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Question: " I understand that Congress is considering a so-called 'flat' tax system. How would this work?" Answer: "If Congress were to pass a 'flat' tax, you'd simply pay a fixed percentage of your income, and you wouldn't have to fill out any complicated forms, and there would be no loopholes for politically connected groups, and normal people would actually understand the tax laws, and giant talking broccoli stalks would come around and mow your lawn for free, because Congress is NOT going to pass a flat tax, you pathetic fool." ~Dave Barry

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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 defendant.


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 court.

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 court system.

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 courts.

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 English judges.

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


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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