Civil Procedure (Encyclopedia of Everyday Law)
CIVIL PROCEDURE refers to that body of law (usually in the form of collective and published rules) that concerns itself with the methods, procedures, and practices used in civil proceedings. Civil proceedings are distinguished from criminal or administrative proceedings, which are governed by their own respective rules of procedure. Most (but not all) civil proceedings involve "litigation" or lawsuits between private parties or entities (such as business CORPORATIONS) and the focus herein generally relates to key procedures in the LITIGATION process.
PROCEDURAL LAW is intended to safeguard those vested rights in life, liberty, and property that are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that "No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property without DUE PROCESS OF LAW [the "due process clause"]; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution makes those provisions applicable to the states.
In almost every civil lawsuit, there will be a prevailing (winning) party and a defeated (losing) party. Judgment against the losing party (whether it is the person who filed the claim or the person against whom the claim was made) generally means he or she will be adversely affected. The constitutional guarantee of "due process of law" ensures that persons whose rights may be adversely affected by litigation have the opportunity for their "day in court,"to be heard and to present proof(s) in support of their claim or defense. Accordingly, before any judgment can be made for or against a party, certain procedural safeguards WARRANT that a just and FAIR HEARING on the matter has been conducted and that all parties whose interests may be affected by the controversy have been notified of their right to be heard.
Civil procedure, then, helps provide the "structure" needed to guarantee a fair and just determination of the controversy, while also serving to move the matter through the legal system in an orderly and consistent manner. It governs such actions as the way in which service of process is made upon a DEFENDANT, the number of days and manner in which parties may "discover" one another's EVIDENCE, and the manner in which parties may present their controversies or objections to the court. Additional rules of procedure may have more simple purposes, such as uniformity or judicial economy. In any event, courts have the power and authority of law (in the absence of abuse of discretion) to dismiss lawsuits and/or deny remedies if procedural rules are not followed.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution expressly creates a federal court system, and Section 2 of that Article further declares that JURISDICTION (See Jurisdiction, below) of the U.S. Supreme Court and courts within the federal system shall be subject to "such Regulations as the Congress shall make." Those regulations are contained in Section 1251 of Title 28 of the United States Code (U.S.C. or U.S.C.A.designating the annotated version). Section 2072 of 28 U.S.C. 131 (The Rules Enabling Act) authorizes the Supreme Court to "prescribe general rules of practice and procedure and rules of evidence for cases in the U.S. district courts (including proceedings before magistrates thereof) and courts of appeals." Similarly, state constitutions and statutes empower the states' highest courts (usually) to regulate civil procedures in state courts.
An important and early determination to be made in each pending action is whether to file a civil lawsuit in the "forum" of a federal court or state court. A court's general authority to hear and/or "adjudicate" a legal matter is referred to as its "jurisdiction." In the United States, jurisdiction is granted to a court or court system by STATUTE or by constitution. A legal decision made by a court that does not have proper jurisdiction is deemed void and non-binding upon the litigants.
Jurisdiction may be referred to as "exclusive," "original," concurrent, general, or limited. Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution limits the types of cases that federal courts may hear. Generally speaking, federal courts may hear only those cases involving federal laws, federal or sovereign parties (including states), or disputes between citizens from different states. Thus, federal courts have "limited" jurisdiction, which may be "exclusive" over a matter or party (to the exclusion of any other forum), or may be "concurrent" and shared with state courts. In matters where both federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction, state courts may hear federal law claims (e.g., violations of CIVIL RIGHTS), and parties bringing suit may choose the forum. However, when a plaintiff raises both state and federal claims in a state court, the defendant may be able to "remove" the case to a federal court.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
A court is competent to hear and decide only those cases whose subject matter fits within the court's scope of authority. Courts of "limited" jurisdiction may be competent to hear only certain matters, such as those involving PROBATE or juvenile cases. Even courts of broad or general jurisdiction may have certain matters removed from their jurisdiction (by statute or state constitution), such as DIVORCE or CUSTODY matters, to be handled by other courts. If the controversy involves a parcel of real estate instead of a person, the property must be located within the territorial jurisdiction of the court.
Jurisdiction over the Parties
A court must have jurisdiction not only over the subject matter of the controversy, but also the parties to the litigation. There is seldom a question of jurisdiction over the plaintiff, since by bringing the action into the court, the plaintiff consents to the court's jurisdiction over him or her. But the plaintiff must also show that the court has jurisdiction over the defendant. In general, this may be established by the defendant's consent, by the defendant's general appearance in court, or by proving a defendant's domicile within the geographic area of the court's jurisdiction (in combination with serving process upon the defendant). A fourth way of acquiring jurisdiction over a defendant relies on "long-arm statutes," which permit a court to "reach" absent defendants or defendants residing in other states by establishing their relationship with the state in which the action was filed (the "forum" state). It may be that they committed the wrongful act within the forum state or transact business within that state or own property in that state, etc.
Finally, many courts limit their jurisdiction to cases in which the amount in controversy exceeds a certain minimum amount. For example, no complaint may be filed in a federal court unless the amount in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000. Many state circuit courts have minimum "jurisdictional amounts" of $10,000, $15,000, or $25,000. Conversely, many local or district courts within state court systems have maximum jurisdictional amounts; if the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional maximum, either the case must be re-filed in the next level court or the complaining party must waive his or her right to any judgment that exceeds the maximum.
Venue refers to the geographic location of the court in which to bring an action. Most court systems (federal and state) have statutes that dictate the particular district, county or city in which a court with jurisdiction may hear a case. Usually, venue is premised on where a defendant resides or does business, where the wrongful act occurred, or alternatively, where a plaintiff resides. The general venue statute governing federal cases is 28 U.S.C.A. Section 1391. Venue provisions for state courts are generally found in statutes rather than rules of civil procedure; the rules of procedure may address the way in which one motions a court for a "change of venue."
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP)
A major step toward establishing uniform federal procedures was undertaken in 1934, when the U.S. Supreme Court promulgated the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). The bible for practicing attorneys, the Rules govern all civil actions in federal courts nationwide, including federal BANKRUPTCY court. The Rules are frequently amended and updated and contain Supplemental Rules sections for cases in admiralty and maritime actions, as well as "local rules" pertaining to specific courts within the federal system.
Although the Rules were intended to apply to U.S. district courts within the federal system, nearly all state courts have since replaced their own procedural rules with new rules modeled after the FRCP. At a minimum, it can be said that the FRCP represents the dominant style of American civil procedure, whether in federal or state court. Although there is not uniformity PER SE, there is general consistency of approach to matters common in most causes of action.
In civil procedure, the prosecuting party (the one filing a complaint or lawsuit or petition) is referred to as a "plaintiff" or "petitioner" or "complainant" (depending upon the court and the nature of the matter), while the opposing party is referred to as a "defendant" or "respondent." (For purposes of simplicity, the terms "plaintiff" and "defendant" are used exclusively herein, but imply any or all of the above, respectively.)
Any person may file a lawsuit under his or her own name, but the person must have "legal capacity" to sue (the legal competency to stand before the court). This requirement implies, among other factors, minimum LEGAL AGE and mental competency. FRCP 17(c) provides that a GUARDIAN or conservator may sue or defend on behalf of an infant or legally incompetent person; or, if none exists, the court will appoint a "next friend" or "guardian ad litem" to represent the interest of the child or incompetent person. A deceased person may be represented in an action by the personal representative (executor or administrator) of the deceased's estate. FRCP 17(b) also provides that in federal court, the legal capacity of a business corporation to sue or be sued is determined by the law under which it was organized.
Several parties may be joined in an action, as coplaintiffs or co-defendants. Under FRCP 23 and most state rules, multiple plaintiffs who have suffered harm as a result of the actions of a common defendant may be joined together in one lawsuit called a "class action." Under such a suit, only a few plaintiffs will be named in the action, but they will represent all plaintiffs within the certified "class," and their claims must be fairly representative of the interests of all the persons within the class.
A lawsuit may become fairly complicated when the original parties (and sometimes the court) bring in third or additional parties not initially named in the suit. Parties joined on the same side are referred to as "co-parties." If co-parties raise claims against one another (e.g., a defendant blames another defendant), they are "cross-parties" as to each other. But if a "counter-claim" is raised against an opposing party, they become "counter-parties" as to the COUNTERCLAIM. In the "caption," or heading of the original action, the parties may be referred to as coplaintiffs, co-defendants, cross-plaintiffs, cross-defendants, counter-plaintiffs, counter-defendants, or "interested parties," depending upon the claims or defenses raised.
Commencement of an Action
A lawsuit must be commenced within the limitation period provided by law (the applicable "statute of limitations"). Lawsuits not filed within the period of the applicable STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS will be dismissed. Under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Erie v. Tompkins, federal courts will apply the statute of limitations of the state in which the federal court lies. Statutes of limitations generally begin to run when the cause of action arises. Many states have exceptions that allow for "tolling" of their statutes of limitations (temporarily "stopping the clock") during periods of absence from the forum state, war, legal INCOMPETENCY, etc. There are also special rules that apply if death occurs prior to the expiration of the limitations period.
Under FRCP 3 and many state jurisdictions, an action commences when a complaint is filed. However, many states do not consider the action to have commenced until service of process has been made upon the defendant. Service of process may be made by personal service of the complaint and SUMMONS upon the defendant (many states permit registered mail service); constructive service by notice or publication; or substituted service on a registered agent of the defendant (as for business corporations). There are strict rules that limit the use of constructive or substituted service on defendants.
Pleadings are written formal allegations in support of either a claim or a defense, presented for the court's consideration and judgment. Under FRPC 7, pleadings are limited to a complaint and an answer, a reply (to a counterclaim), an answer to a cross-claim, a third-party complaint, and a third-party answer.
The first pleading in an action is called a "complaint." (In a minority of jurisdictions, the pleading may still be referred to as a "bill of complaint" or "declaration.") FRCP 10(a) requires that a complaint contain, at a minimum the following:
- A caption that contains the name of the court, the title of the action, the file number (provided by the court), and the names of all the parties
- A short and plain statement of facts which tend to show that the pleader is entitled to relief
- A demand for judgment for the relief to which plaintiff deems himself or herself entitled
- A signature of an attorney of record and the attorney's business address (or the party's signature and address, if not represented by an attorney)
- A short and plain statement of the grounds upon which the court's jurisdiction depends
FRCP 7 provides that the responsive pleading to a complaint is called an answer. It generally contains denials of the allegations in the complaint and/or new matters asserted as counterclaims or affirmative defenses. However, under FRCP12 and most states' rules, an interim responsive pleading may be in the form of a motion to dismiss or a motion for SUMMARY JUDGMENT, for such reasons as failure to state a claim, lack of jurisdiction, insufficiency of process, etc. These generally constitute "affirmative defenses" that do not speak to the specific facts alleged in the complaint but rather challenge the validity of the complaint on some other grounds.
Under FRCP 8, allegations in a pleading to which a responsive pleading is required are admitted unless they are specifically denied in the answer. Moreover, under the federal rules, the defendant is required to assert all defenses in the responsive pleading or they will be waived. As part of the responsive pleading, FRCP 13 permits the raising of a counterclaim against the plaintiff, or a cross-claim against a co-party or a third party claim against a non-party (who will be served and joined as a party). There must be a reply to a counterclaim or cross-claim. Amendments to pleadings are permitted in the furtherance of justice and on the terms deemed proper by the court (FRCP 15).
Following the filing of all initial pleadings, there begins a period of "discovery" which enables each party to learn of evidence held by opposing or other parties to the action. Generally speaking, the scope of allowable DISCOVERY is broad: FRCP 26 provides that parties may obtain discovery on any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action. Discovery is accomplished by means of subpoenas; requests for inspection of documents, photographs, recordings, or other items of evidence; the taking of TESTIMONY of witnesses (usually by DEPOSITION); review and copying of relevant records; written interrogatories (questions that must be answered under oath); written requests for admissions (requiring admission or denial of the facts posed); requests for physical or mental EXAMINATION of a party; and often, visitation to sites, premises, or geographic locations relevant to the case.
Also during the pre-trial period (and continuing through the trial process), various "motions" may be filed with the court, requesting that the court grant an order on some matter related to the progress of the case. A motion may request immediate relief for an interim dispute (such as a motion to compel the release of evidence) or it may request "dispositive" relief (such as a motion to dismiss the case for lack of evidence or failure to state a cause of action).
At the close of discovery, parties are encouraged to review the sum total of evidence and attempt to settle the case. In many state jurisdictions, there is compulsory (but non-binding) "mediation" of the case, in which an independent panel reviews the pleadings and evidence and makes a SETTLEMENT recommendation. If no viable settlement results, the case will move on to the trial stage. Prior to trial, attorneys for the parties will provide written requests for jury instructions they wish to include in the charge to the jury (FRCP 51). Attorneys will also have the opportunity to examine and rule out prospective jurors ("voir dire") for such disqualifying factors as BIAS, personal familiarity with the parties or witnesses, FELONY CONVICTION, legal relationship with any party or witness (such as LANDLORD, employer, partner), etc. (FRCP 47). These are referred to as "challenges for cause." Most jurisdictions also permit a certain number of "peremptory challenges," wherein trial attorneys may rule out prospective jurors without stating their reason for doing so. After a final jury is agreed upon and all last-minute motions have been heard, trial begins.
In general, the order of proceedings at trial are: opening statements (first plaintiff, then defendant); introduction of evidence (first plaintiff, then defendant, then rebuttal evidence); closing arguments (first plaintiff, then defendant); instructions to the jury ("jury charge") by the court; return of verdict and poll of jury; and entry of a judgment.
The normal order for the presentation of proofs (evidence) is: the plaintiff introduces all the evidence for his or her "case in chief"; the defendant then introduces his or her evidence in chief; the plaintiff then offers rebuttal evidence; and finally, the defendant may be permitted to present evidence in rebuttal of any new matter brought out in the plaintiff's rebuttal evidence (called surrebuttal). Objections to any proffered evidence must be timely made or they are waived; proper and/or permissible objections are covered in the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) rather than the FRCP.
Closing arguments are then made (plaintiff first, followed by defendant, then followed with plaintiff's final rebuttal), and the jury is charged and sequestered for deliberations. The jury normally renders it verdict through its foreman, and the entire jury must be present when the verdict is delivered in court. Barring any defects in form or challenges to the verdict, a judgment is declared for the prevailing party.
Prior to the delivery of a verdict, either party may motion the court for a judgment on the evidence (e.g., a motion for summary judgment) or for MISTRIAL (based upon an objection made during trial). Following delivery of a verdict, a party may motion for a new trial or partial retrial (FRCP 59).
A judgment on the verdict is not the only way to prevail in a CIVIL ACTION. In fact, at the conclusion of trial, either party may motion a court for a "judgment notwithstanding the verdict," (following the party's earlier motion for a DIRECTED VERDICT), even though there has been a jury verdict for the other party.
Rather than defend a civil complaint, a party may merely consent to judgment, as in claims of debt, and such "consent judgments" are entered on the record and are as binding as a full jury verdict.
A "default judgment" may be rendered against a party if it is the result of a party's failure to take a necessary step in the action within the proper time; this generally means a failure to plead or otherwise defend within the time allowed. Since, under rules of procedure, allegations not specifically denied are deemed admitted, failure to file a responsive pleading will generally result in the entry of a DEFAULT JUDGMENT against the defendant.
Finally, under FRCP 57 and most state rules and/or statutes, courts are authorized to grant "declaratory judgments" in cases where the requested relief is in the form of a court's declaration of certain rights, status, or legal relations between parties or entities. Some examples include actions to "quiet title" to real property, actions regarding ownership, or use of intellectual property rights (such as copyrights or PATENTS), etc. In order to invoke the court's jurisdiction in a declaratory matter, there must be an actual controversy and not a mere desire for an advisory opinion from the court.
In both federal and state courts, a party may appeal only final orders, decisions, or judgments. After the entry of a final order, decision, or judgment, there are strict procedural deadlines as to the number of days within which an appeal must be filed. Grounds for appeal are extremely limited. An order of a court will not be reversed unless the APPELLANT can show that either the order was clearly contrary to law or that the judge abused his or her discretion.
Likewise, there is limited review of trial judgments. It is not generally sufficient to show error in the conduct of trial; the appellant must show harm or prejudice that was caused by the error (for example, the introduction of evidence which the appellant argued was improper and without which the appellant most likely would have prevailed). APPELLATE courts disregard harmless errors or defects that do not affect the substantial rights of the parties in determining whether a particular case should be reversed. (FRCP 61)
State Rules of Civil Procedure
The first state to establish uniform rules of civil procedure was New York, which in 1848 enacted the Field Code, named after its principal author, David Dudley Field. Over the next several decades, nearly all states had either adopted the Code outright or had made other considerable changes to their procedures. As of 2002, the Code has been replaced with modified versions of the FRCP in nearly all states. Notwithstanding, there are procedural differences from state to state, and it is imperative that litigants are familiar with state rules before proceeding in court. Copies of state rules may often be found at public libraries, college libraries, and/or on states' official Internet websites.
ALABAMA: See Title 6 of the Alabama Code of 1975, also available at .
ALASKA: See Title 9 of Alaska Statutes, "Code of Civil Procedure."
ARIZONA: See Title 12 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, available at
ARKANSAS: See Title 16, Subtitle 5 of the Arkansas Code, available at .
CALIFORNIA: See the "California Code of Civil Procedure."
COLORADO: See Title 13 of the Colorado Constitution, "Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure."
CONNECTICUT: See Title 52 of the General Statutes of Connecticut, available at http://www.cga.state.ct.us/2001/pub/Title52.
DELAWARE: See Title 10, Part 3 of the Delaware Code, "Courts and Judicial Procedure."
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: See Titles 13-17.
FLORIDA: See "Florida Rules of Civil Procedure," from the Florida Lawyers World Wide Web Resource Center at http://phonl.com/fl_law/rules/frcp/
GEORGIA: See Title 9, Chapter 10 of the Georgia Code.
IDAHO: See Titles 1-13 of the Idaho Code.
ILLINOIS: See Code of Civil Procedure, 735 IL CS 5.
INDIANA: See Title 34 of the Indiana Code, Articles 1-57, available at .
IOWA: See Title X, Subtitle 3 of the Iowa Code, available at www.legis.state.ia.us/IACODE.
KANSAS: See Chapters 60 and 61of the Kansas Statutes, available at .
KENTUCKY: See Kentucky Rules of Court, authority found in Kentucky Constitution, Articles 109-116.
LOUISIANA: See the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure, available at http://www.legis.state.la.us.
MAINE: See Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, available at http://www.cleaves.org/sc-rules.htm.
MARYLAND: See "Courts and Judicial Procedures," Section 1-101, et seq., available at .
MASSACHUSETTS: See Chapters 211-262 of the General Laws of Massachusetts, "Courts, Judicial Officers and Proceedings in Civil Cases."
MICHIGAN: See "Michigan Rules of Court," available at http://www.michiganlegislature.org/law/MCLSearch.asp.
MINNESOTA: See Chapters 540-552.
MISSISSIPPI: See Title 11of Mississippi Code of 1972, available at http://www.mscode.com/free/statutes.
MISSOURI: See Missouri Revised Statutes, Title XXXV, Chapters 506-517, available at .
MONTANA: See Title 25 of state statute.
NEBRASKA: See Chapters 25 and 26 of Nebraska statutes, available at
NEVADA: See Titles 3-6 of the Nevada Revised Statutes.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: See Title LIII, Chapters 514-526 of the New Hampshire Revised Statutes, "Proceedings in Court," available at .
NEW JERSEY: See Chapter 2A of the New Jersey Permanent Statutes, available at http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/
NEW YORK: See Chapter 8 of the New York State Consolidated Laws, available at http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/
NORTH CAROLINA: See Chapters 1 and 1A of the North Carolina General Statutes.
NORTH DAKOTA: See Chapter 28 of the Century Code. "Judicial Procedure, Civil."
OKLAHOMA: See Title 12 of the Oklahoma Statutes.
OREGON: See Chapters 12-36 of the Oregon Revised Statutes.
PENNSYLVANIA: See Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968, Article V, Section 10C, 42 PA CS 1722, available at .
RHODE ISLAND: See Title 9, available at http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/statutes/Title9/INDEX.
SOUTH CAROLINA: See Title 15 of the Code of Laws, available at .
SOUTH DAKOTA: See Title 15.
TENNESSEE: See Titles 19 and 20.
TEXAS: See "Civil Practice and Remedies Code," available at .
UTAH: See Future Title 28-"Judicial Code" of the Utah Code, available at .
VERMONT: See Title 12 of the Vermont Statutes.
VIRGINIA: See Virginia Code Section 915a, available at http://www.leg1.state.va.us/000/cod/code915a. htm#751573.
WASHINGTON: See Title 4, "Civil Procedure," of the Revised Code of Washington, available at .
WEST VIRGINIA: See Chapters 55-58.
WISCONSIN: See Chapters 801-847 of the Wisconsin Statutes.
WYOMING: See Title 1 of the Wyoming Statutes, available at .
"Civil Procedure: an Overview." Available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/civil_procedure.html.
The Court TV Cradle-to-grave Legal Survival Guide. Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/civil_procedure.html.
The Law of the Land. Rembar, Charles, Simon & Schuster, 1993.
West's Encyclopedia of American Law. West Group, 1998.
Criminal Procedure (Encyclopedia of Everyday Law)
CRIMINAL PROCEDURE is the body of state and federal constitutional provisions, statutes, court rules, and other laws governing the administration of justice in criminal cases. The term encompasses procedures that the government must follow during the entire course of a criminal case, ranging from the initial investigation of an individual suspected of criminal activity, through arrest, arraignment, PLEA negotiations, pre-trial hearings, trial, post-trial motions, pre-sentence interviews, sentencing, appeals, and PROBATION and PAROLE proceedings. The rules of criminal procedure may also apply after a DEFENDANThas been unconditionally released following an ACQUITTAL. For example, the DOUBLE JEOPARDYClause of the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution may be invoked by individuals who are facing prosecution on charges for which they have already been found not guilty.
Criminal procedures are designed to safeguard both the innocent and the guilty from indiscriminate application of substantive criminal laws (i.e., laws prohibiting rape, murder, ARSON, and theft, etc.) and from arbitrary or abusive treatment at the hands of law enforcement, the courts, or other members of the justice system. At the federal level these safeguards are primarily set forth in three places: the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Title 18 of the United States Code sections 3001 et seq., and Amendments IV, V, VI, and VIII to the U. S. Constitution. The rules and statutes reference each other, and both are designed to enforce and delineate in greater detail the rights established by the federal Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures while investigating criminal activity and building a case against a particular suspect. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from compelling individuals to INCRIMINATE themselves, from denying individuals DUE PROCESS OF LAW, from subjecting individuals to multiple punishments or prosecutions for a single offense, and from being prosecuted in federal court without first being indicted by a GRAND JURY. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to a speedy and public trial by an IMPARTIAL jury, the right to be informed of all charges against them, the right to confront adverse witnesses, the right to SUBPOENA favorable witnesses, and the right to an attorney. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from requiring excessive BAIL to be posted for pre-trial release, from imposing excessive fines, and from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments.
The freedoms safeguarded by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments have two lives, one static and the other organic. Their static life exists in the original language of the amendments as they were ratified by the states in 1791, while their organic life exists in the growing body of state and federal CASE LAW interpreting their text, applying it, and defining its scope as different factual situations come before the courts. All of the rights protected by these four amendments, except the right to INDICTMENT by a grand jury, have been made applicable to state criminal proceedings via the doctrine of incorporation. Under this doctrine U. S. Supreme Court has said that no state may deny any citizen a fundamental liberty without violating the Fourteenth Amendment's EQUAL PROTECTION and Due Process Clauses. The fundamental liberties guaranteed to criminal defendants by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments are best understood in the context of the criminal proceeding during which they are normally triggered.
The Fourth Amendment and Criminal Procedures Governing Investigation, Arrest, and Search and Seizure
The Text of the Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon PROBABLE CAUSE, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Case law interpreting the Fourth Amendment
Law enforcement officers are entrusted with the power to conduct investigations, make arrests, perform searches and seizures of persons and their belongings, and occasionally use lethal force in the line of duty. But this power must be exercised within the BOUNDARIES of the law, and when police officers exceed those boundaries they jeopardize the admissibility of any EVIDENCE collected for prosecution. By and large, the Fourth Amendment and the case law interpreting it establish these boundaries.
The safeguards enumerated by the Fourth Amendment only apply against governmental action, namely action taken by a governmental official or at the direction of a governmental official. Thus, actions taken by state or federal law enforcement officials or private persons working with law enforcement officials will be subject to the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. Bugging, WIRETAPPING, and other related surveillance activity performed by purely private citizens, such as private investigators, will not receive Fourth Amendment protection.
Nor will individuals receive Fourth Amendment protection unless they can demonstrate that they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place to be searched or the thing to be seized. The U. S. Supreme Court explained that what "a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.... But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected" (see Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 88 S. Ct. 507, 19 L. Ed. 576 ). In general the Court has said that individuals enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in their own bodies, PERSONAL PROPERTY, homes, and business offices. Individuals also enjoy a qualified expectation of privacy in their automobiles.
Once it has been established that an individual possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy in a place to be searched or a thing to be seized, the Fourth Amendment's protections take hold, and the question then becomes what are the nature of those protections. Searches and seizures performed without a WARRANT (a court order approving a search, a seizure, or an arrest) based on probable cause are presumptively invalid. However, in certain situations the Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless searches may be reasonable under the circumstances and thus pass constitutional muster.
Police officers need no justification to stop someone on a public street and ask questions, and individuals are completely entitled to refuse to answer any such questions and go about their business. However, the Fourth Amendment prohibits police officers from detaining pedestrians and conducting any kind of search of their clothing without first possessing a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the pedestrians are engaged in criminal activity (see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 21 L. Ed. 889 ). Police may not even request that a pedestrian produce identification without first meeting this standard. Similarly, police may not stop motorists without first having a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the driver has violated a traffic law. If a police officer has satisfied this standard in stopping a motorist, the officer may conduct a search of the vehicle's interior, including the glove compartment, but not the trunk unless the officer has probable cause to believe that it contains CONTRABAND or the instrumentalities of criminal activity.
The Fourth Amendment also expresses a preference for arrests to be based on a warrant. But warrantless arrests can be made when the circumstances make it reasonable to do so. For example, no warrant is required for a FELONY arrest in a public place, even if the arresting officer had ample time to procure a warrant, so long as the officer possessed probable cause that the suspect committed the crime. Felony arrests in places not open to the public generally do require a warrant, unless the officer is in "hot pursuit" of a fleeing FELON (see Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 87 S.Ct. 1642, 18 L.Ed.2d 782 ). The Fourth Amendment also allows warrantless arrests for misdemeanors committed in an officer's presence.
The exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement are based on the court's reluctance to unduly impede the job of law enforcement officials. Courts attempt to strike a balance between the practical realities of daily police work and the privacy and freedom interests of the public. Requiring police officers to take the time to obtain an arrest or SEARCH WARRANT could result in the destruction of evidence, the disappearance of suspects, or both.
When an officer does seek a search or ARREST WARRANT, the officer must present evidence to a neutral judge or MAGISTRATE sufficient to establish probable cause that a crime has been committed. The Supreme Court has said that probable cause exists when the facts within an officer's knowledge provide a reasonably trustworthy basis for a man of reasonable caution to believe that an offense has been committed or is about to be committed. Courts will deny requests when the warrant fails to describe in particularized detail the person to be arrested or the place to be searched. The evidence upon which a warrant is based need not be ultimately ADMISSIBLE at trial, but it cannot be based on knowingly or intentionally false statements or statements made in reckless disregard of the truth. Courts will usually invalidate searches, seizures, and arrests made pursuant to a defective warrant. Inaccuracies found in a warrant due to ordinary NEGLIGENCE will not typically jeopardize a warrant's validity.
The Text of the Fifth Amendment
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the MILITIA, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in JEOPARDY of LIFE OR LIMB; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Case Law Interpreting the Fifth Amendment
Once a suspect has been arrested or taken into CUSTODY, the rights guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment are triggered. In Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed.2d 694 (1966), the Supreme Court held that under the Fifth Amendment's SELF-INCRIMINATION Clause, statements made to the police during custodial interrogation will later be deemed INADMISSIBLE at trial unless the suspect is first told that he or she has: (1) the right to remain silent; (2) the right to consult an attorney before being questioned by the police; (3) the right to have an attorney present during police questioning; (4) the right to a court appointed attorney if the defendant cannot afford to hire a private attorney; and (5) the right to be informed that any statements they do make can and will be used against them at trial.
If a suspect makes a request to consult with an attorney, the interrogation must immediately cease or any subsequent statements made without the attorney present will be ruled inadmissible. However, a suspect's request for an attorney will not prevent law enforcement from compelling the suspect to participate in a LINEUP of persons for the victim to review or from having the suspect's picture taken and shown to the victim in a photo array. Nor may a suspect raise the Self-Incrimination Clause as an objection to giving a writing sample, providing a voice exemplar, or taking a blood test. Applying a Fourth Amendment analysis, the Supreme Court has said that the Self-Incrimination Clause does not apply to these situations because individuals have no privacy interest in their physical characteristics.
The purpose of the right against self-incrimination is to deter the government from compelling a CONFESSION through force, COERCION, or deception. Confessions produced by these methods are not only considered uncivilized by modern standards, but they are also considered unreliable, since they are often involuntary or unwitting or the result of the accused's desire to avoid further browbeating, instead of being the product of candor or a desire to confess.
The Fifth Amendment guarantees three other rights that relate to criminal procedure. First, every defendant has the right to be indicted by a grand jury before standing trial in federal court. As noted above, the Grand Jury Clause has not been made applicable to the states, and many states allow prosecutions based on information or complaint, which are written instruments prepared by the PROSECUTOR. In federal criminal proceedings and in states that use the grand jury system, grand juries are normally comprised of between 16 and 23 persons from the district in which the crime occurred, and they can return an indictment against the defendant by majority vote.
Second, the Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from subjecting individuals to multiple prosecutions or multiple punishments for a single offense. This prohibition is called the right against double jeopardy. Defendants may bring motions pursuant to the Double Jeopardy Clause either before a trial to prevent a subsequent prosecution or punishment or after trial to overturn a subsequent prosecution or punishment.
Third, the Fifth Amendment guarantees every defendant the right to due process. The Due Process Clause requires that all criminal proceedings be conducted in a fair manner by an impartial judge who will allow ACCUSED individuals to fully present their defense, and proceedings that produce arbitrary or capricious results will be overturned as unconstitutional. The right to due process applies to every phase of criminal proceedings from pre-trial questioning to post-trial hearings and appeals, and its application to some of these proceedings will be discussed below.
The Sixth Amendment and Criminal Procedures Governing Post-Arraignment and Pre-Sentencing Proceedings
The Text of the Sixth Amendment
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the ACCUSATION; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of COUNSEL for his defense.
Case Law Interpreting the Sixth Amendment
Once a suspect has been arrested, the rights created by the Sixth Amendment take hold. The Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial arises after a defendant has been arrested, indicted, or otherwise formally accused. Title 18 USCA sections 3161 et seq explain the nature of this right. Prior to the point of formal accusation, the government is under no constitutional or STATUTORY obligation to discover or investigate criminal activity or accuse or PROSECUTE suspected criminals within a particular amount of time. Nor is the Speedy Trial Clause implicated after the government has dropped criminal charges, even if the government refiles those charges at a much later date.
The Supreme Court has declined to draw a bright line separating permissible pre-trial delays from delays that are impermissibly excessive. Instead, the Court has developed a balancing test that weighs the reasons for delay against the prejudice suffered by the defendant in having to endure the delay. A delay of at least one year in bringing a defendant to trial following arrest will create a presumption that the Speedy Trial Clause has been violated. However, defendants whose own actions lengthen the pretrial phase or who fail to assert this right early in a criminal proceeding hurt their chances of prevailing on a speedy trial claim.
The point at which defendants are formally charged also triggers the Sixth Amendment right to be informed of the nature and cause of every accusation against them. Courts have interpreted this provision to have two elements. First, defendants must receive notice of any criminal accusations that the government has formally lodged against them through an indictment, information, or complaint. Second, defendants may not be tried, convicted, or sentenced for a crime that materially varies from the crime set forth in the formal charge. If either element is not satisfied and the defendant is convicted, the court will set aside the verdict and sentence.
Once a defendant has been formally charged by the prosecution in writing, the defendant will be arraigned before a court. At the arraignment the court generally reads the written charges to the defendant and attempts to determine if the defendant understands the charges or needs further explanation. Defendants are also provided with the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at the arraignment.
The arraignment is important for Sixth Amendment purposes because it gives rise to defendants' right to counsel, after which defendants are entitled to have counsel present at every "critical stage" of the proceedings. A critical stage is every stage of a criminal proceeding at which the advice of counsel is necessary to ensure defendants' right to a fair trial or every stage at which the absence of counsel might impair the preparation or presentation of a defense. Critical stages include important pre-trial hearings, such as a HEARING upon a motion to suppress evidence, jury selection, trial, and sentencing. Noncritical stages include pre-trial procurement of defendants' FINGERPRINTS, blood, DNA, clothing, hair, and handwriting or voice samples. Denial of counsel to a defendant during a critical stage is considered tantamount to an unfair trial warranting the reversal of a CONVICTION.
Defendants are not required to be represented by counsel but may instead choose to represent themselves throughout the course of a criminal prosecution, which is called appearing PRO SE. However, the WAIVER of the right to counsel must be done in a knowing and intelligent fashion by a defendant who is aware of the advantages to being represented by counsel. Before accepting a defendant's waiver of counsel, courts will normally explain many of these advantages to the defendant. For example, attorneys can advise their clients whether it is in their self-interest to make any statements to the police. Attorneys can also determine the propriety of bringing any pre-trial motions, including motions to dismiss the case, compel the production of exculpatory evidence, limit TESTIMONY of adverse witnesses, and suppress evidence seized in violation of the Constitution. Under case law interpreting the Fourth Amendment, not only is unconstitutionally obtained evidence rendered inadmissible at trial under the EXCLUSIONARY RULE, but any evidence derived from the constitutional violation is also subject to suppression via the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine. Pro se defendants are not likely to understand these nuances of criminal procedure.
Attorneys can also influence the amount of bail that is set by a court following arrest. The Eighth Amendment prohibits courts from setting bail in an excessive amount. Criminal defense attorneys are accustomed to making arguments in favor of setting bail at a level proportionate to the severity of the crime so that gainfully employed defendants accused of less serious offenses can continue earning a living while awaiting trial. In certain instances when defendants have strong ties to a community, attorneys can convince courts to waive bail and release the defendants on their own recognizance, which means that defendants will not be incarcerated prior to trial but are obligated to appear for scheduled court appointments in a timely fashion or risk losing this privilege.
Once the trial begins, the Sixth Amendment guarantees that the defendant be tried in a court open to the public before an impartial jury. The right to a jury trial only applies to charges for which the defendant will be incarcerated upon conviction. If a defendant is tried by the court without a jury, the Sixth Amendment precludes IMPRISONMENT as a punishment. The right to a public trial is personal to the defendant and may not be asserted by either the media or the public in general. However, both the media and members of the public have a qualified First Amendment right to attend criminal proceedings.
The right to an impartial jury entitles the defendant to a jury pool that represents a fair cross section of the community. From the pool a panel of jurors is chosen to hear the case through a process called VOIR DIRE. During voir dire the presiding judge, the prosecution, and attorneys for the defense are allowed to ask members of the jury pool a variety of questions intended to reveal biases, prejudices, or other influences that might affect their impartiality.
Jurors may be excluded from service for a specific reason, called a challenge for cause, or for strategic purposes, called a peremptory strike. Attorneys for both sides may exercise an infinite number of challenges for cause, while all jurisdictions limit the number of peremptory strikes. For example, in New York state courts both the prosecution and defense receive three peremptory strikes plus one extra for each alternate juror (see NY CPLR 4109). The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment also limits attorneys' use of peremptory strikes, making it unlawful to exclude jurors on account of their race (see Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 90 L.Ed.2d 69, 106 S.Ct. 1712 ). The jurors who are ultimately impaneled for trial need not represent a cross section of the community as long as they maintain their impartiality throughout the proceedings. The presence of even one biased juror impaneled to hear the case is not permitted under the Sixth Amendment.
The constitutional parameters governing the size of a jury in criminal cases are not established by the Sixth Amendment but by the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court has ruled that in capital cases (i.e., cases in which the death penalty may be imposed) a defendant's right to a fair trial requires that the jury be comprised of twelve members who must unanimously agree on the issue of guilt before the defendant may be convicted and sentenced to death. For non-capital cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution permits a verdict to be rendered by a majority vote of as few as nine jurors when the panel consists of twelve. The Court has also said that the Constitution permits trial by as few as six jurors in non-capital cases but that if a six-person jury is impaneled to decide a criminal case, all six must agree on the defendant's guilt before a conviction can be returned.
After the jury has been selected, the prosecution presents its case in chief. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to confront witnesses who TESTIFY against them. In all but exceptional circumstances, the type of confrontation contemplated by the Sixth Amendment is face-to-face confrontation, allowing defendants to hear evidence against them, consult with their attorneys, and participate in CROSS-EXAMINATION to test the CREDIBILITY and reliability of the victim or other prosecution witnesses.
Once the prosecution finishes presenting its case in chief, the defendant must be allowed the opportunity to put on a defense. The Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to subpoena witnesses and compel the production of evidence favorable to their case. The Sixth Amendment guarantees this right even if an indigent defendant cannot afford to pay the expenses that accompany the use of judicial resources to subpoena evidence. Defendants are under no obligation to testify themselves, as the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent applies during trial just as fully as it does during pre-trial questioning by the police. In fact, the defense need not call any witnesses or offer any evidence at all. The prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, and the defendant may decide that the prosecution's case is sufficiently weak that the jury will vote to ACQUIT without hearing from the defense.
If the court hears from the defense, each side is then allowed to present rebuttal testimony after which both sides will normally rest. The Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury prohibits jury members from deliberating before all of the evidence has been submitted, the attorneys have made their closing arguments, and the judge has read the instructions. Once deliberations begin, jurors may ask the court for clarification of the instructions and for portions of the testimony transcribed for their review. If the jurors cannot reach a verdict after discussing the evidence amongst themselves, the judge will try to determine if they are hopelessly deadlocked. However, the judge cannot force a jury to reach a verdict, but the judge may encourage the jurors to make every reasonable effort to resolve their differences. If the jurors remain deadlocked for a reasonable period of time after meeting with the judge, the court will declare a MISTRIAL and dismiss the panel from further service.
If the jurors return a verdict of not guilty, the court will enter a judgment of acquittal, and the defendant is free to leave the courthouse without limitation or condition. If the jurors return a verdict of guilty, the case will proceed to sentencing. For lesser offenses, such as simple or petty misdemeanors, sentencing may immediately follow the verdict. For all other offenses, sentencing is usually conducted by the court in a separate hearing held several days or weeks after the verdict. Both the prosecution and defense are permitted to make arguments as to the appropriate sentence, and courts are generally given wide latitude in crafting individualized punishments within the statutory guidelines. Sometimes this discretion is curtailed by guidelines that require mandatory minimum sentences. Punishments may include any combination of community service, FORFEITURE of property, fines, probation, or INCARCERATION. In 38 states and in federal court, defendants may be sentenced to death for first-degree murder, felony murder, and other similarly serious crimes.
The Text of the Eighth Amendment
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT inflicted.
Case Law Interpreting the Eighth Amendment
A court's discretion in sentencing a defendant is also limited by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the imposition of excessive fines and the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. The Excessive Fines Clause has proven to have little effect over the course of the last two centuries. Trial judges are afforded extremely wide discretion in assessing fines on criminal defendants, and they are rarely overturned on appeal. For a fine to be overturned there must be proof that it was arbitrary, capricious, or so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law. As a practical matter, the cost of appealing a fine often exceeds the amount of the fine itself, thereby reducing the incentive to appeal.
On the other hand, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause has been the subject of much LITIGATION. This clause requires every punishment imposed by the government to be commensurate with the offense committed by the defendant. Punishments that are disproportionately harsh will be overturned on appeal. Examples of punishments that have been overturned on Eighth Amendment grounds include two Georgia statutes that prescribed the death penalty for rape and KIDNAPPING(see Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 97 S. Ct. 2861, 53 L. Ed.2d 982 (1977); Eberheart v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 917, 97 L. Ed.2d 2994, 53 L. Ed. 2d 1104 ). The Supreme Court has also ruled that criminal sentences that are inhumane, outrageous, barbarous, or shock the social consciousness also violate the Eighth Amendment.
In 1972 the U. S. Supreme Court placed a moratorium on CAPITAL PUNISHMENT throughout the United States, declaring that the statutes authorizing the death penalty were too broad and allowed for arbitrary and discriminatory application by judges and juries (see Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 ). But four years later the Supreme Court upheld three new state statutes that were enacted to cure those flaws (see Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 ). Thirty-five states and the federal government soon followed suit by revising their death penalty statutes to comply with the Eighth Amendment, and the nation's high court has since shown reluctance to closely scrutinize these statutes.
However, in 2001 the Georgia Supreme Court surprised many legal observers when it banned use of the electric chair in executing death row inmates (see Dawson v. State, S.E.2d , 2001 WL 1180615 [GA.2001]). The court said that death by electrocution violated the state constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it inflicted purposeless violence and needless mutilation on the prisoner, and as such made no measurable contribution to the accepted goals of punishment (see GA Const. Art. 1, 1, par. 17). At the same time, the court stressed that it was not calling into question Georgia's entire system of capital punishment. On the contrary, the court said that death by lethal injection raised no constitutional questions because it was minimally intrusive and involved no mutilation.
Appeal and other Post-Conviction Proceedings
The federal Constitution does not guarantee the right to appeal a criminal conviction. However, every state affords defendants the right to have at least one APPELLATE COURT review the record for trial court errors. Many of these states restrict the subject matter of what may be appealed, curtail the time in which an appeal may be taken, or permit APPELLATE courts to issue decisions upon the record and briefs submitted by the parties without holding a hearing or entertaining oral arguments. Federal statutes grant criminal defendants in federal court the right to appeal. Only one review is granted as a matter of right, and this is to the U. S. Court of Appeals. Review of state and federal convictions by the U. S. Supreme Court is discretionary.
After incarcerated defendants have exhausted all appeals without success, they may file a WRIT of HABEAS CORPUS. This is a civil suit against the warden of the prison, challenging the constitutionality of the incarceration. A habeas corpus petition is not another appeal. The only basis for granting relief to a habeas corpus petitioner is the deprivation of a constitutional right. For example, an inmate might claim that he or she was denied the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment on grounds that their attorney was incompetent. Violations of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures are not grounds for granting a writ of habeas corpus.
If a defendant loses on appeal and is denied a writ of habeas corpus, most jurisdictions offer a few last-ditch remedies. If the sentence includes parole, an inmate may petition the parole board to move up the date for parole. Inmates of state prisons may ask the governor of the state in which they are imprisoned for CLEMENCY. If granted, clemency normally includes the restoration of a released inmate's CIVIL RIGHTS, such as the right to vote and own a gun. A commutation of sentence is a lesser form of clemency, since it does not restore the legal rights of the inmate but only releases him or her from incarceration. Federal inmates may ask the president of the United States for a PARDON, which, like clemency, releases the inmate from custody and restores his or her legal rights and privileges.
American Jurisprudence. Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Company, 2001.
Criminal Procedure. Wayne R. LaFave, Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King, West Group, 2001.
Criminal Procedure.Wayne R. LaFave, Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King, West Group, 2001.
http://sol.lp.findlaw.com. Criminal Law and Procedure Decisions of the October 2000-2001 Supreme Court Term
Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court. Kermit Hall, ed., Oxford University Press, 1992.
West's Encyclopedia of American Law. West Group, 1998.
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Federal Courts And Jurisdictions (Encyclopedia of Everyday Law)
Article III of the United States Constitution establishes the judicial power of the federal government. Under the Constitution, the authority of the federal judiciary extends only to certain "cases" and "controversies," which are identified by either the nature of the suit or the parties involved. The Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States and permits Congress to establish "inferior" federal courts. The federal judiciary currently consists of the Supreme Court, courts of appeals in 12 regional judicial circuits, two intermediate APPELLATE courts with special power to hear cases originating nationwide, a total of 94 judicial districts throughout the 50 states that contain at least one federal district court and one BANKRUPTCY court, territorial courts that function as district courts in several territories, and specialized tribunals that have been established by Congress pursuant to power provided in Article I of the Constitution. The district courts serve as the trial courts in the federal system, while the courts of appeals serve as intermediate appellate courts.
The power or authority of a court to hear and decide a case or controversy is called the JURISDICTION of the court. Jurisdiction may be divided into two broad categories: subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. Subject-matter jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to hear a certain type of case, while personal jurisdiction refers to the power with which a court may bind an individual party. Most cases and controversies that can be heard by the federal judiciary consist of the following:
- Cases governed by federal law, such as the federal Constitution, federal STATUTORY provisions, or federal regulations (federal question jurisdiction)
- Suits between citizens of different states (diversity jurisdiction)
- Suits between a citizen of a state and a citizen of a foreign country
- Admiralty and maritime cases
- Suits in which the United States is a party
- Suits between two states
The United States operates with a dual system of courts: the federal judiciary and the judicial systems of the states. If a party brings an action in a state court, but a federal court has jurisdiction to hear the case, the DEFENDANT may choose to "remove" the case to the federal court, subject to several limitations set forth in Title 28 of the United States Code. The defendant is not obligated to remove such a case, and questions about whether removal is proper in a particular case are often subjects of controversy in federal courts. In a case where a federal court permits a state court case to be removed but later determines that removal was improper, the federal court will remand the case to the state court.
Structure and Power of the Federal Courts
Pursuant to its Constitutional power, Congress has established inferior courts in the federal judiciary at the intermediate appellate and trial court levels. Courts that have been established under Article III of the Constitution, including the Supreme Court of the United States, United States Courts of Appeals, and United States District Courts, are called constitutional, or Article III, courts. Congress, pursuant to powers granted in Article I, may also establish legislative, or Article I, courts. These courts are designed to carry out specific legislative directives. Examples of such courts are the United States Court of Federal Claims and the United States Tax Court.
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States consists of the CHIEF JUSTICE of the United States and, since 1869, eight associate justices. The number of justices varied during the first 80 years of the country's history, beginning with five justices in 1798 and growing to as many as ten in 1863. Congress retains authority under the Constitution to establish the number of associate justices. The president of the United States nominates Supreme Court justice candidates, and appointments are made "with the advice and consent of the Senate." Under Article III of the Constitution, United States Supreme Court justices have lifetime tenure in their positions "during time of good Behaviour." Lifetime tenure is also true of the judges in the lower constitutional courts of the federal system. The chief justice presides over the Supreme Court and also holds leadership roles on the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States, and the Federal Judicial Center.
In the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions, the Court exercises its appellate jurisdiction. The Court may assert original jurisdiction (that is, decide a case from beginning to end) if the case involves states or a state and the federal government. These types of cases are seldom filed with the Court. In exercising its appellate jurisdiction, the Court can hear cases appealed from both lower federal courts and state supreme courts if a case involves an issue of federal law. With respect to cases originating in state court, parties must exhaust their possibilities in the state court system before the Supreme Court will consider HEARING a case.
The Supreme Court is not required to hear most requests for appeals. The decision of the Supreme Court to hear an appeal is discretionary in almost all cases today. Unless an appeal is mandatory, which is very rare, a party who wishes for the Supreme Court to hear an appeal must file a WRIT of CERTIORARI, which requests that the Court review the decision of a lower court. The Court denies writs of certiorari in the vast majority of cases. The Court today grants appeals in only about one percent of the cases filed before it each year. If the Court refuses an appeal, it permits the lower court's decision to stand but does not have any other significant meaning (for example, it is not an affirmance of the lower court's opinion).
Many of the Supreme Court's decisions involve interpretation of the Constitution. The Court established itself as the primary authority to interpret the Constitution in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803. As the primary interpreter, the Court may invalidate an act of Congress if the act violates a right granted under the Constitution or Congress has misused powers granted to it under the Constitution. The Court does not decide ldquo;political questions," meaning those questions that another branch of government is better suited to answer. The Court also refuses to provide advice to the other branches of government. This restriction stems from the famous refusal of Chief Justice John Jay to provide advice to President George Washington about the implications under the new Constitution of a foreign policy decision.
Federal Courts of Appeals
Congress through the Judiciary Act of 1891 originally established the intermediate appellate courts in the federal judiciary to relieve the caseload on the Supreme Court justices. Prior to 1891, cases were appealed routinely to the Supreme Court, which was required in most cases to hear the appeal. The courts of appeals now have jurisdiction to hear appeals from the federal district courts in virtually all cases. Unlike the Supreme Court, courts of appeals do not have discretionary jurisdiction to decide whether to grant an appeal. Other Acts of Congress have expanded the jurisdiction of the courts of appeals to hear appeals of decisions of federal administrative agencies. Courts of appeals also have a number of additional administrative functions that have been directed by Congress.
The federal court system currently consists of 12 regional circuits, each with one court of appeals. Eleven of these circuits are numbered (for example, the Fifth Circuit governs Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana). The twelfth circuit, the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, governs only Washington, D. C., but hears a number of cases involving federal agencies. Congress in 1982 created the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which combined the functions of the United States Court of Customs and PATENT Appeals and the United States COURT OF CLAIMS. The Federal Circuit's jurisdiction, unlike the regional circuits, is nationwide, though it only applies to areas of law that are dictated by Congress.
Federal District Courts
The federal court system includes 94 district courts in the 50 states, Washington, D. C., Puerto Rico, Guam, U. S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Marinara Islands. Most states have only one judicial district. Larger states can have between two and four districts. The district courts serve as the general trial courts of the federal system. Each district also has a bankruptcy unit, as district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases.
District courts generally have jurisdiction to hear cases involving federal law and those involving citizens of different states. If a party in a state case can prove that a federal district court has jurisdiction to hear a case, the party may remove the case to the federal court. However, the federal court may abstain from hearing a case that involves questions of both federal law and state law. A situation may also arise where a federal district court may no longer have jurisdiction to hear a case because of changes in the parties to the suit. If a case has been removed to federal district court and the federal district court lacks jurisdiction, the court on motion of one of the parties will remand the case to the appropriate state court.
Specialized Federal Courts
Congress has created a number of courts in the federal system that have specialized jurisdiction. Unlike constitutional courts, judges appointed to legislative courts do not enjoy lifetime tenure, unless Congress specifically authorized a life term. Moreover, judges in legislative courts do not enjoy the Constitutional prohibition against salary reductions of judges. A summary of these courts is as follows:
- The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reviews court martial convictions from the armed forces. Only the Supreme Court of the United States can review its cases. Judges sitting on this court enjoy neither life tenure nor protection against salary reduction.
- The United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction to hear a broad range of claims brought against the United States. The court was called the United States Claims Court from 1982 to 1992. Many cases brought before this TRIBUNAL are tax cases, though the court also hears cases involving litigants who were federal employees and other parties with monetary claims against the United States. Judges sitting on this court enjoy neither life tenure nor protection against salary reduction. An adverse decision in this court is appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
- The United States Court of International Trade has jurisdiction to hear cases involving customs, unfair import practices, and other issues regarding international trade. This court is a constitutional court, so its judges have lifetime tenure and protection against salary reduction.
- The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims reviews decisions of the Board of Veteran Appeals. Appointments of judges last 15 years. An adverse decision in this court is appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
- The United States Tax Court is a legislative court that resolves disputes between citizens and the Internal Revenue Service. Appointments of judges last 15 years. Adverse decisions are appealed to a court of appeals in an appropriate regional circuit.
Jurisdiction of Federal Courts
No federal court has general jurisdiction, meaning that the court could hear any type of case brought before it in a particular location. The authority of a federal court to hear a case must be based on a federal law, whether it is the United States Constitution or a federal STATUTE. Courts created by Congress with specialized jurisdiction are, of course, the most limited to hear a particular case because Congress permits these courts only to hear certain prescribed cases. The jurisdiction of constitutional courts is usually limited to one of two types of cases: cases involving a federal question and cases with parties with diversity of citizenship.
Article III of the Constitution provides that a federal court may hear a controversy between citizens of different states or citizens of the United States and citizens of foreign nations. Congress in Title 28 of the United States Code limits this power by requiring that the amount in controversy exceed $75,000. The broad purpose behind diversity jurisdiction is that a state court may show BIAS towards its own citizen to the detriment of the citizen from another state. Diversity jurisdiction, to say the least, has long been a source of controversy.
One initial question in a diversity case is whether each of the parties does, in fact, reside in different states. For individuals, the question focuses on the individual's domicile rather than mere residence in a state. Thus, for example, if a party has a residence in both Texas and California, but his true domicile is Texas, then the party will be considered a citizen of Texas rather than a citizen of both states. Diversity jurisdiction requires complete diversity by all plaintiffs and all defendants in the suit, though there are limitations to this rule in the United States Code. For example, federal courts may have diversity jurisdiction to hear a case because all parties have diverse citizenship, but the court will not have supplemental jurisdiction over parties that are joined as plaintiffs in the case or over parties that intervene as plaintiffs in the case.
More difficult questions often arise when a corporation or association is a party to the suit. The right of a corporation is, in many respects, no different than the rights of an individual, since a corporation can sue or be sued. However, a corporation does not have a "domicile" that is similar to an individual. For diversity jurisdiction purposes, Congress provides that a corporation is a citizen in the state in which it is incorporated and in the state where it has its principal place of business. For smaller CORPORATIONS, this question is usually not difficult, especially if the corporation has most of its offices and business in a single state. However, large national corporations may have offices in every state, so the question is much more complex. For these types of corporations, courts look to the so-called "nerve center" of the corporation, meaning the state in which most of the corporation's business is conducted.
The Constitution provides that federal courts have the power to hear cases that arise under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. Congress has granted this jurisdiction to federal district courts in Title 28 of the United States Code. The question of whether a case arises under a federal law is often clouded when a case involves issues with the application of both state and federal law. If a case primarily involves an issue of state law, but it also involves a remote federal issue, then the federal court is not the proper forum, and the case will be dismissed or remanded to state court. However, if a case involves important issues of both state and federal law, Congress permits a federal court, with some exceptions, to invoke supplemental jurisdiction to hear both the state claim and the federal claim in the same case.
Federal question jurisdiction must be based on the complaint of the plaintiff, not on the possibility of a federal defense. This limitation stems from the famous 1908 case of Louisville & Nashville Railroad v. Mottley, where the plaintiff anticipated a federal defense to a state law contract case. The Supreme Court held that the plaintiff's cause of action stated in the complaint must be based on federal law. This limitation is called the well-pleaded complaint rule. Since nothing prohibits state courts from hearing cases involving federal laws, federal courts are not required to hear all cases that involve federal laws.
Admiralty and Maritime Cases
Since the development of the Constitution, federal courts have had jurisdiction to hear admiralty and maritime cases. In contract cases, the question to determine jurisdiction is whether a contract relates to maritime commerce, not the place where a contract was made or was to be performed. However, a contract to build or sell a ship does not give rise to admiralty jurisdiction. Admiralty jurisdiction arises in tort cases if the tort occurred in navigable waters or if a vessel has caused injuries on land.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases. Each federal district court has a bankruptcy unit. Bankruptcy actions arise under Title 17 of the United States Code and generally incorporate all claims brought by a CREDITOR against the DEBTOR in the bankruptcy action. The federal bankruptcy laws differ from other state laws that govern the relationship between debtor and creditor, so certainly not all debtor-creditor cases are heard in federal court.
Other Areas of Federal Jurisdiction
The Constitution and federal statutes provide federal jurisdiction in a number of areas in addition to those discussed above. Such areas include, for example, prize cases (those determining the rights to cargo and ships captured at sea), and COPYRIGHT, patent, and trademark cases.
Jurisdictions of Federal Courts in the U. S. States and Territories
Each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico contain between one and four federal districts, with the number of authorized judgeships in each district varying. Other territories, including Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Island, contain district courts as well. Each state also falls within one of the twelve circuits.
ALABAMA: Located in the 11th Circuit, the state is divided into three federal districts: Northern (Birmingham), Middle (Montgomery), and Southern (Mobile).
ALASKA: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state has one federal judicial district, based in Anchorage.
ARKANSAS: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state is divided into two federal districts: Eastern (Little Rock) and Western (Fort Smith).
CALIFORNIA: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state is divided into four districts: Northern (San Francisco), Eastern (Sacramento), Central (Los Angeles), and Southern (San Diego).
COLORADO: Located in the 10th Circuit, the state has one federal judicial district, based in Denver.
CONNECTICUT: Located in the 2nd Circuit, the state has one federal judicial district, based in New Haven.
DELAWARE: Located in the 3rd Circuit, the state has one federal judicial district, based in Wilmington.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Located in the D. C. Circuit, Washington, D. C., has its own federal district.
FLORIDA: Located in the 11th Circuit, the state has three federal judicial districts: Northern (Tallahassee), Middle (Jacksonville), and Southern (Miami).
GEORGIA: Located in the 11th Circuit, the state has three federal judicial districts: Northern (Atlanta), Middle (Macon), and Southern (Savannah).
GUAM: The territory contains a federal district, based in Agana.
HAWAII: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Honolulu.
IDAHO: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Boise.
ILLINOIS: Located in the 7th Circuit, the state has three federal districts: Northern (Chicago), Southern (East Saint Louis), and Central (Springfield).
INDIANA: Located in the 7th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Northern (South Bend) and Southern (Indianapolis).
IOWA: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Northern (Cedar Rapids) and Southern (Des Moines).
KANSAS: Located in the 10th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Wichita.
KENTUCKY: Located in the 6th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Eastern (Lexington) and Western (Louisville).
LOUISIANA: Located in the 5th Circuit, the state has three federal districts: Eastern (New Orleans), Middle (Baton Rouge), and Western (Shreveport).
MAINE: Located in the 1st Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Portland.
MARYLAND: Located in the 4th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Baltimore.
MASSACHUSETTS: Located in the 1st Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Boston.
MICHIGAN: Located in the 6th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Eastern (Detroit) and Western (Grand Rapids).
MINNESOTA: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in St. Paul.
MISSISSIPPI: Located in the 5th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Northern (Oxford) and Southern (Jackson).
MISSOURI: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Eastern (Saint Louis) and Western (Kansas City).
MONTANA: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Billings.
NEBRASKA: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Omaha.
NEVADA: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Las Vegas.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Located in the 1st Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Concord.
NEW JERSEY: Located in the 3rd Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Newark.
NEW MEXICO: Located in the 10th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Albuquerque.
NEW YORK: Located in the 2nd Circuit, the state has four federal districts: Northern (Syracuse), Eastern (Brooklyn), Southern (New York City), and Western (Buffalo).
NORTH CAROLINA: Located in the 4th Circuit, the state has three federal districts: Eastern (Raleigh), Middle (Greensboro), and Western (Asheville).
NORTH DAKOTA: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Bismarck.
NORTH MARINA ISLANDS: The territory contains a federal district, based in Saipan.
OHIO: Located in the 6th Circuit, the state has two federal districts: Northern (Cleveland) and Southern (Columbus).
OKLAHOMA: Located in the 10th Circuit, the state has three federal districts: Northern (Tulsa), Eastern (Muskogee), and Western (Oklahoma City).
OREGON: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state has one federal district, based in Portland.
PENNSYLVANIA: Located in the 3rd Circuit, the state has three federal districts: Eastern (Philadelphia), Middle (Scranton), and Western (Pittsburgh).
PUERTO RICO: The territory contains a federal district, based in Hato Rey.
RHODE ISLAND: Located in the 1st Circuit, the state has one federal district, located in Providence.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Located in the 4th Circuit, the state contains one federal district, located in Columbia.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Located in the 8th Circuit, the state contains one federal district, based in Sioux Falls.
TENNESSEE: Located in the 6th Circuit, the state contains three federal districts: Eastern (Knoxville), Middle (Nashville), and Western (Memphis).
TEXAS: Located in the 5th Circuit, the state contains four federal districts: Northern (Dallas), Southern (Houston), Eastern (Tyler), and Western (San Antonio).
UTAH: Located in the 10th Circuit, the state contains one federal district, based in Salt Lake City.
VERMONT: Located in the 2nd Circuit, the state contains one federal district, based in Burlington.
VIRGIN ISLANDS: The territory contains a federal district, based in Saint Thomas.
VIRGINIA: Located in the 4th Circuit, the state contains two federal districts: Eastern (Alexandria) and Western (Roanoke).
WASHINGTON: Located in the 9th Circuit, the state contains two federal districts: Eastern (Spokane) and Western (Seattle).
WEST VIRGINIA: Located in the 4th Circuit, the state contains two federal districts: Northern (Elkins) and Southern (Charleston).
WISCONSIN: Located in the 7th Circuit, the state contains two federal districts: Eastern (Milwaukee) and Western (Madison).
WYOMING: Located in the 10th Circuit, the state contains one federal district, based in Cheyenne.
Desk Reference on American Courts. Barnes, Patricia G., CQ Press, 2000.
The Federal Courts. Carp, Robert A., and Ronald Stidham, CQ Press, 2001.
Federal Jurisdiction in a Nutshell. Currie, David P., West Group, 1999.
Understanding Federal Courts and Jurisdiction. Mulleniz, Linda, Martin Redish, and Georgene Vairo, Matthew Bender, 1998.
U. S. Code, Title 28: Judiciary and Judicial Procedure. U. S. House of Representatives, 1999. Available at .
Administrative Offices of the Courts
Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building,
Office of Public Affairs
Washington, DC 20544 USA
Phone: (202) 502-2600
Federal Judicial Center (FJC)
Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building
One Columbus Cir. NE
Washington, DC 20002 USA
Phone: (202) 502-4000
Supreme Court of the United States
U. S. Supreme Court Building
One First Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20543
Phone: (202) 479-3000
United States Sentencing Commission (USSC)
Office of Public Affairs
One Columbus Circle, NE
Washington, DC 20002-8002
Phone: (202) 502-4500
Juries (Encyclopedia of Everyday Law)
Historical Roots in England
The idea for disputes to be resolved by a jury began out of necessity. In medieval England, it had been increasingly difficult to have a peaceful society when the only way of resolving disputes was by force. The first time the idea of a right to a trial by jury was mentioned was in the Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215. However, this new right to a jury trial did not apply to everyone in England at that time. Only knights and landowners were entitled to the right not to have their lives or property taken without a HEARING before a jury of their peers.
Development in America from Colonial Times
The most famous incident in America that gave a tremendous boost to the idea of the right to have a jury trial occurred in New York in 1734. At that time New York was one of thirteen British colonies administered by a royal governor appointed by the king of England. Peter Zenger, a journalist, had written an article ridiculing this official. The British authorities in response charged Zenger with seditious libel. Zenger's lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, put on a defense stating that his client was not guilty because the statements in Zenger's article were true.
However, there were two problems with Hamilton's trial strategy. First, he was unable to bring in witnesses who could TESTIFY as to the truth of Zenger's article. More important, as the judge pointed out, this defense could not be used for the crime with which Zenger was charged. As an alternative, Hamilton said that the question of whether Zenger had committed seditious libel should not be decided by the judge but should be left to the jury to decide. The judge capitulated to Hamilton's request and permitted the jury to return a not guilty verdict. The jury in this case took this action based on the principle that a trial cannot be fair if the ACCUSED is prevented by the court from putting on a defense.
From colonial times until well into the twentieth century, not all citizens of the various states were universally allowed to serve on a jury. At first, only white men owning property were permitted to be on a jury. After the United States became a nation, states were allowed to enact their own restrictions on jury service based on race, gender, and ownership of property. Some of those denied the right to serve on a jury did not see these restrictions removed until well after they were given the right to vote.
Because in America's early history there were so few lawyers who were specifically trained in the law, juries exercised the power to decide not only factual questions concerning a case but also questions as to how the law should be interpreted in applying it to the facts of the case. Judges on their part were allowed to make comments regarding the EVIDENCE presented at trial. Today juries in all states can only decide questions of fact, such as whether a car ran a red light prior to an accident. They can no longer decide questions of law which consist of what the law is on a particular issue of the trial and how it is to be interpreted so it can be correctly applied to the facts of the case. Judges can no longer comment on the evidence because this is seen as preventing the jury from being IMPARTIAL.
In criminal trials, it is always required that jury verdicts of guilty or innocent must be unanimous. Beginning in California in 1879, this requirement was phased out for civil trials, proceedings that do not involve criminal accusations, such as whether a driver was not careful enough in backing out of his driveway and injured a pedestrian.
Grand Juries as Distinct from Civil and Criminal Juries
A GRAND JURY is formed only in criminal cases. The purpose of the grand jury is not to determine whether a DEFENDANT is guilty or not. This group of usually 23 people meets to determine whether persons suspected by police as responsible for a crime should be indicted, allowing them to be brought to trial before a regular jury consisting of six to twelve persons. Grand juries are required by the Fifth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution which says a person suspected of a crime must be indicted before he is tried. This action is considered a safegurard against prosecuting a person without any legitimate reason.
Constitutional Right to a Jury Trial
Three separate provisions of the U. S. Constitution provide for the right to a trial by jury. Article III, Sec. 2 provides: "The trial of all crimes shall be by jury and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes have been committed." The Sixth Amendment says: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state where the said crimes shall have been committed." Finally, for civil matters, the Seventh Amendment provides: "In all suits at COMMON LAW, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined by an court of the United States."
The first two above provisions as to criminal trials greatly overlap. The Sixth Amendment was added as part of the BILL OF RIGHTS that would be guaranteed by the Constitution. However, it has only been relatively recently has this right been mandatory in both federal and state courts. As to the Seventh Amendment which covers civil trials, this provision only applies to federal courts which deal only with laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. According to the U. S. Supreme Court in a 1999 decision, the Seventh Amendment does not apply in state courts.
Diversity and Cross Section of Community Requirement
The U. S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled it is necessary for a jury to be comprised of a "fair cross section of the community" in order to satisfy the trial right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of impartiality. The Federal Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968 was written for this same purpose. Thus, a jury pool of persons eligible to serve reflects the spectrum of society.
In order to comply with the U. S. Supreme Court rulings and the above federal STATUTE, all the states have had to change their laws to insure that a broad cross section will make up the jury pool. Typically names appearing on voter registration lists for each locality are drawn. Many people who are otherwise eligible are not included because they have moved to another locality or state. In order to help solve this problem, names for juror pools are drawn from the list of licensed drivers for that state. Over half the states have made this change, and some have gone even further and have drawn names from lists of customers for utilities and even welfare recipients. This initial list is referred to as a source list.
From the source list, a locality randomly draws a second list referred to as "master wheel" or "qualified wheel" depending upon the statute for that state. These lists are replenished at intervals as required by the law for that state. Questionnaires are sent to those on the "wheel" lists in order to determine whether a particular individual is qualified to serve on a jury. Because between onequarter to onealf of these forms are not returned, some jurisdictions will send a notice requiring such persons to explain why they have not responded.
Disqualification Grounds for Jury Service
Each state by law lists what reasons disqualify someone from jury service. Many of these reasons are included because they may prevent explain why a person cannot listen to TESTIMONY and other evidence with an open mind. Prior contact with one of the parties or lawyers connected with the case as well as knowledge obtained prior to the trial is sufficient reason to excuse a person from serving on the jury for a particular case. Statements made by jurors while they are being questioned by the attorneys for both sides which indicate they are biased in favor of or against one of the parties have the same result as DISCOVERY that a potential juror has a prior FELONY CONVICTION. In criminal trials it is common for an individual to be excused because of a relationship with a witness in the case.
Exemptions from Jury Service
Formerly it was common for people otherwise qualified to serve on a jury to be exempt based on their occupation. Prior to a recent change in the law, New York had recognized more than a dozen such exemptions to include lawyers, doctors, clergy, dentists, pharmacists, optometrists, psychologists, podiatrists, nurses, embalmers, police officers, and fire-fighters. The reason given for these exemptions were that each of these groups performs functions necessary to the PUBLIC INTEREST. As of 2002, 26 states have eliminated occupational exemptions while an additional nine have placed strict limitations on them.
Exemptions are also granted for business or financial hardship according to the circumstances of that individual. A judge may grant a business hardship exemption if they are convinced that jury service would result in the business closing permanently. Financial exemptions are also given to employees of private businesses since in most states the employer is not required to pay them for the time spent on a jury. Other exemptions also granted on a case by case basis at the discretion of the judge or court officials include incapacitating physical or mental illnesses, and extreme inconvenience such as having to travel a much greater distance to the courthouse.
When selecting a jury, attorneys for both sides ask questions of each person sent to that courtroom to be considered for service on that case. The questions asked are designed to reveal if a particular potential juror has either a conscious or unconscious BIAS affecting their ability to be impartial. Because these questions may be intrusive, and include such areas as reading habits, favorite television shows, amount of income, and feelings towards different racial, ethnic, or other groups, it is not uncommon for individuals required to answer such inquiries to be less than truthful or to give general answers that may conceal a biased attitude. A good trial lawyer senses bias without needing it stated explicitly.
States give each side a designated number of persons they can have excused without having to give reason. When a person is excused in this way, the attorney is said to have exercised a preemptory challenge. Because personal bias is often difficult to detect, the PEREMPTORY CHALLENGE allows lawyers to act on their instincts in order to obtain impartial juries.
Sometimes a judge will grant one side more preemptory challenges than is allowed by state law. The attorney who objects to this action and then loses his case will not be able to have the trial judge reversed by a higher court unless that lawyer has exhausted all preemptory challenges and can show to that because they were not granted the same number of preemptory challenges, one or more persons they would have found to be objectionable was able to serve on that jury.
In recent years, two decisions by the U. S. Supreme Court have placed limits on the use of preemptory challenges if the complaining side or party is able to prove that the use of preemptory challenges by the opposing lawyer were designed to exclude persons from a jury based on their race and gender. In the first of these cases, an African-American criminal defendant named Batson was convicted of BURGLARY. On appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, his lawyer argued the prosecution used his preemptory challenges so that no black person in the jury pool served on the jury. The Supreme Court ruled in Batson's favor for three reasons. First, excluding jurors on the basis of race denies a defendant the right to an impartial trial since it works against the cross section of the community requirement for jury membership. Second, the excluded jurors are denied the right to take part in the judicial process. Third, this use of peremptory challenges is harmful to the local community because it encourages its citizens to believe that a fair trial cannot be obtained there.
However, the Supreme Court made clear that future defendants in seeking to have trial verdicts against them overturned on appeal to a higher court would have to prove to that court all of the following: first, the defendant is a member of an identifiable racial group. Second, the prosecution used preemptory challenges to prevent those of the defendant's race from serving on the jury. Third, the lawyer for the defendant must show that the facts and circumstances of the case imply the prosecution did this intentionally.
Even though the defense attorney is faced with having to prove all of the above, the PROSECUTOR must show the peremptory challenges were applied neutrally. Non-African American defendants have not been successful in challenging their convictions because U. S. Supreme Court decisions have declined to apply Batson v. Kentucky to their racial group. The principles in Batson have since been made applicable in civil as well as criminal trials.
In 1994, eight years after Batson was decided, the U. S. Supreme Court said preemptory challenges could not be used to exclude members of a particular gender from jury service. In J. E. B. v. Alabama, the state agency regulating the welfare of children filed a PATERNITY action against J. E. B. for failing to pay the CHILD SUPPORT he owed to the mother. Alabama used its preemptory strikes to prevent nine men from serving on the jury eventually resulting in a panel consisting entirely of women. The jury found J. E. B. guilty of the charge, and he successfully argued for the application of Batson to his case on grounds that the use of preemptory challenges based on gender violated the constitutional principle that persons should not be discriminated against or treated unequally on the basis of sex.
However, it is now questionable how useful Batson and J. E. B. will be in future cases for defendants. In 1995, in Puckett v. Elam, the Supreme Court said that a prosecutor's reason for excluding a juror on a preemptory challenge does not have to make any sense so long as it is applied neutrally as to the race and gender of the defendant. Justice John Paul Stevens in disagreeing with other justices on the Supreme Court, complained that the Court had made its decisions in Batson and J. E. B. meaningless.
Some state and federal courts lower than the U. S. Supreme Court have said preemptory challenges cannot be used to exclude persons of particular religious groups. Other courts on these levels have ruled in the opposite way. The U. S. Supreme Court has not yet resolved the difference of opinion among the courts on this issue.
Use of Jury Consultants
There are two scenarios in which attorneys may consider using a jury consultant to further assist them in selecting jurors. First, if their client is a celebrity, there may be very strongly divided opinions among potential jurors on whether they like or dislike that client. This would be a great obstacle to finding at least an impartial jury. Second, even if their client does not provoke any strong sentiment, if he has a great deal to lose, they may still want to improve the probability of a favorable outcome. In either instance, to use a jury consultant constitutes an additional expense. The average cost is $250 per hour, and it could total anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000.
Most jury consultants have backgrounds in law, psychology, or sociology. In spite of the expertise a jury consultant may have, the profession is largely unregulated. Although jury consultants claim to be accurate in their appraising potential jurors, many scholars are skeptical. Another criticism is that using a jury consultant gives the general public the impression that a favorable verdict can be purchased if the right jury is selected. In light of this criticism, some judges have taken the initiative to have consultants appointed for indigent defendants.
The primary purpose of hiring a jury consultant is to help uncover hidden bias of potential jurors. Because preemptory challenges are limited, lawyers may be unsure about some of those questioned. The job of jury consultants is to give attorneys the criteria necessary for the ideal jury for their clients and to assist in determining what biases do not fit that criteria.
A good illustration of this principle is the trial of Daniel and Philip Berrigan in 1972, the first known use of jury consultants. The Berrigan brothers were accused of conspiring to plan violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The defense attorneys decided that in order to have the best jury possible they should poll those persons likely to qualify as jurors in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the trial. The purpose of this polling was to determine which demographic groups would be most sympathetic to their clients. The results led the defense attorneys to conclude that Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and other Protestant denominations with a fundamentalist outlook would favor the prosecution, as would college graduates because of their support for the position of the U. S. Government on the Vietnam conflict. Accordingly, the defense was successful in having a jury selected that consisted of entirely blue collar workers who would likely not have graduated from college and who were also of a different denomination from those listed above. This jury deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of ACQUITTAL. The government afterwards declined to retry the case.
There are two kinds of techniques jury consultants use. The first category is pretrial research. The easiest research in this category is attitude surveys conducted in phone or in person as was done in the Berrigan trial. A second technique is to form a trial simulation with a group of people representative of what the jury picked will most resemble. At the end of this mock trial, the participants are surveyed as to how persuasive each side was in general and in its use of the evidence. Also, a focus group may be formed and the facts of the case and the position of each side will be explained to it. Those in the focus group will be asked how they would decide the case and their opinion on which side had the best arguments supporting their position. A third method is personal background research made through credit checks, hand writing analysis, and an EXAMINATION of property and tax records.
A second category relates to what they do when the trial takes place. One commonly used method is for the consultant to prepare a questionnaire for the attorney designed to uncover juror biases. Another is for the consultant to observe the facial expressions and posture of those being considered for the jury; these unconscious reactions may indicate whether the response to the questions of the lawyer are sincere or misleading. A third technique is to observe the jury during breaks for lunch; if certain persons on the jury always eat together this may indicate that alliances have formed that could impact how the juries will deliberate once the case is given to them to decide and could help determine the verdict they reach. In some cases, consultants will recruit a shadow jury resembling by various demographic factors the one actually deciding the case. This shadow jury will be interviewed during the trial for the purpose of determining how the real jury is perceiving their side.
Moreover, some jury consultants believe that people in general fall into one of two groups: Those who conclude that what happens to a person is determined by the person's reaction to those events, and the rest who believe what happens to an individual is dictated by circumstances and context.
Role as a Factfinder
In every case there are allegations made. In a civil case, they are made by the party known as the plaintiff while in a case involving criminal law, the party making the charges or allegations is the prosecutor who is employed by the state JURISDICTION in which he practices. If the case involves federal law, the prosecutor is the U. S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT, a federal agency.
In order to win the case, the plaintiff, or whoever is making the allegations, must make his case by showing the allegations are true according to a given standard of proof to the satisfaction of a jury. For example, Smith alleges that Jones negligently backed his car into Smith, breaking his leg. In order to prove the allegations to be true, Smith must present evidence based on facts and testimony.
The facts that Smith is able to prove are true are then applied to see if the four elements necessary for Smith to win are proven. These elements in this NEGLIGENCE claim are the issues that the judge will submit to the jury. The issues are: did Jones owe a duty to be reasonably careful to Smith, did Jones breach or violate that duty, was this violation by Jones of his duty to Smith the cause of Smith's broken leg, and did Smith actually have his leg broken.
In its role as a fact finder, a jury decides, based on the evidence presented, what is the truth in regard to the facts of the case. The jury will decide on the above four issues based on the facts they have found to be true, and if their answer is yes to all four of these issues, Smith wins. In determining what their conclusion is to each of these issues, the jury is given considerable discretion even when evidence regarding the same fact conflicts to the extent that opposite inferences could be drawn. This discretion even extends to cases in which the facts are undisputed; different inferences could still be found by a rational jury.
However, the judge still has discretion to withhold from the jury the right to decide a particular issue if he believes the evidence is insufficient for the jury to come to a reasonable conclusion. Because each of the issues that Smith must prove in his favor to the jury are essential to his case, a decision by the judge that the evidence presented is not enough to support only one of the four issues would result in Smith losing the case.
How Juries Weigh the Evidence
Allowing evidence in the form of facts, such as testimony, to be admitted at trial by the judge depends on whether it is pertinent or relates to the issue the jury is asked to decide and whether it has probative value, meaning it helps to determine whether a fact is true or false. Once the evidence is actually admitted and the jury tries to reach a verdict they must evaluate this evidence as to its CREDIBILITY. For example, if a witness saw Smith being struck by Jone's car, the jury will determine whether the facts WARRANT their accepting his testimony as being a true account of what occurred, issues such as whether the witness was close enough to see what had occurred.
Standards of Proof Used
In a civil court case such as one of Smith, the plaintiff, versus Jones, the defendant, the burden is on the plaintiff to show or prove by the facts presented into evidence he has been injured by the defendant. In other kinds of civil lawsuits, such as those involving contracts between the plaintiff and defendant, the plaintiff still has the burden. The standard of proof that the plaintiff must meet is the preponderance of the evidence. This means that a fact put into evidence in supporting Smith's contention Jones was negligent is more likely to be true than false. The degree to which the jury must believe a fact is more likely to be true than not true in order to meet this standard of proof need only be by the smallest degree; 51 percent would be sufficient.
Sometimes the rules of evidence in a given case will have a standard of proof known as clear and convincing evidence. In order to show that a fact presented into evidence is true according to this standard, the plaintiff Smith must show there is a high probability that a given fact is true or that a juror according to the evidence presented would come to firmly believe the fact alleged by Smith was true. This is a greater degree of proof than preponderance of the evidence, but it is not as high as the BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT standard required in criminal cases.
In a criminal trial, the plaintiff is not a person or corporation, but the state or federal government as represented by the prosecutor. The prosecutor, regardless of his title, has the responsibility of enforcing the criminal laws of his jurisdiction. The elements of the allegations a prosecutor must prove will vary with the offense charged, but in any event, it must be proven the defendant committed the offense he is accused of and that he intentionally did so willingly. Because the consequences of a criminal conviction are more severe than in a civil lawsuit, the highest standard of proof, beyond a REASONABLE DOUBT, is required. This burden of proof is always on the prosecution because a criminal defendant can remain silent if he chooses. This standard means the prosecutor must convince the jury to the point where they firmly believe the defendant is guilty as charged.
Jury Instructions and Their Purpose
A jury instruction is a guideline given by the judge to the jury about the law they will have to apply to the facts they have found to be true. The purpose of the instructions is to help the jury arrive at a verdict that follows the law of that jurisdiction. In his instructions a judge may explain the legal principles pertaining to the subject matter of the case, make it clear to the jury the legal issues they must decide in order to arrive at a verdict, point out what each side must prove in order to win, and summarize the evidence he sees as relevant and explain how it relates to the issues they must decide. For example, do the facts admitted as evidence and found credible by the jury according to the preponderance of the evidence combined with the application of the legal principles of negligence law warrant a finding by the jury that Smith owed a duty to Jones to be reasonably careful in operating his car?
In giving these instructions, the judge binds the jury. The judge makes clear to the jurors that they are to apply the law to the facts as he gives it to them; they are not to substitute their own judgment as to whether a different law should be applied or whether the law as has been explained to them is unjust. The instructions are to be given in terms a layperson can easily understand. In order to help the jury understand the instructions, the judge may give preinstructions prior to the time immediately following the presentation of both sides of the case. However, the judge is forbidden to comment on the evidence presented in the case. It is the jury's responsibility to independently evaluate the evidence.
Special Kinds of Instructions Limiting the Discretion of the Jury
The judge has a number of devices by which he can limit the discretion of the jury in applying the instructions to their deliberations. Through an additional instruction, the judge may supplement instructions he has already given. These instructions are usually given at the request of the jury to clarify some point regarding the law given in a previous instruction they do not understand. If a judge gives a mandatory instruction, this requires the jury to reach a verdict in favor of a particular party if the evidence indicates that a particular set of facts is true. Through a peremptory instruction, a jury is directed to find in favor of a particular party regardless of how credible they regard the evidence to be. The judge is taking the case away from the jury because he believes a reasonable juror could not rule in favor of the other party.
Jury nullification is the right of a jury in a criminal case to disregard the evidence admitted at trial and the law as explained to them by the judge and to give a verdict of not guilty for reasons having nothing to do with the case. There may be several reasons for ignoring the evidence and the instructions of the judge. First, they may wish to use a not guilty verdict to communicate to the community their views on a social issue outside the scope of the trial. Second, having to convict a defendant may offend the jurors' sense of justice and fair play or jurors may believe the law itself is immoral.
A judge is powerless to SANCTION the jury in any way. The jury is not required to give any reason at all for its decision which cannot be appealed by the prosecution to a higher court because of the DOUBLEJEOPARDY Clause of the Constitution that says a defendant is prohibited from being tried more than once for the same crime.
The right of jury nullification originated in what is referred to as Bushell's Case, an English court decision from 1670. William Penn, the eventual founder of Pennsylvania, was accused of holding an illegal meeting. The jury, based on inconclusive evidence, acquitted Penn and his co-defendant Bushell. The judge retaliated against the jury by fining and imprisoning them. After several weeks, Bushell asked for an appeal of the trial judge's action against the jurors. The judge for a higher court set the jury free and said that because reasonable people can look at the same evidence and come to a different conclusion, juries are free to decide as they see fit regardless of whether the judge believes they had an legally adequate reason.
Although this case is English and would not normally be binding in the United States, U. S. courts over a long period of time consistently upheld the right of juries to use the right of nullification. However, the use of this device by juries seems at least on the surface to apply only to criminal cases. Some scholars contend that it takes place in secret because the jury proceedings are confidential but have been unable to document any case that expressly endorse nullification in a civil trial.
The Hung Jury and the Unanimous Requirement
It is required that in order for a jury to reach a verdict, everyone must agree to the decision made. Unanimity is required in all federal court civil and criminal trials, in all state court criminal trials, and in most civil trials in those courts. Sometimes the entire jury is not able to agree on the verdict, resulting in a deadlocked or HUNG JURY.
When judges are informed this situation has occurred, they tell the jury to continue the deliberations because the alternative is to have the entire case tried over again with a new jury. In order to push the jury into arriving at a verdict, judges urge those in the minority to reconsider their positions by reexamining the evidence carefully and to ask themselves whether their disagreement with the majority is still correct from their viewpoint. Although this device was popular among judges, many courts have abandoned it because it seems coercive.
Many courts now use another instruction drafted by the American BAR ASSOCIATION which asks jurors in the minority to reconsider their position and the evidence; jurors should change their stand only if they are convinced based on the evidence but not because they feel pressed to conform to the majority view.
Judge's Discretion to Set Aside Verdicts
In a civil trial, a judge may set aside the verdict regarding how much money should be awarded by the jury to the plaintiff in PUNITIVE DAMAGES. These damages consist of a dollar figure the jury awards the plaintiff in order to punish the defendant. This amount is totally distinct from COMPENSATORY DAMAGES, which are meant to reimburse the plaintiff for lost wages as well as pain and suffering. Given the purpose of punitive damages, juries can award verdicts that in punitive damages alone amount to millions of dollars.
The Seventh Amendment to the U. S. Constitution precludes review by any court of a judgment over $20. In light of this provision, courts will not overturn an award made by a jury just because of its large size or because the judge, if he had been standing in their shoes, would have awarded a smaller sum. However, a judge may reduce the amount of the award if it is far in excess of any rational calculation. Because compensatory damages such as lost wages have formulas by which juries can arrive at an acceptable figure, the reduction of an award is usually applied to punitive damages. The specific ground judges use to justify this action is that the award was made out of "passion and prejudice".
In criminal cases, judges may disregard a jury's guilty verdict and ACQUIT or grant a new trial if they believe the evidence was insufficient to support the decision made by the jurors. Judges may also set aside a verdict if they believe the verdict was reached on a basis that violates the U. S. or respective State constitution or if the legal theory on which the jury based their decision does not conform to the law.
Judges will have members of a jury sequestered or kept together in order to protect juries from outside influences This includes any communication with persons not allowed to be in contact with the jurors as well as the content of news reports concerning the case. Courts view sequestration as a great burden on the personal lives of the jurors as well as the cost involved, and it is used, therefore, only if the lawyer for the defense is able to show the judge there is prejudice in the surrounding community against the defendant, or that news reports would prevent members of the jury from being impartial. While even criminal defendants do not have the right to have the jury sequestered, it may be required under state law where a defendant could be sentenced to death.
Sequestration is more common in criminal than in civil trials and is likely to be imposed once the jury has been selected. In a civil trial, jurors are not sequestered until the jury has heard all of the evidence and has received their instructions from the judge.
Once a jury is sequestered, strict measures are imposed to insure their objectivity. For example, jurors are not allowed to use a public restroom without a court BAILIFF or marshal being present. Receiving and making telephone calls is forbidden but will not result in a trial verdict being reversed by a higher court so long as the court officer can hear the conversation and nothing pertaining to the case is mentioned. Jurors must also be transported as a group, eat together, and sleep at the same lodging.
Even if they are not sequestered, jurors are instructed not to discuss any subject pertaining to the trial prior to the time the jury begins their deliberations. This includes fellow jurors.
Each juror has a duty to report as soon as possible any incident where any person attempted to influence any member of the jury outside of the room where the jurors deliberate. A Jurors must report to the court any violation they see committed by other jurors against warnings given by the judge not to discuss the case outside the jury room or against listening, reading or viewing news reports about the case. In regard to jurors' avoidance of any contact with news reports, the judge in many jurisdictions is required to explain to the jury his reason for warning them to do so.
There are a number of documented examples of juror misconduct that illustrate the above principles. The first kind of example is jurors bringing in outside information not given to them at trial. In an automobile accident case, a juror on his own visited the accident site and drew a diagram of the intersection. The next day when the jury deliberated, he showed the jury the diagram and brought into the room a copy of a book on state traffic laws, the contents of which they discussed. In a second instance communication was said to have taken place between members of the jury and a customer in a restaurant who approached their table and urged them to impose the death penalty. In these instances, what occurred was clearly prejudicial and resulted in the trial verdict being overturned.
There are some instances in which the rules about outside communication were not followed, but were not considered egregious enough to warrant the verdict being overturned. In one case, the jury did not understand what was meant by the term proximate cause. Instead of asking the judge for clarification, they brought in a dictionary to help them. Because the dictionary definition did not conflict with what the judge had told them earlier as to what that word mean, it was not considered to be prejudicial.
There have been a large number of cases where jurors have gone to the judge or other court officials after the trial is over to complain they were intimidated by other jurors into voting with the majority. Courts will not take any action at this point for these reasons. First, before deliberations have concluded, a juror can report intimidation to court officials. Second, the jury can be polled individually in OPEN COURT to see if each person voluntarily agrees with the verdict. Third, courts are unwilling to meddle in or speculate about how the jury reached its decision; a jury's deliberations are meant to be secret in order for non-jurors not to have any influence. Outbursts of emotion, such as throwing chairs or cursing, are looked upon by courts as consequences that should not be unexpected and will not in themselves be sufficient to have intimidated jurors into not voting according to their own evaluation of the evidence. Finally, allowing inquiries after a verdict would jeopardize the finality of a jury's decision and might result in endless additional time wasted.
Notetaking by Jurors
As trials have become more complex, and the information given more difficult to remember and place in perspective, a number of states have made express permission for jurors to take notes during the trial. These states include Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Although only one state expressly prohibits this practice, in most jurisdictions whether members of a jury are allowed to take notes will depend upon the discretion of the judge. One survey indicated that 37 percent of the judges in state courts indicate they do not allow jurors to take notes during a trial. In federal courts, this matter is also left up to the judge.
Many judges oppose juror notetaking because in their view jurors cannot make the distinction between important and trivial evidence. As a result, the more vital evidence may not be recorded and the less important may be, making it impossible for a jury to reach a rational verdict. However, studies performed in Wisconsin and Arizona indicate that notetaking did not influenced the verdict, or distract the jurors; notes taken were accurate and did not result in the notetakers dominating non-notetakers in the jury deliberations.
Questioning of Witnesses by Jurors
A small number of states have changed their laws and court rules to allow jurors to ask witnesses questions, either orally or in writing through the judge. Written questions submitted in advanced allow attorneys for both sides to make objections based either on the ground they would violate the rules governing the admission of evidence or would result in prejudice against their clients.
The states that expressly encourage judges to allow jurors to question witnesses are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada and North Carolina. Out of these jurisdictions, Arizona, Florida, and Kentucky require that judges allow jurors to ask written questions. The respective highest state courts of Indiana and Kentucky have ruled jurors have a right to ask questions of witnesses.
Other jurisdictions give a more restricted endorsement of this practice. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, the respective state supreme courts have said it is permissible at the discretion of the trial judge. Texas does not permit jurors to question witnesses in criminal trials and Georgia law requires all questions to be written and submitted to the judge. Only Mississippi law expressly forbids jurors from questioning witnesses.
Plaintiffs of civil trials and prosecutors in criminal proceedings favor this practice because it assists them in sustaining the burden of proof required in order for them to win their case. When jurors ask questions, they are able to gain a better understanding of the facts brought into evidence, especially when it is highly technical, such as DNA analysis. Bias in members of the jury that was undetected during the selection process can be exposed through questions they ask, enabling the judge to give an instruction against this bias or removing and replacing jurors with alternates.
Defense attorneys in civil and criminal trials are against jurors questioning witnesses at least partly because it may lead to information being disclosed that could be detrimental to their case. If oral questions are permitted, it could put the defense attorney in an uncomfortable position if a truthful answer would prejudice the jury as a whole against their client. One example would be if a juror were to ask if the defendant had a prior criminal record. If the defense attorney objects to the question, the attorney runs the risk of antagonizing the jury. If the attorney chooses not to object, his client may have waived any right on appeal to a higher court that his verdict should be overturned because of the prejudicial nature of the question. Even if the questions are submitted to the judge first in writing, defense attorneys say jurors will inevitably put more weight than they should on their own questions and makes it more likely jurors will rush to judgment without taking into account all the evidence admitted at trial.
Decline in the Use of Jury Trials
Only two percent of civil cases and a similar proportion of criminal cases that are not dismissed are settled by PLEA BARGAINING are decided by a jury.
The low percentage of criminal prosecutions being resolved by a jury trial is the result of their being settled by PLEA bargaining which helps manage the heavy caseloads in most jurisdictions. The reason for the low use of trials in civil cases is more complex. Various studies have indicated that compared to a bench trial where a case is heard only by a judge, a jury trial costs much more and lasts from twice to three times as long. The increasing complexity of what a jury has to decide in a civil trial makes such alternatives as MEDIATION, negotiation, ARBITRATION, and mini-trials attractive because individuals involved in the proceedings are already knowledgeable in the subject matter of the case. The increased complexity of modern civil cases makes jurors less likely to understand the judges' instructions. Finally, the jury selection process itself tends to weed out the more well informed jurors who are able to handle complex case subject matter.
Prospects for Reform
Jury reform is needed because less than half of those summoned to the courthouse bother to show up, and out of this group between 85 to 95 percent do not serve since they are either exempt, disqualified, or not chosen. Because of the increased importance placed on the ideal jury as conceived by jury consultants, less informed and qualified persons are more likely to be on a jury.
Arizona has made the following reforms: allowing jurors to take notes during a trial, allowing them to question witnesses, and permitting jurors to discuss the case among themselves prior to the time all evidence has been presented. These reforms are needed because the present laws and court rules on juries were put in place many years ago and do not reflect the advances scientists have made regarding how people retain and process new information.
In Arizona, a committee including former jurors made further recommendations such as increasing public awareness of jury service, having short opening statements prior to attorneys selecting juries, giving jurors copies of jury instructions, encouraging jurors to ask questions about these instructions, offering assistance by the judge and attorneys for both sides to a deadlocked jury, and obtaining jurors' reaction to their experience after the verdict is rendered.
Civil Wrongs and the Anatomy of a Jury Trial. Sigman, Robert S., Legovac Publishing, 1991.
Commonsense Justice: Juror's Notions of Law. J. Finkel, Norman J., Harvard University Press, 1995.
Enhancing the Jury System: A Guidebook for Legal Reform. American Judicature Society, 1999.
The Historical Development of the Jury System. Lesser, Maximus, Gordon Press, 1976.
Inquiry into the Powers of Juries to Decide Incidentally on Questions of Law. Worthington, George, W. S. Hein, 1995.
Inside the Jury: The Psychology of Juror Decision Making. Hastie, Reid, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Judging the Jury. Vidmar, J. Hass & N., Perseus Publishing,1986.
Jury Duty What You Need to Know Before You Are Called for Jury Duty Find Out What Its All About. Jones, Alfred, Graduate Group, 1999.
Jury Manual: A Guide for Prospective Jurors. Pabst, William R., Metro Publishing, 1985.
Jury Research: A Review and Bibliography. Abbott, Walter F., American Law Institute, 1993.
Juries in Colonial America: Two Accounts., 1680-1722. Hawles, John, Arno Press, 1972.
Juror's Rights. Stanley, Jacqueline D., Sphinx Publishing, 1998.
Mind of the Juror as Judge of the Facts: or the Layman's View of the Law. Osborn, Albert S., W. S. Hein, 1982.
Race and the Jury: Racial Disenfranchisement and the Search for Justice. Fukurai, H., et. al., Perseus Publishing, 1992.
Suggestions for Improving Juror Utilization in the United States, Final Report. Stoever, William A., Institute of Judicial Administration, 1971.
Trends in Civil Trial Verdicts Since 1985. Moller, Erik T., Rand Corporation, 1996.
What Makes Juries Listen. Sonya Hamilton, Sonya, Aspen Law,1984.
Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA)
1050 31st St.
Washington, DC 20007 USA
Phone: (202) 965-3500
Fax: (202) 625-7312
Primary Contact: Thomas H. Henderson, Executive Director
Council for Court Excellence
1717 K St., N.W.
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Phone: (202) 785-5917
Fax: (202) 785-5922
Primary Contact: Samuel F. Harahan, Executive Director
Fully Informed Jury Association
P.O. Box 59
Helena, MT 59843 USA
Phone: (406) 793-5500
Fax: (406) 793-5500
Primary Contact: Larry Dodge, Ed.
National Center for State Courts
300 Newport Ave.
Willamsburg, VA 23185 USA
Phone: (757) 253-2000
Fax: (757) 220-0449
Primary Contact: Roger K. Warren, President
Roscoe Pound Institute
1050 31st St., NW
Washington, DC 20007 USA
Phone: (202) 965-3500 Fax: (202) 965-0335
Primary Contact: Meghan Donohoe, Executive Director
Small Claims Courts (Encyclopedia of Everyday Law)
Small claims courts are intended to resolve civil disputes involving small amounts of money, without formal rules of EVIDENCE and long delays. The parties involved may present their own claims or defenses or may be represented by COUNSEL; however, in a handful of states, attorneys are prohibited. The cases move quickly through the court dockets, the judges often render their opinions in the same day, and the parties are generally satisfied with the quick resolution of the controversy. However, there is a downside. All small claims courts have "limited jurisdiction" (authority to hear and adjudge a matter) involving not only the dollar amount but also the subject matter of the controversy. Secondly, if parties do not understand what they are doing in presenting their claim or defense, they could stand to lose, badly, and there is no going back.
Anatomy of a Small Claim Action
Resolving a dispute in small claims court is very much like conducting a mini-trial, although generally less formal. There is a claim and a defense, the presentation of evidence, and a judgment. Rules of procedure vary from state to state, but the overall process is remarkably similar.
Maximum Dollar Value of Case
The maximum dollar value of the dispute or claim varies greatly from state to state. Typically, the maximum amount plaintiffs may be awarded in a judgment ranges from $3,000 in New York to $7,500 in Minnesota. If the amount they are asking for in damages is more than the allowable amount in their state's small claims court system, they have two choices: either to either waive their right to any amount above and beyond the maximum allowable, or file their case in the next level of court.
Nature of Dispute or Controversy
Small claims courts are mostly intended to resolve minor monetary disputes. A limited number of state small claims courts permit other forms of remedy besides money, for example, evictions or requests for the return of PERSONAL PROPERTY. However, individuals generally cannot use small claims courts to file for DIVORCE, guardianship, BANKRUPTCY, name changes, CHILD CUSTODY, or "injunctive relief" (emergency relief, usually to stop someone from doing something). In many states, they cannot sue for DEFAMATION (slander or libel) or FALSE ARREST in small claims court. Finally, they cannot sue the federal government or any of its branches, agencies, or employees in their official capacities in small claims court.
Each state has its own rules regarding how long individuals have to file suit, once they have been harmed or an event occurs that gives rise to a claim. The same time limits ("statutes of limitation") apply to small claims courts as to other courts. Generally, they have at least one year from the injury or event (or its DISCOVERY, in some cases) to file their suit.
To start the process, individuals should check with their local court clerk to find out where their small claims complaint should be filed: most states require that they file suit in a small claims court in the county wherein which the party being sued actually resides (or has business headquarters), rather than the one in which the plaintiff resides. Alternatively, some courts allow the suit to be filed in the district where the injury or event occurred (where "the cause of action arises").
Generally, the complaint itself may be handwritten or prepared on a special form available from the court itself, with "fill in the blanks" ease-of-completion. If individuals are composing their own complaints, they need to make sure that it contains, at a minimum, the following:
- The plaintiff's complete name and address
- The complete name and address of the party being sued
- The date of the injury or event which gives rise to the plaintiff's claim
- A brief statement of facts relating to the injury or the event, and the role that the party being sued played in it
- The type of harm that was suffered by the plaintiff as a result of it
- The amount of damages or other remedy the plaintiff seeks are asking
Individuals must also check local law to ensure that the party being sued is properly served with the complaint. In many small claims courts, a court clerk will take care of "service of process," but in many states, plaintiffs are responsible.
The court will notify plaintiffs of the date for their trials. Plaintiffs should request from the court clerk any available information that may help them with procedure (unless they have retained an attorney). Generally, plaintiffs are allowed to bring witnesses to TESTIFY in support of their claims. Some courts may accept affidavits (sworn statements) from persons who cannot appear in person; however, since the other side has no opportunity to "cross-examine" an absent witness, most courts will give only minor consideration to affidavits. Plaintiffs' most important witnesses are themselves. Be prepared, be professional, and be brief (but to the point). They need to have extra copies of all documents, not only for the judge, but also for the opposing party. Remember that they will most likely be cross-examined not only on their TESTIMONY, but also and on the substance of any evidence they present.
Generally, there are no juries, and a judge or MAGISTRATE will decide the case. Often, the judgment is rendered immediately, and placed on the record. In other cases, individuals may receive written word of a decision and judgment within a few days. In some states, they may appeal a judgment, but not in all cases. The court is not responsible for collecting any judgment they have been awarded, but they can generally return to court for "post-judgment" proceedings if the other party fails to pay.
When Individuals Are Sued in Small Claims Court
If individuals have been served with a complaint, it is imperative that they respond to the court within the time indicated. Not only do they have the right to "tell their side of the story" in their defense, but they may also, in some small claims courts, be permitted to "counter-claim." The counter-claim may be related to the original complaint (tending to diminish the complaint's value or truth), or it may be wholly unrelated but still properly raised against the person who has sued them. Defendants must check local procedure for details on the permissibility of counter-claims.
Defendants may raise the defense that they were not properly "served" with court papers according to local rules. They may raise the defense that the time for filing suit against them has expired. They may raise the defense that the person suing them has not stated a viable claim or cause of action. They may raise any other defense that they believe diminishes the value or the existence of the complaint against them.
Finally, individuals being sued need to study carefully the charges against them very carefully. First and foremost, they need to develop any facts that tend to show that they are not liable. Secondly, they need to develop any facts that tend to diminish or reduce the amount of damages the person claims they have caused. Third, they need to develop any evidence that will support their defense (or counter-claim) and/or that will corroborate their own testimony. Finally, they should practice their presentation: they will want their side of the dispute to be logical, to-the-point, and damaging to the claims against them.
Collecting on a Judgment
Before individuals sue, they should ask themselves whether it may cost them more than they may gain. Do the people they want to sue have steady employment, valuable real estate, or other TANGIBLE assets? In many states, judgments are collectible (with accrued interest) for ten years or more, so individuals may wish to wait, and attach assets of the judgment DEBTOR down the road in the future. If individuals want to are suing a small business contractor, their state may permit them to file a copy of the judgment with the state licensing board. If the contractor does not post bond or pay it off, the license may be suspended or revoked. Finally, there is a danger that the judgment debtor may file for bankruptcy. Even if plaintiffs are listed as a CREDITOR, they may only get pennies on every dollar of their judgment.
Small Claims for Small Business Owners
If individuals own a small business, small claims court may be helpful for collecting unpaid bills because owners do not need to go through bill collectors or lawyers, which could substantially reduce their NET profit. Often the debtor fails to appear in court, and creditors may be entitled to a DEFAULT JUDGMENT. But again, creditors need to be wary of collecting in the future, especially if the judgment debtor is another small business that may not be around in a few years.
Small Claims in U. S. Tax Court
If individuals are faced with a dispute involving the U. S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the federal Tax Court maintains a special division for small cases. Their case will qualify for the small case division if the disputed amount that the IRS claims they owe for any one tax year is $50,000 or less, including taxes and penalties. A case that qualifies for small claims handling is given an "S" designation. Most tax court cases are settled without a trial.
ALABAMA: In Alabama, the Small Claims Division of the District Court hears claims limited to $3,000 or less.
ALASKA: In Alaska, the District Court Civil Division processes small claims that do not exceed $7,500. Each county has a District Court.
ARKANSAS: In Arkansas, the Claims Court is a special civil division of the Municipal Court. Claims are limited to $5,000 or less.
ARIZONA: In Arizona, every JUSTICE OF THE PEACE Court has a small claims division. Disputes must not exceed $2,500. All cases are heard by judges or HEARING officers. No attorneys are allowed to represent clients in these cases. Justice Courts share JURISDICTION with the Superior Court in cases of landlord/tenant disputes where damages are between $5,000 and $10,000. They can hear matters regarding possession of, but not title to, real property.
CALIFORNIA: In California, individuals can file as many claims as they wish for up to $2,500 in the Small Claims Court. However, individuals may only file two (2) claims in any calendar year for up to $5,000. However, they cannot sue a guarantor for more than $4,000. A guarantor is one who promises to be responsible for the debt or DEFAULT of another.
COLORADO: In Colorado, the County Court Civil Division processes small claims that do not exceed $5,000. Each county has a District Court. No plaintiff may file more than two claims per month or 18 claims per year in small claims courts.
CONNECTICUT: In Connecticut, the Small Claims Court is a division of the Superior Court and has a maximum jurisdictional amount of $3500. Attorneys are permitted. There are no rights of appeal. The official court form is "JD-CV-40." Individuals should call the Secretary of State at 860-509-6002 to find out if a DEFENDANT is a corporation and to get the address. There is a $30 filing fee.
DELAWARE: In Delaware, the Justice of the Peace Court handles both civil and criminal cases. Civil cases handled in the Justice of the Peace Court are those involving money debts, property damages, or return of personal property. The amount of damages that may be sought in the Justice of the Peace Court is limited to $15,000.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: In Washington, D.C the District of Columbia., the Small Claims Division of the Superior Court of D.C. hears cases that are only for the recovery of money up to $5,000. The Small Claims Division of the Superior Court of D.C. hears cases that are only for the recovery of money up to $5,000.00, not including interest, attorneys fees, and court costs. If both parties to an action agree, a Superior Court judge may settle a case by ARBITRATION, regardless of the amount of the claim. DC Code 11-1321,1322; McCray v. McGee, 504 A.2d 1128 (App D.C. 1986.)
FLORIDA: In Florida, a County Court civil division handles small claims under $5,000.
GEORGIA: In Georgia, a County Magistrate Small Claims Court handles money claims under $15,000. Individuals may file a claim in Magistrate Court with or without an attorney. They may have an attorney represent them if they choose; this would be at their own expense. The court does not appoint attorneys for civil cases.
HAWAII: In Hawaii, the Small Claims Division of the District Courts may only handle cases for the recovery of money where the amount claimed is no more than $3,500. The Small Claims Division publishes its own procedural rules.
ILLINOIS: In Illinois, the County Circuit Court processes small claims of $5,000 or less. The parties are not required to have lawyers but may choose to have one.
INDIANA: In Indiana, the Small Claims Division of the Superior Court hears claims limited to $3,000 or less ($6,000 in Marion and Allen Counties).
IOWA: In Iowa, the Small Claims Division of the Superior Court hears claims limited to $4,000 or less.
KANSAS: In Kansas, the District Court hears small claims actions. Amounts at issue are limited to $1,800. Lawyers are not allowed to represent parties in small claims proceedings prior to the entry of judgment. There is a $19.50 filing fee for claims up to $500, and a $39.50 filing fee for claims from $500 to $1,800. The hearing is conducted informally before a judge. The judgment debtor has ten days after the judgment is entered to file an appeal. The judgment debtor has 30 days to either pay the judgment or file a "Judgment Debtor's Statement of Assets" with the court, which will forward it to parties.
KENTUCKY: In Kentucky, the Small Claims Division of the District Court hears cases involving small claims under $1,500.
LOUISIANA: In Louisiana, the City Court hears small claims actions. Some EVICTION cases are heard in small claims court, if the rent at issue is sufficiently small. Amounts at issue are limited to $3,000 ($2,000 for movable property).
MAINE: In Maine, the Small Claims Court is a special civil division of the District Court. Claims are limited to $4,500 or less.).
MARYLAND: Maryland does not have a specific small claims court, but the District Court has exclusive jurisdiction for claims involving less than $25,000. No formal pleadings are required for claims under $2,500. Unfortunately, the trials in these courts are much more formal than in typical small claims courts. Therefore, individuals may wish to consider obtaining the services of an attorney before going into court. MD CJ 4-401, 405.
MASSACHUSETTS: In Massachusetts, small claims are heard in every District Court, in every Housing Court, and at the Boston Municipal Court. Small claim actions are limited to disputes under $2,000.
MICHIGAN: In Michigan, individuals can sue for up to $3,000 in the Small Claims Division of the District Court. Michigan does not allow attorneys in small claims court. Decisions are final and cannot be appealed. Filing fees are $17.00 for claims up to $600, and $32.00 for claims from $600 to $3,000.
MINNESOTA: In Minnesota, the Small Claims Court is part of the District Court. Claims may not exceed $7,500.
MISSISSIPPI: In Mississippi, individuals may sue in small claims court for up to $2,500. There are no Internet resources for Mississippi small claims courts as of 2002.
MISSOURI: In Missouri, civil claims for $3,000 or less may be filed in Small Claims Court. This court has very simple rules that allow parties to resolve disputes with or without a lawyer. Rules 140 through 152 govern all civil actions pending in the small claims division of the circuit court.
MONTANA: In Montana, the Justice Court hears small claims actions of $3,000 or less.
NEBRASKA: In Nebraska, small claims court is limited to civil (non-criminal) actions involving disputes over amounts of money owed, damage to property, or seeking the return of personal property. Judgments in small claims court may not exceed $2,400.
NEVADA: In Nevada, the Small Claims Division of the County Court hears small claims actions of $5,500 or less.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: In New Hampshire, Small Claims Courts are divisions of District Courts. Small claims are regulated by RSA 503. A small claim action may not exceed $5,000. Attorneys are permitted.
NEW JERSEY: In New Jersey, small claim cases are heard in the Special Civil Part of the Civil Division of the Superior Court. These cases are for less than $2,000. The Special Civil Part also hears cases between $2,000 and $10,000.
NEW MEXICO: In New Mexico, the County Magistrate Court is authorized to hear cases that do not exceed $5,000.
NEW YORK CITY: In New York, the City, District, and Justice Courts in the state have Small Claims Parts that are authorized to hear cases that do not exceed $3,000.
NORTH CAROLINA: In North Carolina, the County District Court is authorized to hear cases that do not exceed $4,000.
NORTH DAKOTA: In North Dakota, the District Court is authorized to hear small claims cases that do not exceed $5,000.
OHIO: In Ohio, civil claims for $3,000 or less may be filed in Small Claims Court. This court has very simple rules that allow parties to resolve disputes without hiring an attorney. However, attorneys are permitted to represent parties if desired.
OKLAHOMA: In Oklahoma, the District Court small claims division handles cases that do not exceed $4,500.
OREGON: In Oregon, the Small Claims Department of the Justice Court processes small claim actions involving disputes under $5,000.
PENNSYLVANIA: In Pennsylvania, District Justice Courts hear claims that do not exceed $8,000. The Municipal Court of Philadelphia may hear claims of $10,000 or less. It also may hear rent only disputes in LANDLORD Tenant cases of an unlimited amount.
RHODE ISLAND: In Rhode Island, the small claims courts handle cases that do not exceed $1,500.
SOUTH CAROLINA: In South Carolina, the Magistrate Court processes small claim actions involving disputes under $5,000. This amount was raised to $7,500 on January 1, 2001.
SOUTH DAKOTA: In South Dakota, the small claims court is authorized to hear cases for $8,000 or less.
TENNESSEE: In Tennessee, the Court of General Sessions hears small claims actions involving disputes for $15,000 or less. In counties of 700,000 or more people, the Court hears small claims disputes for up to $25,000. However, there is no dollar limit for cases involving UNLAWFUL DETAINER and the recovery of personal property.
TEXAS: In Texas, a Justice Court handles small claims under $5,000.
UTAH: In Utah, the District Court processes small claim actions involving disputes under $5,000. Each county has a District Court. Small Claims rules and fees are covered under Title 78, Chapter 06 of the Utah Code.
VERMONT: In Vermont, the small claims courts handle cases that do not exceed $3,500.
VIRGINIA: In Virginia, the small claims divisions of the general district courts hear disputes of $1,000 or less. The general district courts, themselves, hear disputes of $3,000 or less. Cases involving amounts between $3,000 and $15,000 may be heard by either the general district court or the circuit court. VA Code 16.1-122.1.
WASHINGTON: In Washington State, the District Court Civil Division processes small claims in amounts not exceeding $2,500. Each county has a District Court. Note that small claims are not handled in municipal court. Procedural guidelines for small claims actions are found in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Chapters 3.66, 4.28, 12.40, and applicable provisions in the Civil Rules for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction, Rule 5 (CRLJ5).
WEST VIRGINIA: In West Virginia, the Magistrates Courts handle small claims with $5,000 or less in dispute.
WISCONSIN: In Wisconsin, the District Courts handle small claims of $5,000 or less. For landlords seeking eviction, the $5,000 limit does not apply.
WYOMING: In Wyoming, the Justice of the Peace Courts hear small claims of up to $3,000. Circuit courts hear cases of up to $7,000.
The Court TV Cradle-to-grave Legal Survival Guide. Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court. Warner, Ralph, Nolo Press, 1991.
Law for Dummies. Ventura, John, IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 1996.
"Small Claims Court." Nolo Press, 2002. Available at http://www.nolo.com/lawcenter/ency/article.cf.
State Courts And Procedures (Encyclopedia of Everyday Law)
The judicial powers of individual states are generally vested in various courts created by state constitution or (less frequently) state STATUTE. Within the BOUNDARIES of each state and coexisting with state courts are numerous federal district and/or APPELLATE courts that function independently. Also coexisting within state boundaries are various administrative tribunals that also hear and decide legal matters, such as worker's compensation boards, professional licensing boards, and state administrative tribunals. Yet, there are often local, district, and/or municipal courts within the community. At first blush, it may appear overwhelming and confusing to consider what legal matter may be decided in which forum. But for the most part, each of the above courts has its own separate function and role in applying the laws to the controversies brought before it and administering justice to all.
Function and Scope of State Courts
To understand the function and scope of state courts, it is necessary to consider them in relation to the federal court system expressly created in Article III of the U. S. Constitution. Article III also establishes the type of cases that federal courts may hear and decide (federal "jurisdiction").
Article VII of the Constitution declares that "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States . . . and all Treaties made . . . under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." Later in the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment provides that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
The ultimate effect these provisions have upon state courts is to reserve to them the right to hear and decide any legal matter not expressly reserved for the exclusive JURISDICTION of federal courts (such as lawsuits between states). This matter mostly involves the "adjudication" of controversies concerning state laws, which impact the daily lives of citizens in a much greater manner than federal laws. State courts may also rule upon certain issues concerning federal law and the federal Constitution.
State legislatures are therefore free to createand state courts are free to enforceny law, regulation, or rule that does not conflict with or abridge the guarantees of the federal Constitution (or the state's own constitution). The wide variance, from state to state, of both structure and procedure within the court systems is precisely due to the preservation of those independent powers to the states by the U. S. Constitution.
The Concept of Jurisdiction
A court's general authority to hear and/or "adjudicate" a legal matter is referred to as its "jurisdiction." In the United States, jurisdiction is granted to a court or court system by statute or by constitution. A court is competent to hear and decide only those cases whose subject matter fits within the court's jurisdiction. A legal decision made by a court that did not have proper jurisdiction is deemed void and nonbinding upon the litigants.
Jurisdiction may be referred to as "exclusive," "original," concurrent, general, or limited. Federal court jurisdiction may be "exclusive" over certain matters or parties (to the exclusion of any other forum) or may be "concurrent" and shared with state courts. In matters where both federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction, state courts may hear federal law claims (e.g., violations of CIVIL RIGHTS), and parties bringing suit may choose the forum. However, when a plaintiff raises both state and federal claims in a state court, the DEFENDANTmay be able to "remove" the case to a federal court.
General Structure of State Court Systems
The general workhorse of a state court system is the trial court. This is the lowest level of court and is usually the forum in which a case or lawsuit originates. It may be a court of general jurisdiction, such as a circuit or superior court, or it may be a court of special or limited jurisdiction, such as a PROBATE, juvenile, traffic, or family court. Some states handle "small claims" in separate courts, while others handle such claims in special divisions of the general trial courts. This is also true for probate and juvenile matters. Although someone may broadly refer to "juvenile court" or "small claims court," he or she may actually be referring to the juvenile or small claims "division" of the general circuit court.
- Probate courts primarily handle the administration of estates and the probating of wills. In many states, probate courts also handle such matters as competency hearings, applications for guardianships, adoptions, etc. In a minority of jurisdictions, probate courts may be referred to as surrogate's courts.
- Family courts hear cases involving (mostly) CUSTODY and CHILD SUPPORT, neglect and abuse cases, and, sometimes, juvenile crime or truancy. Most family courts do not handle divorces, which are generally handled by the courts of general jurisdiction.
- Traffic courts handle civil infractions and violations involving motor vehicles, petitions for reinstatement of driving privileges, and related matters. Some may handle minor (MISDEMEANOR) criminal offenses related to motor vehicle-related violations. Most traffic courts do not handle automobile accident cases (as between the parties involved in an accident).
- Housing courts, or landlord-tenant courts, handle exactly that. In many jurisdictions, landlords must choose to file their cases in one of two courts, depending upon whether they seek EVICTION, injunction, etc. (landlord-tenant court), or seek money damages (small claims court). Other jurisdictions handle all landlord-tenant related matters in a single court.
- Small-claims courts handle all civil matters in which the dollar amount in controversy does not exceed a certain amount. If a party seeks damages in an amount greater than the jurisdictional limit of the small claims court, the party must either waive his or her right to the exceeding amount or re-file the case in a court with greater jurisdiction. The maximum jurisdictional limit of small claims courts varies greatly from state to state but mostly falls in the range of $3000 to $7500.
- Juvenile courts handle truancy and criminal offenses of minors. The maximum age of the minor varies from state to state but generally is either 16 or 18 years. Older juveniles who have committed serious crimes may be "bound over" to a court of general jurisdiction for determination of whether they should be tried as adults.
Importantly, states may have separate courts for criminal and civil matters. Most often, a trial court of general jurisdiction will handle both, but often on separate dockets. Many local or district courts will have limited jurisdiction for criminal matters (e.g. misdemeanors only). In such circumstances, a person charged with a FELONY may be arraigned in the district court and then "bound over" to the next level court (having proper jurisdiction) for criminal trial. Again, this varies greatly from state to state.
Every state has its own system to handle appeals from the trial courts. Most states have a three-tiered court system in which there are intermediate "appellate" courts that review jury verdicts or the opinions of trial court judges (on a limited basis and under strict criteria). These appellate courts may or may not be distinguished by separate buildings or courthouses. Often, what is referred to as a "court of appeals" is in reality a panel of justices who merely convene to hear and decide cases at the appellate level.
In a minority of states, trial court decisions receive only one appellate review at the level of the state's highest court or the court "of last resort" (generally referred to as the state's "supreme court"). Once a state's highest court has decided a matter, the only available appeal is to the U. S. Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court is generally deferential to state supreme courts, and only reviews matters in very limited circumstances (e.g, where a state's highest court has ruled that a federal statute or treaty is invalid or unconstitutional, or where the highest courts of two or more states have ruled differently on federal issues). When a state's highest court has decided a matter that involves both federal and state issues, the U. S. Supreme Court will nonetheless refuse to review the matter if the non-federal question is decisive in the case.
Judges and Administrative Staff
Whereas most federal judges are appointed to their positions, the majority of state trial court judges are elected to their positions by the general populace. Appellate (especially supreme court) justices are often appointed by state governors or legislatures but may also be elected by voters.
What does vary greatly from state to state is whether judicial elections involve partisan politics. In some states, party politics play a direct role in judgeships; in other states, a judicial candidate's party affiliation is treated as private data (such as religious affiliation) not disclosed in campaign profiles. States also vary greatly in the extent to which they permit judicial candidates to "advertise" their candidacy and/or raise campaign funds.
State courts employ a large number of support staff, who are usually public employees paid by taxpayer funds. Generally, a judge's staff may include one or more private assistants, law clerks, court reporters, bailiffs and other court officers, and court clerks. The most important administrative office of the courthouse is that of the court clerk. This is the office that stamps and dates all lawsuits filed, serves process (or verifies the parties' service of process), posts legal notices, subpoenas witnesses, SUMMONS and prepares juries, and sends sheriffs or other court officials out to serve writs of EXECUTION to collect on unpaid judgments.
ALABAMA: See Title 12 of the Alabama Code of 1975, also available at . Alabama's courts of limited jurisdiction are probate, county, justice, and recorder's courts. Its trial court of general jurisdiction is the "circuit court." Alabama has separate appellate courts for criminal and civil appeals and one supreme court.
ALASKA: Alaska has MAGISTRATE and district courts of limited jurisdiction. Its general trial courts are called "superior courts." Its court of last resort is its state supreme court.
ARIZONA: Courts of limited jurisdiction include "justice courts," municipal courts, and magistrate offices. The superior courts are the trial courts of general jurisdiction. Arizona has a court of appeals and a supreme court.
ARKANSAS: See Title 16, Subtitle 2 of the Arkansas Code establishes the state court system, available at . Arkansas operates county, municipal, common pleas, justice, and police courts of limited jurisdiction. It maintains the COMMON LAW general jurisdiction courts of Chancery and Probate and has a single supreme court of last resort.
CALIFORNIA: California's circuit courts are the courts of general jurisdiction. It also maintains municipal and justice courts of limited jurisdiction. California has both a court of appeals and a supreme court.
COLORADO: See Title 13 of the Colorado Constitution. Colorado maintains limited jurisdiction courts, including superior, juvenile, probate, county, and municipal courts. The superior court is the court of general jurisdiction. Colorado has both a court of appeals and a supreme court.
CONNECTICUT: Connecticut has juvenile, common pleas, and probate courts of limited jurisdiction. The district court is the court of general jurisdiction. Appeals go directly to the state supreme court.
DELAWARE: Delaware maintains limited jurisdictions courts for family, municipal, and justice. Its general jurisdiction court is the superior court, and appeals are made directly to the state supreme court. See Title 10 of the Delaware Code.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: See Title 11 of the statutes.
FLORIDA: Florida's court of general jurisdiction is its circuit court. It also maintains county courts of limited jurisdiction. It has a district court of appeals and a state supreme court. See Title V of Florida's statutes.
GEORGIA: See Title 15 of the Georgia Code. Georgia has probate, civil justice, criminal justice, and small claims courts of limited jurisdiction. Its superior courts are the courts of general jurisdiction. The state maintains both an appeals court and a supreme court.
HAWAII: Division 4 of the state laws discuss the state's court system. Hawaii utilizes district courts of limited jurisdiction and circuit courts of general jurisdiction. Appeals go directly to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
IDAHO: The district court is the court of general jurisdiction, but within that court is the magistrate's court of limited jurisdiction. Idaho's appeals go directly to the state supreme court.
ILLINOIS: Illinois circuit courts are the courts of general jurisdiction. The state maintains both a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
INDIANA: The Indiana Code establishes county, municipal, magistrate, probate, juvenile, and JUSTICE OF THE PEACE courts of limited jurisdiction. Indiana has circuit civil and criminal courts of general jurisdiction, and has both a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
IOWA: See Title XV, Subtitle 2 of the Iowa Code establishes the court system, which includes the district court as the court of general jurisdiction and appeals go directly to the state supreme court.
KANSAS: See Chapters 20 of the Kansas Statutes, available at . Kansas has probate, municipal, county, and juvenile courts of limited jurisdiction. Its district courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and appeals are made to the state supreme court.
KENTUCKY: Kentucky has county, justice, and police courts of limited jurisdiction. It has a claims court for claims against the state or its agencies. Kentucky's courts of general jurisdiction are its district and circuit courts, and the state maintains both a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
LOUISIANA: Louisiana has city, juvenile, mayor's justice, traffic, family, municipal, and parish courts of limited jurisdiction. It maintains both a court of appeals and a supreme court. http://www.legis.state.la.us.
MAINE: See Maine Statutes, Titles 14, 15, and 16. Maine has limited jurisdiction probate and district courts. Its superior courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and the court of last resort is called the "supreme judicial court."
MARYLAND: See "Courts and Judicial Proceedings," available at . Maryland has orphans and district courts of limited jurisdiction. Its "circuit of counties" courts are the courts of general jurisdiction, and its court of appeals and court of special appeals are the courts of last resort.
MASSACHUSETTS: See Chapters 211-222 of the General Laws of Massachusetts, "Courts, Judicial Officers and Proceedings." The state's courts of general jurisdiction are its superior courts. The state has land, probate, municipal, district, juvenile, and housing courts of limited jurisdiction. The court of last resort is the state's supreme judicial court, but the state also has a court of appeals.
MICHIGAN: Michigan's Constitution creates its courts, which include a court of appeals and a state supreme court. Michigan's courts of general jurisdiction are its circuit courts, generally at the county level. It maintains a few "recorder's courts" for criminal cases. Limited jurisdiction courts include those for common pleas, municipal, district, and probate.
MINNESOTA: See Chapters 480-494 for court systems. Minnesota has county, municipal, and probate courts of limited jurisdiction. Its district courts have general jurisdiction, and it has a supreme court and court of appeals.
MISSISSIPPI: See Title 9 of Mississippi Code of 1972, available at http://www.mscode.com/free/statutes. The state maintains family, county, city police, and justice courts of limited jurisdiction, has chancery and circuit courts of general jurisdiction, and a state supreme court.
MISSOURI: The state has probate, courts of criminal correction, magistrate, and municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. Its circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and the state has both a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
MONTANA: See Title 3 of state statutes. The state maintains municipal, justice, city, and workman's compensation courts of special or limited jurisdiction. The district court is the state's court of general jurisdiction, and maintains a state supreme court.
NEBRASKA: See Chapters 24 to 27 of the Nebraska statutes at has county, municipal, juvenile, and workman's compensation courts of limited jurisdiction. Its district court is the state's court of general jurisdiction, and it maintains a state supreme court.
NEVADA: See Title 1 of the Nevada Revised Statutes for a general discussion of the state's court system. Nevada has municipal and justice courts of limited jurisdiction. Its district court is the state's court of general jurisdiction, and it maintains a state supreme court.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: New Hampshire has probate, district, and municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. Its superior court is the state's court of general jurisdiction, and it maintains a state supreme court.
NEW JERSEY: New Jersey maintains municipal, county district, juvenile and domestic relations courts of limited jurisdiction. Its superior court is the state's court of general jurisdiction, and it maintains a state supreme court.
NEW MEXICO: Chapters 34 and 35 of the state statutes address the court system. New Mexico maintains probate, municipal, small claims, and magistrate courts of limited jurisdiction, as well as a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
NEW YORK: See Chapter 30 of the New York State Consolidated Laws, available at refers to its highest APPELLATE COURT as its "superior court," and its courts of general jurisdiction as "supreme courts," mostly at the county level. New York City maintains several courts of limited jurisdiction for civil and criminal dockets, and the state also maintains a court of appeals.
NORTH CAROLINA: See Chapters 7 of the North Carolina General Statutes. The state maintains its superior courts as courts of general jurisdiction. It has a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
NORTH DAKOTA: See Chapter 27-33 of the Century Code. Its district court is the court of general jurisdiction. The county courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. North Dakota has a state supreme court.
OHIO: Ohio's Courts of Common Pleas are the courts of general jurisdiction. It also maintains municipal, county, and courts of claims are courts of limited jurisdiction. It maintains a court of appeals and the court of last resort is the state supreme court.
OKLAHOMA: See Title 20 of the Oklahoma Statutes. The district court is the court of general jurisdiction. The state maintains municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. It has separate courts of appeal for criminal and civil cases and has a supreme court of last resort.
OREGON: See Chapters 1 to 10 of the Oregon Revised Statutes. Oregon maintains district, county, justice, and municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. Its court of general jurisdiction is the circuit court. Oregon maintains a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
PENNSYLVANIA: Pennsylvania's Courts of Common Pleas are the courts of general jurisdiction. It also maintains municipal, traffic, and justice of the peace courts of limited jurisdiction. Its appellate courts are the superior court and the commonwealth court, and the court of last resort is the state supreme court.
RHODE ISLAND: The state maintains district, probate, family and police courts of limited jurisdiction. The court of general jurisdiction is the superior court, and the state has a supreme court.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The circuit court is the court of general jurisdiction. South Carolina maintains county, probate, magistrate, city recorder's, and family courts of limited jurisdiction. The state's court of last resort is the state supreme court.
TENNESSEE: See Titles 16. The courts of general jurisdiction include chancery court, circuit court, criminal court, and law equity court. There are limited jurisdiction courts for municipal, juvenile, domestic relations cases. Tennessee has separate courts of appeals for criminal and civil cases, and a state supreme court.
TEXAS: Texas maintains criminal district, domestic relations, juvenile, probate, and county courts of limited jurisdiction. Its court of general jurisdiction is the district court. There are separate courts of appeal for civil and criminal cases, and the state has a supreme court.
UTAH: The state has juvenile, city, and justice courts of limited jurisdiction. The district court is the court of general jurisdiction, and the state has a supreme court.
VERMONT: Vermont maintains district and probate courts of limited jurisdiction, while its superior courts are the courts of general jurisdiction. Vermont has a state supreme court.
VIRGINIA: Virginia has general district, juvenile, and domestic relations courts of limited jurisdiction. Its circuit courts are the courts of general jurisdiction, and the state supreme court is the court of last resort.
WASHINGTON: See Titles 2 and 3 of the Revised Code of Washington, and the superior court is the court of general jurisdiction. It maintains district and municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. The state has a court of appeals and a state supreme court.
WEST VIRGINIA: See Chapters 50 and 51. Police courts of limited jurisdiction, circuit courts of general jurisdiction. The court of last resort is the supreme court of appeals.
WISCONSIN: See Chapters 750 to 758 of the Wisconsin Statutes. The state maintains municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. The county circuit courts are the courts of general jurisdiction. The state supreme court is the court of last resort.
WYOMING: Wyoming maintains justice and municipal courts of limited jurisdiction. Its court of general jurisdiction is the state district court, and it has a state supreme court.