The U.S. legal system is vast, and takes time to comprehend fully. This brief article sheds light on the salient points of the U.S. court system and how it works.
Note that it is by no means exhaustive, and neither should you take it as a guide for defending yourself in case of a complaint or lawsuit against you. This article is for basic informational purposes only.
The Structure of the Court System
The United States is a federation. There are 50 states and a central (federal) government that are free to draft laws.
Each of these states has its own court system. In addition, there are federal courts for matters pursued by the United States.
For example, if someone commits a car theft in Florida, they would be tried and sentenced according to Florida law and the constitution. However, if the same person attempted to smuggle drugs into Florida from Mexico, they would be tried in a federal court based in Florida. The plaintiff would be the U.S. itself in that case.
The courts have a geographical span (county or city where they are located), and are also divided according to the subject matter – civil, criminal, family law, minor infractions, arbitrations, etc.
Each state has an appellate court and a supreme court. There is also the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC.
Oklahoma and Texas have separate supreme courts for civil and criminal matters. In states such as Iowa and Nevada, the state supreme court also acts as the appellate court in some ways.
Each trial proceeds from the trial (lower court) to the appellate court, then to state supreme court when state laws are concerned.
The U.S. Supreme Court hears matters that impact multiple states, the federal law, or the constitution.
If a car thief had their constitutional rights trampled on, the dispute could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Legal Proceedings in the U.S.
In each case, there are two sides: the plaintiff who files the suit, and the defendant who challenges the accusation.
The plaintiff can be one or many. A unique feature of U.S. law is the presence of class action – a legal suit brought by many aggrieved by the same cause against one or more defendants.
One of the most well-known class action litigations was Anderson et al. v. Pacific Gas & Electric. The trial and the circumstances that led to it became a highly acclaimed movie, Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts, that received five Oscar nominations and an Oscar award.
It’s not that class action or group litigation is not present in any other countries, but it is quite rare.
The trial may be before a judge or a jury. Not many nations other than England, Wales, the U.S., and Canada have juries, and the approach takes some immigrants by surprise.
A jury is made of 12 jurors. In some states, civil cases require less.
A member of the jury is a peer, which is someone who is from the same community as the accused. Anyone who is above 18, a citizen of the USA, a resident, and voter for one year in a jurisdiction can be summoned for jury duty.
Jury duty cannot be evaded or pleaded out of unless there are exceptional circumstances.
The jury has no legal expertise. They hear the evidence, listen to detailed instructions given by the judge, deliberate in private, and share their verdict.
The sentence or damages is handed out by the judge. In extraordinary situations, a judge can throw out the jury verdict.
The presence of expert litigators adept at manipulating a jury makes surprise verdicts quite usual in the U.S.
Stages of a Trial
In a criminal case, this involves investigation, charging, and arraignment.
The investigation is done by the respective investigative agency (police, state bureau of investigations, FBI, DEA, etc.)
Charging is the formal act of charges being leveled against a person or group of persons by the investigating agency. The charges have to be presented before a magistrate in the presence of the defendant.
This first hearing is known as an arraignment.
The defendant would plead guilty or not guilty. If the former, the process would proceed to sentencing. In case of the latter, it can lead to a trial.
Since a trial is lengthy and expensive, a prosecutor might agree to plea bargain, or offer a lesser sentence, for an outright guilty plea.
If a case proceeds to trial, the prosecutor has to turn over all of the evidence they are going to use in the trial to the defendant’s legal counsel. This allows the defendant time to formulate their trial strategy.
During this process, the defendant might be in custody or free on bail, depending on the case.
A trial starts with opening arguments by both sides, which acts as a brief introduction. The arguments are followed by evidentiary hearings and witnesses. The prosecution presents its case first, followed by the defense.
After both have rested (completed their presentation and questioning of witnesses), there are closing arguments, followed by the jury instructions, verdict, and sentencing.
It’s important to note that the same person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. There are, of course, exceptions, the most common being trial in state and federal courts separately for the same crime. Double jeopardy, as it is known, prevents repeated prosecution of a defendant by the same court for the same crime.
However, acquittal in a criminal case does not absolve a defendant in a civil case arising out of the same crime.
If Joe, driving under the influence of alcohol, killed Susan and was acquitted due to lack of evidence, Susan’s family can continue to prosecute him for damages in civil court. Double jeopardy does not apply.
Important U.S. Legal System Terms that Every Immigrant Must Know
1. Plead the Fifth (Amendment)
You cannot be asked to provide information that would incriminate you.
2. First Amendment Rights
You have freedom of speech. Most nations guarantee it, but don’t actually practice it. You can express an opinion as long as it does not accuse anyone else of wrongdoing without evidence.
An interesting aspect of U.S. law.
Tort, or damages, are awarded in most countries. In the U.S., however, the amount of tort can be – and usually is – mind-boggling.
The OxyContin lawsuit against Purdue Pharma led to an $8 billion settlement in June 2021.
You can be sued for millions if the plaintiff can convince a jury that a can-opener you designed hurt their little finger and caused emotional distress.
Of course, you can fight on and eventually win at a later stage, but the legal wrangling may cause you to go bankrupt as well.
4. Miranda Rights
Named because of Miranda v. Arizona, a landmark case in the US.
You have the right to remain silent when questioned.
Your silence does not indicate any guilt. Basically, you do not have to help with any investigation that might end up incriminating you.
If you do say anything, it can be used in a court of law to prosecute you.
You have the right to an attorney.
If you are unable to afford one, the state will provide you with an attorney.
If you are ever prosecuted in a civil or criminal matter, you would do well to know that U.S. law is prohibitively expensive.
Attorneys with reasonable ability charge upwards of $400 an hour. The expenses of a long, drawn-out legal battle routinely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you feel your rights have been trampled on, there is a lot of support from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). If you are in need, you can search for pro bono lawyers who render legal services free of cost.
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