judge in determining the proper sentence under the applicable rules and guidelines.
In civil cases, if the jury (or judge) decides in favor of the plaintiff, the jury (or judge) usually orders the defendant to pay the plaintiff money (damages) or take some specific action that will restore the plaintiff=s rights. If the defendant wins the case, however, there is nothing more the trial court needs to do.
A defendant who is found guilty in the federal criminal trial and the losing party in a federal civil case both have a right to appeal their case to a U.S. Court of Appeals. The grounds for appeal usually allege the district judge made an error either in procedure (such as by admitting improper evidence) or in interpreting the law.
The government may not appeal if a defendant in a criminal case is found not guilty, because the double jeopardy clause in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that no person shall Abe twice put in jeopardy of life or limb@ for the same offense. This reflects our society=s belief that, even if a second or third trial might finally find a defendant guilty, it is not proper to allow the government to harass an acquitted defendant through repeated retrials. The government may appeal in civil cases, as any other party may. Also, the losing party may not appeal if there was no trial B if the defendant decided to plead guilty or if the parties settled their civil case out of court. However, a defendant who pleads guilty may have the right to appeal his or her sentence. The government may also sometimes appeal a sentence.
An appeal in federal criminal usually proceeds in the following manner: Suppose a law is passed by Congress that prohibits demonstrations within 500 feet of any embassy. Following the enactment of the law, a group of six people stand on a street corner near the embassy of Malandia and ask passerby to sign a petition protesting Malandia=s foreign policy. The six people are arrested and charged with committing a federal misdemeanor. At trial, they testify that they were careful to stay more than 500 feet away from the embassy. However, the U.S. Attorney calls a police officer as a witness, and he testifies that the corner they were standing on is within 500 feet of the embassy.
Before the trial jury begins its deliberations, the lawyer for the defendants asks the district judge to instruct the jury that collecting signature on a petition is not a Ademonstration@ and, therefore, if that was all the did, they weren’t violating the law. The defendant=s lawyer also argues that the law violates the defendants= First Amendment right to free speech, and therefore the case against them should be dismissed. The judge disagrees on both points. She instructs the jury that collecting signatures on a petition is a demonstration and refuses to dismiss the case, saying that Congress may prohibit demonstrations that pose a threat to Foreign embassies without violating the First Amendment. To reach her decision, the judge consults precedents B similar cases that have already been decided by other courts. She pays special attention to prior decisions of the court of appeals for her circuit.
Suppose that the jury finds the defendants did collect signatures within 500 feet of the embassy, and the defendants are convicted of violating the law. The defendants may then appeal this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals. A court of appeals would rarely throw out the jury=s factual finding that the protesters were within 500 feet of the embassy. However, the court of appeals may decide that Congress didn’t intend for the law to prohibit gathering signatures on a petition. After deciding this, the court of appeals will probably determine that it doesn’t have to decide whether it was unconstitutional for Congress to prohibit demonstrations near embassies. That decision will have to wait for a case in which there is an actual demonstration.
If the court of appeals decides that the trial judge incorrectly interpreted the law, as in the example, then it will reverse the district court=s decision. In other words, the court of appeals will say that the district judge made a mistake in interpreting the law, and that the defendants are not guilty after all. However, most of the time B but certainly not always B courts of appeals uphold, rather than reverse, district court decisions.
Sometimes when a higher court reverses the decision of the district court, it will send the case back to the district court for another trial, or in legal terms, remand it. For example, in the famous Miranda case, the Supreme Court rules that Ernesto Miranda=s confession could not be used as evidence because he has not been advised of his right to remain silent or his right to have a lawyer present during questioning. However, the government did have other evidence against him. The cases were remanded for a new trial at which the improperly obtained confession was not used as evidence, and Miranda was convicted.
The court of appeals usually assigns a panel of three judges to each case. The panel decides the case for the entire court. Sometimes, when the parties request it, or when there is a question of unusual importance, the entire court of appeals court, sitting en banc, will reconsider a panel=s decision or hear the case anew.
In making its decision, the panel reviews key parts of the record on appeal, which consists of all the documents filed in the cases at trial along with the transcript of the proceedings at the trial. The panel then learns about the lawyer=s legal arguments from two sources. One is the lawyer=s briefs. Briefs are written documents (often anything but brief) that explain each side=s case and tell why the court should decide in its favor. The second source of information about the lawyer=s legal arguments is the oral argument. If the court permits oral argument, each side=s lawyers have a limited amount of time to explain its case to the judges in a formal courtroom session, and the judges frequently question them about the relevant law.
After the submission of briefs and oral argument, the judges discuss the case privately, consider any relevant precedents, and reach a decision. At least two of the three judges on the panel must agree with the decision. One of those who agree is chosen to write an opinion, which announces the decision and explains it. Any judge who disagrees with the majority opinion may file a dissenting opinion, giving his or her reasons for disagreeing. Many appellate opinions are published in books of opinions called reporters. The opinions are read carefully by other judges and lawyers looking for precedents to guide them in their own cases. The accumulated judicial opinions make up a body of law known as case law, which is usually an accurate predictor of how future cases will be decided. Increasingly, the courts of appeals use short, unsigned opinions, which often are not published, for decisions that, in the judges= view, are important only to the parties and contribute nothing to the law.
If you visit a court of appeals session, you=ll notice how it differs from federal trial courts. There are no jurors, witnesses, or court reporters. The lawyers for both sides are present, but the parties are usually not.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation. It is a different kind of appeals court B its major function is not correcting errors made by trial judges, but clarifying the law when other courts disagree about the interpretation of the Constitution or federal laws.
Unlike the U.S. courts of appeals, however, the Supreme Court does not have to hear every case that it is asked to review. The Supreme Court decides whether or not it will hear a case. Each year, losing parties ask the Supreme Court to review about 8,000 of the approximately 50 million cases handled by the state and federal courts. These cases come to the Court as petitions for writ of certiorari. The Court selects only about 80 of the most significant cases to review.
The decisions the Supreme Court hand down on cases appealed from lower courts set precedents for the interpretation of the Constitution and federal laws that all other courts, both state and federal, must follow. This power of judicial review makes the Supreme Court=s role in our government vital. Judicial review is the power of any court, when deciding a case, to declare that the law passed by legislature or an action of an executive official is invalid because it is inconsistent with the Constitution. Although district courts, courts of appeals, and the state courts can exercise the power of judicial review, their decisions are always subject to review by the Supreme Court on appeal. When the Supreme Court declares a law unconstitutional, however, its decision can only be overruled by a later decision of the Supreme Court or by an amendment to the Constitution. Seven of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution have invalidated decisions of the Supreme Court. However, most Supreme Court cases don=t concern the constitutionality of laws but the interpretation of laws passed by Congress.
Although Congress has steadily increased the number of district of appeals courts judges over the years, the Supreme Court has remained the same size since 1869, with a Chief Justice and eight associate justices. Like all federal judges, the justices are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. However, unlike the courts of appeals, the Supreme Court never sits in panels. All nice justices hear every case, and cases are decided by a majority ruling.
The Supreme Court begins its annual session or term on the first Monday of October. The term lasts until the Court and announced its decisions in all of the cases in which it has heard argument B usually until June. During the term, the Court, sitting for two weeks at a time, hears oral argument on Monday through Wednesday and then holds private conferences to discuss the cases, reach decisions, and begin preparing opinions. Most decisions, with their opinions, are released in the late spring and early summer.
The decisions of the Supreme Court affect the lives of millions of people, from magazine editors trying to decide whether publishing a disparaging article about a famous person may make them liable for damages, to taxpayers whose tax bill may be affected by rulings about state and federal tax laws. The widespread impact of some cases results in lively debates in the media. Rarely does everyone agree with an outcome.
State courts are essential to the administration of justice in the United States because they handle by far the largest number of cases and have the most contact with the public. State courts handle the cases that people are most likely to be involved in, such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes.
|Prior to the year 1917, a U.S. federal courtroom was located in the post office building shown to the right. More space was needed, so this building had to be torn down so that a new one could be built.|
|In 1933, a new U.S. post office and federal courthouse was built.|
|The courthouse you see today was finished in 1934. Along with eight judges and many other district court employees, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and the U.S. Marshals work here.|