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Overview of the United States Court System

Karstan Lovorn

Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
September 22, 2002
Place of Publication: Animal Web Center
Printable Version

Overview of the United States Court System


1. The Structure of the Court System

2. The Timeline of a Case: Pleadings and Briefs.

A. Starting the Case (Pretrial)

B. At Trial

C. After the Trial: Motions and Appeals


How Does our Court System Work?

1. The Structure of the Court System

The American Court system is based on the English Common Law system. The basic idea is that there are two sides, the plaintiff and the defendant, who present their arguments before an impartial judge (and sometimes a jury). In a criminal case, the prosecutor acts as a plaintiff on behalf of the citizens or state.

It is the judge’s duty to determine what the law is in relation to the particular case at hand. It is the jury’s duty, in a jury trial (or also the judge’s, in trials without a jury – a bench trial) to determine what the facts are in the case. The lawyers in the case are charged with representing their respective clients to the very best of their ability. The outcome (or at least the goal) of this process is justice.

In the United States, there are more than 51 different interpretations of this basic model. Each of the 50 states has its own rules and procedures. The federal courts also have their own rules, which are occasionally interpreted differently in different parts of the country. However, for the most part, they are all very similar.

The system is generally a three-tiered one. A case is typically brought at the lowest level or court, usually a "District" or "Trial" court. Once this case is heard and a decision, or "judgment" has been made, both the defendant and the plaintiff have the opportunity to appeal the decision to an "Appellate Court" or "Court of Appeals." In other words, if they do not like what the judge and/or jury decided, they can complain to the next higher level in the court system, and try to get the decision reversed. However they can only appeal if they believe the judge made a legal error, not just because they are disappointed in the outcome.

At the Appellate Court level, there is usually a panel of three judges who hear arguments on either side. Judges at the Appellate Court can usually only decide matters of law. In general, all of the facts in the trial record are assumed to be true. The Appellate Court has three options: it can decide that the judge was wrong and change the judgment, it can decide the judge was wrong and send the case back for the judge to change (also called a "remand"), or it can agree with or "affirm" the judgment of the lower court.

Again, if either party to the case does not like the decision (again there must be a legal error in the lower proceedings), they can appeal to the highest court, usually called the Supreme Court and usually composed of nine justices. All 50 states and the federal courts have some version of a Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decides issues in the same manner as the Appellate Court. However, there is no court higher than the Supreme Court to which to appeal. The judgment of the Supreme Court is final.

While all American court systems, or "jurisdictions," follow this basic structure there are many differences among them and all have exceptions to the is generalization. However, it is important to stress that they all do follow the same basic structure.

2. The Timeline of a Case: Pleadings and Briefs.

A. Starting the Case (Pretrial)

A case usually begins when a plaintiff files a pleading with a trial court. For the sake of simplicity, this article focuses civil cases, however, most of these concepts also apply to criminal cases. A pleading, although different in form from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, will contain the basic claims or charges that the plaintiff brings against the defendant. For example, if Bob accuses Jeff of hitting him, Bob’s pleading will say that he claims that Jeff assaulted or battered him.

Once a pleading has been filed, the defendant has an opportunity to respond to the pleading. This is simply called a "response." In the response, a defendant will usually give reasons why the claims of the plaintiff are not correct. In criminal case, depending on the jurisdiction, either the district attorney or a grand jury (a special kind of "investigative" jury) decides to press charges against a person. However, even if the process starts with a grand jury, a district attorney must still file the charges.

At this point in the case, the process of "discovery" usually occurs. During discover, both sides will research facts that they intend to bring to trial to prove that they are right and the other side is wrong. Both sides can make "discovery requests" of the opposing side for information. These are usually called "interrogatories." The rules for discovery are different in every jurisdiction (and can be pretty complicated), but generally, a reasonable request for information must be granted. A skilled attorney can write a discovery request just broad enough to get all of the information she wants without getting overloaded with useless information (although most attorneys tend to err on the side of being overbroad).

If a defendant fails to respond to a pleading or if his response does not dispute anything in the pleading strongly enough, then the plaintiff can submit a motion for a "default judgment." Basically, this motion asks for the court to look at all of the information before it and decide that there is simply no way that the defendant could win, even assuming everything the defendant claims is true. Generally, a defendant will be given a chance to respond to this motion. He will be allowed to file his own document stating reasons why the motion should not be granted. There are many other "pretrial motions," like a default judgment motion, such as motions to exclude evidence, or the like. Either side can file pretrial motions in both civil and criminal trials.

Similar to a default judgment is the "summary judgment" motion. Either side can file a motion for summary judgment at any time. This motion also asks the court to review all of the information before it and decide whether there is any chance for the opposing side to win, assuming that everything she claims is true. The opposing side, of course, is allowed to submit a response to this motion.

The last step before the trial actually commences is selection of a jury (in jury trials). While the rules differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, attorneys are usually allowed to offer questions that they would like to ask of have asked of the jury. This process is called "voir dire."

B. At Trial

At trial, both sides are given opportunities to present their view of the facts. The plaintiff is generally allowed to go first. The parties take turns giving an "opening statement." Then they may offer up their proof, usually in the form of witnesses. Following this, the parties give their "closing arguments."

At this point, if there is a jury in the trial, the parties are given an opportunity to submit possible instruction for the jury. These instructions usually explain the law and provide questions of fact for the jury to answer. Obviously, both sides are interested in explaining the law in their own way, and phrasing the questions in a way that is favorable. The judge decides on which jury instructions to use (or writes her own) and submits them to the jury. The jury then decides on a verdict.

C. After the Trial: Motions and Appeals

Either party may then submit a motion for "judgment notwithstanding the verdict" (sometimes call JNOV for short) if it is unhappy with the decision. This motion asks the judge to put aside the verdict and make his own judgment about the case. Typically, this only works when one side wishes to decrease the amount of money the jury thinks it should pay. Similarly, in a criminal case, defendants can submit such a motion if they feel that there was some egregious error in the trial.

Once the judge has issued a judgment, the parties may then appeal to the next higher court, usually called an Appellate Court (see above). They do this by submitting a petition for appeal to the court. This petition generally contains the reasons why the party thinks the judgment is wrong. An Appellate Court is not required to grant a petition to appeal. If the court grants the petition, the appealing party, called the "appellant," and the opposing party, called the "appellee," submit briefs explaining their reasons for changing or not changing the judgment below. They are limited to making arguments about issues that were raised at trial, and may not bring up any outside arguments or information. Both parties are allowed to also submit responses to the other parties brief. This can get complicated when both parties appeal. You can get terms such as "cross-appellant," etc. The parties then are given a chance to argue their case before the three judge panel.

If the appellate court chooses to remand the case, the trial court will then issue a new judgment based on the opinion of the appellate court. Occasionally, there is another hearing or even a brand new trial, depending on what the appellate court decides.

If one or both of the parties disagree with the decision of the Appellate Court, they may petition the Supreme Court in much the same way as they petitioned the Appellate Court. The Supreme Court is not required to grant a petition. If granted, the parties may again submit briefs about their positions as well as responses to the opposing briefs. They are then permitted a chance to argue their case before the panel of justices. The Supreme Court’s decision is usually final.

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