Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Quick Civics Lesson on the Court System

In the wake of Ferguson, there seems to be some confusion on our legal system. Let me take a moment and explain some things.  If I am wrong, please feel free to (politely) point it out and explain the truth.

Our legal system works in two parallel tracks, a state level court system and a federal level court system.  Which one you go through depends on which laws you broke - break a state law, go to state court - break a federal law, go to federal court.  (For the record, Darren Wilson was going through the state level court system because all of the things he was charged with are state level crimes and not federal.)

The first step in the court system is the grand jury.  The grand jury is NOT responsible for finding anyone guilty or not guilty.  They're only job is to decide if there is enough information to declare that the case should go onto further inquest for a trial - that is called an indictment.  Basically, their job is to decide if the case should be moved up to the next step.  The indictment is nothing more that saying, "oh, maybe this should be further looked at."  Grand juries, as they do NOT find guilt or innocence, are not hindered by the double jeopardy clause - meaning you can go through more than one grand jury for the same crime.  Grand juries (which are assigned cases randomly) typically hear multiple cases over multiple days - as in they easily here 10-20 cases in a day and decide yes to send to trial or no do not send to trial.  Generally, the grand jury hears only the information that makes the defendant look guilty as the prosecutor is the only person who talks at the grand jury and if it has gotten to a grand jury than his/her job is to try to take it trial.  The defendant is not required to speak at grand juries, in fact, the defense attorney is not even allowed to present evidence that his/her client might be innocent - that level of inquest is for the trial.  (For the record, 99.9% of the time, it's yes.  "Federal prosecutors pursued over 160,000 cases against defendants in 2009-2010 (the last period for which there is data), and grand juries only voted not to return an indictment in 11."    from  Also, the grand jury is a private preceding.  This means that only those involved are allowed in the room.

Once the prosecutor has an indictment, the next step in the court system is the trial court.  At the trial court, if it is a jury trial, the juror go through voir dire or the process by which both the prosecuting attorney and the defending attorney vet the jury.  This is part of the constitutional right to a jury of your peers. Notice that in this step, the jury is chosen instead of just assigned.  In this step, the jury will likely only be chosen for one case, as opposed the grand jury in which you serve several days and hear multiple cases.  The trial courts are open to the public (unless there is a reason to close the preceding like age). If the defendant is found innocent in this step, THEN double jeopardy applies and they cannot be charged again with the same crime ever.  If they are found guilty, however...

The next step in the court system is the Appellate court.  Federally, this is called the circuit courts.  The appeals process is complicated as it is mostly about process and legal precedent in the first trial.  Lawyers can argue that the process wasn't correct for some legal reason, and the upper level courts should look at that again.  If the appellate court takes the case, then it has three options.  1) Overturn the conviction.  This means that the case decision has been changed.  Depending on why the case was overturned, double jeopardy may come into play, in which case the defendant cannot be re-tried for the same offense.  2) Remand the case.  This kicks the case back down to the lower courts to look at again.  3) De novo.  This means the appellate courts look at the case with fresh eyes as if the first trial never happened.  This is the most rare of the three.

After appeals are exhausted, the case can, in rare instances, go to the supreme court. Remember that we are still talking about two court systems.  There are two supreme courts.  The supreme court of the state and the supreme court of the country.  After appeals at the state level are exhausted, the next appeal is to the state supreme court.  The federal supreme court will only hear cases in which there is a conflict of law or it is deemed of national importance.  However, and here's the important part, in order to get to the supreme court (in either the state or the federal track) the case MUST have made it's way through the grand jury, the trial court, and all of the appellate courts.  The supremer court CANNOT pick up a case that has never been tried.  It cannot even pick up a case that has been tried but has not yet gone through all of its appeals.

So, let me run through that with less words:

State level ->
Grand Jury (no guilt or innocence determined) -> Trial court (determines guilt or innocence) -> Appellate (or circuit) Court -> State Supreme Court -> Federal Supreme Court (super rare)

Federal Level ->
Grand Jury -> Trail Court -> Appellate Court -> Federal Supreme Court

Hope this helps.  

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