This article examines the United States judicial system from a sociological perspective. The author starts by briefly discussing the historic origins of the American legal system and continues with an explanation of the roles that the courts hold in society. This includes explanations of the structure of the court system as well as a brief discussion of the appeals process. The article is concluded with a discussion of the role of the court system in enacting social change.
Keywords Court; Judge; Legal System; Defendant; Plaintiff; Civil Court; Criminal Court; Social Change
While the overwhelming majority of legal cases cycle through the judicial system by settling out of court, courts remain crucial to the orderly operation of American society (Friedman, 1984). The court system as we know it is not unique to the United States. The American legal system is the result of the synthesis of other legal traditions brought on by early immigration, with elements of Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and even Native American law within the system. Perhaps most definitively, due to English colonial supremacy, the American system to most closely resembles the English legal system (Friedman, 1984).
From the English legal system, the American court system has inherited several critical concepts.
- First, the principle of due process states that all accused persons must be granted the same fair and accepted procedures and that special treatment (or mistreatment) should not be granted to any individual.
- The second major principle is that of precedent. According to this principle, the law must be based on legal decisions made by previous judiciaries. This shows fairness with how others in the past were treated. In this way, our system of common law arose from actual legal controversies in which precedent was established. In this way, common law is dynamic, allowing change as society changes.
- Finally, the English system gave us the tradition of basing our courts around an adversarial system in which each party has an opportunity to argue for his or her side.
Within our judicial system, there are certain expectations of the way the interested parties behave. The accused are entitled to a trial by their peers for even the most trivial of cases. The judge is to act as a passive and impartial arbiter. His or her sole purpose is to maintain the order of proceedings and the behavior of individuals in the court. Attorneys representing either side are to guide clients through the legal process to the best of their capabilities. If all parties perform their jobs properly, the truth should be clear and justice will be served.
Inquisitorial vs. Adversarial
While we are most familiar with an adversarial system in which the involved parties (with the help of their lawyers) control the case and the judge acts as an arbiter, this is not the only way a judiciary may operate. In contrast to the adversarial system is the inquisitorial system. In this system, the judge builds the case, investigates facts, and tries to get to the bottom of the matter. This system trusts the judge to be fair (Friedman, 1984). To accompany our adversarial system, there is an appellate court system which remains obscure to most lay people, but is critical to the pursuit of justice. As set up in our adversarial system, there are two parties (each of which is typically represented by a lawyer). There is the defendant, who is the individual (or individuals) accused of committing some crime (Mullally, 2000). Opposed to the defendant is the plaintiff who is the party who supposedly suffered at the hands of the defendant (Mullally, 2000) Collective bodies, such as nonprofit organizations, corporations, or even state or federal governments, may play either of these roles.
The Power of American States vs. Federal Jurisdiction
The American court system most drastically varies from the English system based on regional differences between states in the Union. Each state has varying laws based on the history of that state and the culture of its initial inhabitants (Friedman, 1984). Historically, the most dramatic difference between states have centered around issues of race. Until the mid 1800s, these variances were most pronounced in issues surrounding slave ownership between states in the Northeast and Southeast (Friedman, 1984). Until the second half of the 1900s, this north/south divide centered around issues of segregation and voting statutes. Other differences between regions, such as differences in statutes regarding same sex marriage, continue to this day. In other, more subtle ways, the federal legal system makes our legal system quite complex. The degree of sovereignty granted to individual states allow those states to run their state court systems so as to reflect the culture of that state. For this reason, people may be under the jurisdiction of multiple courts at the same time, which can lead to complicated trials and difficulty between law enforcement agencies (Friedman, 1984).
Local County Courts
The vast majority of legal cases that go to trial are handled locally. Lower local and county courts typically handle the least serious offenses such as traffic violations and vandalism. At these lower levels, courts may be highly specialized, dealing in traffic offenses, small claims suits, or drug and alcohol offenses. Proceedings tend to be informal and to the point in order to cope with massive case loads. There has been some discussion among legal scholars over the degree to which justice is hindered by this informality, but this debate has little impact on the actual proceedings of the court (Friedman, 1984). Courts of General Jurisdiction are the basic trial courts of communities that are put aside to deal with more serious criminal offenses or monetary grievances. Even among these cases, only a small percentage of cases go on to full trial.
In the situation that the accused can make an argument that the verdict was unfair, on the grounds that the trial was tainted in some way, in light of new evidence, or a variety of other reasons, his or her lawyer may file for an appeal. An appeal is an application to continue the legal struggle to the next highest level of the legal hierarchy. If found worthy by legal officials, the defendant is granted a new trial at a higher court. These appeal courts are higher courts that only see cases after they have been initially tried. In most cases, several appeals are possible before all legal possibilities are exhausted. The far more common reason for a case to cease seeking appeals is that the defendant simply exhausts his or her financial resources and is forced to give up.
Federal Court System
After the defendant exhausts his or her appeals on the state level, it is possible that the case may move onto the federal level. Cases that are of special interest to federal law enforcement, such as interstate smuggling, terrorism, and certain types of murder, are also tried in these federal courts. Each state has at least one standing federal court. Unlike state courts, there are no small claims or federal justices of the peace in federal courts. The basic federal court is called the District Court. This court is the first step in the federal system. These courts handle primarily cases that are federal offenses. The next highest court in the federal system is the circuit court. This court is confined primarily to appeals from the various regional federal courts. Only after the appeals to these elite circuit courts have been exhausted may the case move on to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is confined solely to appeals. The judges have a high degree of control over its own docket. The reasoning for this is that the judges are only to take cases that are of the highest importance to constitutional law. On a more micro level, there are several people that play roles in every court that are critical to the day to day function of the court.
There are numerous critical staff involved in the courtroom to assure that the trial proceeds in an orderly manner; the most important among these people is the judge. The overwhelming majority of judges are individuals who have completed law school and have specifically chosen to start a career as a judge. Thus, most judges have vast knowledge of the legal system, but they rarely actually have firsthand experience on the other side of the bench (Friedman, 1984). Most judges have been elected by state law. This not only serves to eliminate bad judges via democratic means, but it also underscores the political nature of this position (Friedman, 1984). It is generally seen that judges should be held accountable to the public. The fact that many judges have been political activists as some point in their lives further stresses the political nature of this profession (Friedman, 1984).
Besides the judge, there are a number of other critical courtroom personnel that serve to maintain the judicial process. The bailiff is responsible for courtroom security and enforcing etiquette and order within the court. This individual usually has law enforcement experience, usually as a police officer with police training (Mullally, 2000).
The clerk of court is responsible for administrative functions of the court; coordinating and processing cases for the region the court resides over (Mullally, 2000). The clerk of court, however, is usually not present in the courtroom due to the sheer volume of cases that must be processed. The courtroom clerk serves as a representative of the clerk of court in the courtroom and is responsible for organizing the cases, and the information associated with those cases, that are assigned to the judge so as to avoid any unneeded confusion. As part of the job, a clerk may keep track of courtroom information such as courtroom minutes, names of parties, procedures, and each party's exhibits (Mullally, 2000). The filing clerk serves the court by performing functions such as stamping documents, basic filing, collecting fees, issuing docket numbers, and routing of property in the court's possession (Mullally, 2000). The court reporter is responsible for making a record of court proceedings by taking extensive notes on the proceedings (Mullally, 2000).
Contrary to public perception, most cases do not involve juries, and not all juries perform the same tasks. While every individual is entitled to a trial by jury by his or her peers, the system as it stands tends to discourage jury trials in minor matters that can be resolved via plea bargaining. If a jury is needed for a case, the Jury Commissioner is responsible for overseeing the compilation of jury lists, monitoring policies, and other functions surrounding jury selection (Mullally, 2000). Juries are broken into two types: Grand juries and trial juries.
- A grand jury is generally bigger and is responsible for determining if there is enough evidence for a trial. It is important to note that grand juries are only used in those situations in which it is questionable as to whether there is enough evidence; they are not required and in most cases they are not even necessary.
- Trial juries are comprised of people from the community and are the type typically thought of when juries are mentioned (Mullally, 2000).
To accompany the courtroom's critical staff, there are also a number of secondary staff that serve important functions as needed, but the court may continue business without them on a day-to-day basis. Court interpreters are used in those situations in which parties or individuals involved in the case do not speak English; they may be hired on an as needed basis. Research attorneys are available upon the request of the judge. The job of these...
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