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Courts And Legal System

Q. What is "supreme law of the land"?

A. The United States Constitution establishes our basic rights. The Constitution consists of seven articles, ten amendments that form the Bill of Rights, and other amendments that have been adopted over the past 200 years. The Constitution not only defines the basic rights of all Americans, it places boundaries on how much control the federal government can place on us. We are guaranteed specific basic rights, including the right to free speech, religion, freedom of press, a speedy and public trial, the right to bear arms and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Additionally, the United States Congress has enacted volumes of federal statutes (laws) that control our conduct. These federal laws deal not only with interstate relations, but include regulations concerning crimes, taxation, environmental matters and a host of other matters which impact on our daily lives. Very often, the federal agencies that enforce federal statutes have published extensive regulations that interpret and amplify federal law.

Q. Who interprets the law?

A. Many state and federal agencies have published administrative law rules and regulations that explain their positions and translations of statutes that affect their agency. The court system interprets the law during the course of court proceedings on an ongoing basis. As a result, there is a vast amount of recorded case law (court decisions) that interprets and determines the enforceability of state and federal laws. The decisions made by judges dating back to the 12th century England when there was no established case law has resulted in common sense principles which establish the principles of common law which are still applicable today.

Q. How are federal courts organized?

A. Most of the federal court system is split into districts and circuits. Populous states can have more than one district. Generally, a federal lawsuit begins in the federal District Court. Appeals from the federal District Court are taken to a Circuit Court of Appeals, and then, to the United States Supreme Court. Some types of federal cases are heard in specialized courts such as the Tax Court, Bankruptcy Court, and the Court of Federal Claims. The United States Supreme Court is the final authority on the law of the land. The nine justices who are on the Supreme Court are nominated by the president and approved by the United States Senate. The Supreme Court chooses the cases it hears each year based on whether the case has national or broad implications.

Q. What types of cases are heard in state courts?

A. There are two types of state courts: courts of limited jurisdiction and courts of general jurisdiction. Courts of limited jurisdiction generally decide cases where the amount in controversy is minimal (e.g., county courts, municipal courts) or hear specialized types of cases (e.g., family court, traffic court, probate court). Courts of general jurisdiction hear cases involving torts (negligence), contracts, domestic relations, and many other broad areas of disputes. For a case to be heard in a general jurisdiction court, the amount in controversy must exceed a minimum amount, e.g., $10,000, depending on the state. Appeals from courts of general jurisdiction are taken to an appellate court, which in most states is known as the Court of Appeals. Appeals from appellate courts are taken to the highest state court, often called the Supreme Court. An undesirable decision of a states highest court can be appealed to the federal courts on constitutional grounds. State courts and federal courts may at times, have concurrent (overlapping) jurisdiction, so that a litigant must decide whether to pursue his remedies in state or federal court.

Q. What does a defendant do after receipt or service of a complaint?

A. Usually, the defendant must write a response called an answer. A copy of the answer is sent to the plaintiff; the original answer is filed with the court. If a defendant feels that the complaint is deficient, a motion to dismiss can be filed asserting that the court doesn't have jurisdiction or that the complaint is otherwise inadequate or improper.

Q. What is a summary judgment?

A. If either party to a lawsuit believes that there are no issues of disputed fact and that they are entitled to entry of judgment on the law alone, they may file a motion for summary judgment. The motion asks the court to immediately enter judgment in favor of a party without the necessity of trial. The court may enter a summary judgment after review of the motion, deny the motion, request supporting documentation or conduct a hearing.

Q. What is a bench trial?

A. A bench trial is a trial without a jury.

Q. What are the rules of evidence?

A. Every state has there particular rules that govern the conduct of a trial. Rules of evidence are designed to guarantee that only credible and reliable evidence is presented to the judge or jury. Hearsay evidence, for example, is not admissible. Hearsay is an out of court statement that is being introduced to prove an part of a case. Since the person who made the out of court statement is not in court and subject to cross-examination, hearsay evidence is not admissible. If a party attempts to introduce improper evidence, it will normally be objected to. An objection may be sustained or overruled by the judge.

Q. What is a hung jury?

A. If the jury is unable to reach a verdict because they are unable to come to a agreement on the outcome or reach a consensus, the jury is hung. A new trial, with a different jury, will be ordered by the court.



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