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A dispute before a court is called a case, suit, or action. Civil
cases are basically disputes over whether private legal rights have
been violated, as, for example, whether a person has failed to keep
promises made by signing a contract with another person. In a civil
case, the plaintiff brings suit against the defendant, whereas a
criminal case involves alleged violations of the public order.
Although the victim of a crime is the one most directly affected,
crimes are seen as a threat to the fabric of the whole society;
therefore the government, acting for the people, prosecutes the
defendant in a criminal case.
To resolve a dispute, a court must do two things. It must "find the
facts" of the dispute (in other words, determine what actually
happened), and it must apply the appropriate legal principles to the
facts. For example, in a dispute over who should pay medical bills
for injuries suffered in an automobile accident, a court will seek to
etermine whether the defendant's carelessness caused the plaintiff's
injury. If so, the court, applying the law, will direct the defendant
to compensate the plaintiff for the damages suffered.
One way of resolving a court case is by a trial, a public hearing in
which lawyers for the parties present evidence and legal arguments.
It should be emphasized that relatively few cases go to trial; the
great majority of legal disputes are settled without resort to
courts. Of the remainder, 90 percent are resolved before they reach
trial. One reason is that the parties in a civil suit may agree to
settle it by compromise, because each side fears that it may lose or
that what it may win at trial will not justify the expense of
carrying the case that far. Similarly, a prosecutor may offer a
criminal defendant the chance to avoid trial by admitting guilt to a
lesser charge, thus escaping the more severe sentence that might be
imposed were he or she found guilty after being tried on the original
charge. Although this process of PLEA BARGAINING saves the court and
the prosecutor valuable time, it may place unfair pressure on the
A court may act only in disputes within its jurisdiction. For
example, a court in Texas cannot, as a rule, assert jurisdiction over
a defendant who resides in Louisiana--or over a dispute arising from
an action that occurred in Louisiana. The court must provide the
proper venue--that is, have jurisdiction by virtue of its being in
the locale in which the injury or crime is declared to have been
committed. Jurisdiction also involves the kinds of disputes that
courts may hear: for example, not every court may grant a divorce.
More importantly, a court cannot reach out for a dispute toresolve
merely because the judge thinks an injustice has been done. The
dispute must be brought to the court in the form of a case.
Furthermore, the parties must actually be in conflict. A person
seeking advice on the legality of an act under consideration is
expected to get the opinion of a lawyer rather than the decision of a
A party who is dissatisified with the way trial court has applied
the law to the facts may appeal to a higher court to review the lower
court's decision. The role of the appellate court is limited to
determining whether the trial court has properly applied the law or
whether it has erred in some way.
Courts in the United States
The United States has 51 separate court systems. They include the
federal court system, established and maintained by the national
government, and the courts of the 50 states. Because of the separate
state and federal systems, the United States is said to have a dual
The federal court system is more limited in size and purpose than are
the state courts. Federal courts have jurisdiction over five basic
kinds of cases. They hear: (1) cases in which the United States is a
party; and (2) cases involving foreign officials. In civil matters,
if more than $10,000 is involved, they may also hear (3) cases with
parties from different states, and (4) cases involving the
CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES and federal laws. Federal courts
also hear (5) "federal specialties," cases involving patents,
copyrights, or bankruptcies.
State courts share jurisdiction with federal courts in categories (3)
and (4), and they exercisesole, or exclusive, jurisdiction in all
other cases, mainly those involving state law. Only those state court
decisions that involve the U.S. Constitution and federal law may be
appealed to the federal courts.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest appellate court
for cases within federal jurisdiction. The Court agrees to decide
only about 150 of the 4,000 to 4,500 cases appealed to it each year;
the other federal courts decide approximately 330,000 cases a year,
and the state courts, far more than that. The Supreme Court's
decisions, however, are binding on all other courts.
Throughout U.S. history, the federal court system has been small. In
the mid-1990s there were 179 permanent circuit judgeships in the 13
courts of appeals (see COURT OF APPEALS); the 89 district courts (see
DISTRICT COURT) had 610 permanent judgeships in the 50 states plus 15
in the District of Columbia and 7 in Puerto Rico. Three special
courts hear cases involving customs duties, patents, and monetary
claims against the government. Congress provided (1978) for
BANKRUPTCY courts in each district, staffed by bankruptcy judges.
The state court systems are similar in structure, but they vary
widely in specifics and nomenclature. The major trial court may be a
circuit court in one state and a district court, or superior court,
in another. Some courts derive their titles and functions from a past
era and are not the result of systematic planning.
Most states have a tier of trial courts with limited or special
jurisdiction, such as justice-of-the-peace courts or juvenile courts.
Courts having jurisdiction over cases involving minor criminal
offenses may also conduct preliminary hearings for more serious
crimes to be tried in higher trial courts. These limited-jurisdiction
courts often receive most of their financial support from local
governments. Next is a level of general-jurisdiction trial courts
that hear the full range of serious cases and often appeals in minor
cases from lower courts. Finally, each state has courts with mainly
appellate jurisdiction. Every state has a supreme court, although it
is not always called by that name; about half of the states have
intermediate appellate courts below the level of their highest
There are about 7,600 judges in state courts of general jurisdiction
and over 1,000 judges in state appellate courts. Additional thousands
of judges serve in special state courts. Historically, state judges
were popularly elected, but increasingly states are adopting a
judicial selection system in which the governor appoints judges from
a list submitted by a commission composed of judges, lawyers, and
representatives of the public.
The court systems of the United States and England share historical
roots. During the 11th and 12th centuries the English king resolved
disputes with the aid of his "court," as his advisors were called.
Formal courts of law gradually developed to apply the king's law for
him. During the 16th and 17th centuries the concept developed that
the monarch should be subject to the law and the courts independent
of the monarch. One cause of the American Revolution was the
colonists' complaint that George III did not allow colonial courts
the same judicial independence that had been granted in 1701 to
As the English courts evolved, they began to study their earlier
decisions for guidance. The law contained in these decisions came to
be known as the COMMON LAW, and its traditions were inherited by
other English-speaking countries
COURTS IN CIVIL-LAW COUNTRIES
Included among the civil-law countries are most of the nations of
continental Europe as well as those elsewhere that have adopted
European law. In this context, CIVIL LAW refers to the complex legal
codes that the courts apply. The best known of these is France's
NAPOLEONIC CODE, drafted at the beginning of the 19th century.
Judges in countries with a civil-law system are not selected from the
ranks of practicing lawyers. Instead, at the outset of his or her
career, a future judge attends a national school for prospective
judges, after which the judge is eligible for appointment to a court.
Civil-law countries have trial and appellate courts, as is true of
other court systems. A distinguishing characteristic, however, is the
presence of numerous specialized court systems for particular types
of cases. An example is the French administrative courts, which are
separate from the courts of law.
Another difference is in criinal procedure. In common-law countries
the role of the court is to listen to the evidence presented by the
parties and make a decision based on that evidence. The civil-law
countries operate on the "inquisitorial" system, in which the court
itself, through the person of an investigating judge, takes a major
role in determining whether a defendant should be tried. At trial,
the judge takes an active role in questioning witnesses. Only in rare
cases is a jury required.
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