Courts are institutions established by the government to administer justice in civil and criminal cases. Every court is presided over by a judge who is empowered by that jurisdiction to resolve legal disputes.
Depending on the jurisdiction of the case at hand, the dispute may be resolved in either a federal or state court. Both the federal and state court systems have three tiers: District courts, Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Courts rely on an adversarial system of justice to ensure both sides have an opportunity to present testimony, evidence, and witnesses to prove their arguments.
In criminal courts, the government is represented by a prosecutor who works to prove a defendant’s guilt. The defendant is represented by his or her attorney, who presents arguments intended to prove the defendant’s innocence or lesser responsibility.
In civil courts, each side is represented by its attorney. Civil courts resolve many different types of disputes, including torts, divorce proceedings, breaches of contract, property claims, and disputes between landlords and tenants. In both criminal court and civil court cases, the judge or jury hears arguments, considers evidence, and makes decisions according to the rules of law in the jurisdiction where the case was heard.
Since the U.S. has a justice system based on English common law, judges must also consider legal precedents set by previous court cases. Courts in Louisiana are an exception as the state uses a legal system based on the Napoleonic Code, which requires judges to make decisions based on literal interpretations of the law.
While judges play a fundamental role in the justice system, they don’t always make the final decision in court cases.
In criminal court cases, a defendant is entitled to have the case decided by a jury of his or her peers. However, the defendant can waive the right to a jury trial in some states and allow the presiding judge to make the final judgment. If the jail records of the defendant show serious convictions, he or she often chooses to plead guilty to avoid a trial.
In the civil court system, some cases may be heard by a jury. However, a judge can render all decisions in many civil cases, including final verdicts.
After the judge issues a verdict, a defendant can appeal that decision to a higher court, with a few exceptions. The defendant can appeal a conviction, but he or she usually can’t appeal if the court records show a voluntary plea bargain, although the resulting sentence can be appealed. If a defendant is acquitted in a criminal case, the verdict can’t be appealed by the state.
If either party is satisfied with the decision of the appellate court, it can make another appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may choose not to accept the appeal, in which case the decision of the lower court becomes final.
Courts are in every community and jurisdiction. You can easily find a court to hear cases in which you are either a plaintiff or defendant. You can find courts in your areas by using this directory.