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As you review the US Federal Laws System, keep in mind we would not have this system without God who gave Moses authority to have a law system that structured Israel and the Jewish people… who then passed that system when conquered, to the Romans who were influenced by Israel and mostly by JESUS CHRIST… then Jesus influenced the world nations after Jesus Christ’s message ruled the Roman Empire… as our Nation, the U.S.A. was born out of seeking freedom from Rome… then Jews and Greek Orthodox and Rome shaped our United States among other nations under a truly God influenced nation in it’s beginnings… and to this day.  Keep Jesus first and enjoy this information.  But, with man and woman leading these laws there is infallability, causing injustices in this system… the Jesus system is so peaceful and forgiving… read your bible if you would take the time.

This page is dedicated to understanding the Federal court system so the perspective of a World Class Action Lawsuit may take shape through advocacy of US lawyers, survivors, paritioners, advocacy groups, and others.  Part 1 is Federal Laws on sexual abuse and Part 2 below is how the Federal System works.

Part 1

US Code – Chapter 109A: Sexual abuse

18 U.S.C. § 2241 : US Code – Section 2241: Aggravated sexual abuse

(a) By Force or Threat. – Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly causes another person to engage in a sexual act – (1) by using force against that other person; or (2) by threatening or placing that other person in fear that any person will be subjected to death, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping; or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for any term of years or life, or both. (b) By Other Means. – Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly – (1) renders another person unconscious and thereby engages in a sexual act with that other person; or (2) administers to another person by force or threat of force, or without the knowledge or permission of that person, a drug, intoxicant, or other similar substance and thereby – (A) substantially impairs the ability of that other person to appraise or control conduct; and (B) engages in a sexual act with that other person; or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for any term of years or life, or both. (c) With Children. – Whoever crosses a State line with intent to engage in a sexual act with a person who has not attained the age of 12 years, or in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly engages in a sexual act with another person who has not attained the age of 12 years, or knowingly engages in a sexual act under the circumstances described in subsections (a) and (b) with another person who has attained the age of 12 years but has not attained the age of 16 years (and is at least 4 years younger than the person so engaging), or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for any term of years or life, or both. If the defendant has previously been convicted of another Federal offense under this subsection, or of a State offense that would have been an offense under either such provision had the offense occurred in a Federal prison, unless the death penalty is imposed, the defendant shall be sentenced to life in prison. (d) State of Mind Proof Requirement. – In a prosecution under subsection (c) of this section, the Government need not prove that the defendant knew that the other person engaging in the sexual act had not attained the age of 12 years.

18 U.S.C. § 2242 : US Code – Section 2242: Sexual abuse

Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly – (1) causes another person to engage in a sexual act by threatening or placing that other person in fear (other than by threatening or placing that other person in fear that any person will be subjected to death, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping); or (2) engages in a sexual act with another person if that other person is – (A) incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct; or (B) physically incapable of declining participation in, or communicating unwillingness to engage in, that sexual act; or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

18 U.S.C. § 2243 : US Code – Section 2243: Sexual abuse of a minor or ward

(a) Of a Minor. – Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly engages in a sexual act with another person who – (1) has attained the age of 12 years but has not attained the age of 16 years; and (2) is at least four years younger than the person so engaging; or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both. (b) Of a Ward. – Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly engages in a sexual act with another person who is – (1) in official detention; and (2) under the custodial, supervisory, or disciplinary authority of the person so engaging; or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than five years, or both. (c) Defenses. – (1) In a prosecution under subsection (a) of this section, it is a defense, which the defendant must establish by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant reasonably believed that the other person had attained the age of 16 years. (2) In a prosecution under this section, it is a defense, which the defendant must establish by a preponderance of the evidence, that the persons engaging in the sexual act were at that time married to each other. (d) State of Mind Proof Requirement. – In a prosecution under subsection (a) of this section, the Government need not prove that the defendant knew – (1) the age of the other person engaging in the sexual act; or (2) that the requisite age difference existed between the persons so engaging.

18 U.S.C. § 2244 : US Code – Section 2244: Abusive sexual contact

(a) Sexual Conduct in Circumstances Where Sexual Acts Are Punished by This Chapter. – Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly engages in or causes sexual contact with or by another person, if so to do would violate – (1) section 2241 of this title had the sexual contact been a sexual act, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; (2) section 2242 of this title had the sexual contact been a sexual act, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than three years, or both; (3) subsection (a) of section 2243 of this title had the sexual contact been a sexual act, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than two years, or both; or (4) subsection (b) of section 2243 of this title had the sexual contact been a sexual act, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than two years, or both. (b) In Other Circumstances. – Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General (!1) knowingly engages in sexual contact with another person without that other person’s permission shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than two years, or both. (c) Offenses Involving Young Children. – If the sexual contact that violates this section is with an individual who has not attained the age of 12 years, the maximum term of imprisonment that may be imposed for the offense shall be twice that otherwise provided in this section.

18 U.S.C. § 2245 : US Code – Section 2245: Sexual abuse resulting in death

A person who, in the course of an offense under this chapter, engages in conduct that results in the death of a person, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.

18 U.S.C. § 2246 : US Code – Section 2246: Definitions for chapter

As used in this chapter – (1) the term “prison” means a correctional, detention, or penal facility; (2) the term “sexual act” means – (A) contact between the penis and the vulva or the penis and the anus, and for purposes of this subparagraph contact involving the penis occurs upon penetration, however slight; (B) contact between the mouth and the penis, the mouth and the vulva, or the mouth and the anus; (C) the penetration, however slight, of the anal or genital opening of another by a hand or finger or by any object, with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person; or (D) the intentional touching, not through the clothing, of the genitalia of another person who has not attained the age of 16 years with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person; (3) the term “sexual contact” means the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person; (4) the term “serious bodily injury” means bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, extreme physical pain, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty; (5) the term “official detention” means – (A) detention by a Federal officer or employee, or under the direction of a Federal officer or employee, following arrest for an offense; following surrender in lieu of arrest for an offense; following a charge or conviction of an offense, or an allegation or finding of juvenile delinquency; following commitment as a material witness; following civil commitment in lieu of criminal proceedings or pending resumption of criminal proceedings that are being held in abeyance, or pending extradition, deportation, or exclusion; or (B) custody by a Federal officer or employee, or under the direction of a Federal officer or employee, for purposes incident to any detention described in subparagraph (A) of this paragraph, including transportation, medical diagnosis or treatment, court appearance, work, and recreation; but does not include supervision or other control (other than custody during specified hours or days) after release on bail, probation, or parole, or after release following a finding of juvenile delinquency; and (6) the term “State” means a State of the United States, the District of Columbia, and any commonwealth, possession, or territory of the United States.

18 U.S.C. § 2247 : US Code – Section 2247: Repeat offenders

(a) Maximum Term of Imprisonment. – The maximum term of imprisonment for a violation of this chapter after a prior sex offense conviction shall be twice the term otherwise provided by this chapter, unless section 3559(e) applies. (b) Prior Sex Offense Conviction Defined. – In this section, the term “prior sex offense conviction” has the meaning given that term in section 2426(b).

18 U.S.C. § 2248 : US Code – Section 2248: Mandatory restitution

(a) In General. – Notwithstanding section 3663 or 3663A, and in addition to any other civil or criminal penalty authorized by law, the court shall order restitution for any offense under this chapter. (b) Scope and Nature of Order. – (1) Directions. – The order of restitution under this section shall direct the defendant to pay to the victim (through the appropriate court mechanism) the full amount of the victim’s losses as determined by the court pursuant to paragraph (2). (2) Enforcement. – An order of restitution under this section shall be issued and enforced in accordance with section 3664 in the same manner as an order under section 3663A. (3) Definition. – For purposes of this subsection, the term “full amount of the victim’s losses” includes any costs incurred by the victim for – (A) medical services relating to physical, psychiatric, or psychological care; (B) physical and occupational therapy or rehabilitation; (C) necessary transportation, temporary housing, and child care expenses; (D) lost income; (E) attorneys’ fees, plus any costs incurred in obtaining a civil protection order; and (F) any other losses suffered by the victim as a proximate result of the offense. (4) Order mandatory. – (A) The issuance of a restitution order under this section is mandatory. (B) A court may not decline to issue an order under this section because of – (i) the economic circumstances of the defendant; or (ii) the fact that a victim has, or is entitled to, receive compensation for his or her injuries from the proceeds of insurance or any other source. (c) Definition. – For purposes of this section, the term “victim” means the individual harmed as a result of a commission of a crime under this chapter, including, in the case of a victim who is under 18 years of age, incompetent, incapacitated, or deceased, the legal guardian of the victim or representative of the victim’s estate, another family member, or any other person appointed as suitable by the court, but in no event shall the defendant be named as such representative or guardian.

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Part 2

U.S. FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM

There are two kinds of courts in this country–federal courts and state courts.

Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution by Congress to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. State and local courts are established by a state (within states there are also local courts that are established by cities, counties, and other municipalities, which we are including in the general discussion of state courts).

The differences between federal courts and state courts are further defined by jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear.

Federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear

  • cases in which the United States is a party;
  • cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction);
  • cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction); and
  • bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases.

State courts, in contrast, have broad jurisdiction, so the cases individual citizens are most likely to be involved in–such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes–are usually tried in state courts. The only cases state courts are not allowed to hear are lawsuits against the United States and those involving certain specific federal laws: criminal, antitrust, bankruptcy, patent, copyright, and some maritime law cases.

In many cases, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. This allows parties to choose whether to go to state court or to federal court.

Criminal cases involving federal laws can be tried only in federal court, but most criminal cases involve violations of state law and are tried in state court. We all know, for example, that robbery is a crime, but what law says it is a crime? By and large, state laws, not federal laws, make robbery a crime. There are only a few federal laws about robbery, such as the law that makes it a federal crime to rob a bank whose deposits are insured by a federal agency. Examples of other federal crimes are bringing illegal drugs into the country or across state lines and use of the U.S. mails to swindle consumers. Crimes committed on federal property, such as national parks or military reservations, are also prosecuted in federal court.

Federal courts may also hear cases concerning state laws if the issue is whether the state law violates the federal Constitution. Suppose a state law forbids slaughtering animals outside of certain limited areas. A neighborhood association brings a case in state court against a defendant who sacrifices goats in his backyard. When the court issues an order (called an injunction) forbidding the defendant from further sacrifices, the defendant challenges the state law in federal court as an unconstitutional infringement of his religious freedom.

Some kinds of conduct are illegal under both federal and state laws. For example, federal laws prohibit employment discrimination, and the states have added their own laws. A person can go to federal or state court to bring a case under the federal law or both the federal and state laws. A case that only involves a state law can be brought only in state court. Appeals for review of actions by federal administrative agencies are also federal civil cases. Suppose, for example, that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to a paper mill to discharge water used in its milling process into the Scenic River, over the objection of area residents. The residents could ask a federal court of appeals to review the agency’s decision.

Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole.

Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole.

Civil Case

Criminal Case


A civil case begins when a person or entity (such as a corporation or the government), called the plaintiff, claims that another person or entity, called the defendant, has failed to carry out a legal duty owed to the plaintiff. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are also referred to as parties or litigants. The plaintiff may ask the court to tell the defendant to fulfill the duty, or make compensation for the harm done, or both. Legal duties include respecting rights established under the Constitution or under federal or state law.Civil suits are brought in both state and federal courts. An example of a civil case in a state court would be if a citizen (including a corporation) sued another citizen for not living up to a contract.For example, if a lumberyard enters a contract to sell a specific amount of wood to a carpenter for an agreed-upon price and then fails to deliver the wood, forcing the carpenter to buy it elsewhere at a higher price, the carpenter might sue the lumberyard in state court to pay the extra costs incurred because of the lumberyard’s failure to deliver; these costs are called damages. If these parties were from different states, however, then that suit could be brought in federal court under diversity jurisdiction if the amount in question exceeded the minimum required by statute ($75,000).Individuals, corporations, and the federal government can also bring civil suits in federal court claiming violations of federal statutes or constitutional rights. For example, the federal government can sue a hospital for overbilling Medicare and Medicaid, a violation of a federal statute. An individual could sue a local police department for violation of his or her constitutional rights–for example, the right to assemble peacefully.
A person accused of a crime is generally charged in a formal accusation called an indictment (for felonies or serious crimes) or information (for misdemeanors). The government, on behalf of the people of the United States, prosecutesthe case through the United States Attorney’s Office if the person is charged with a federal crime. A state’s attorney’s office prosecutes state crimes.It is not the victim’s responsibility to bring a criminal case. In a kidnapping case, for instance, the government would prosecute the kidnapper; the victim would not be a party to the action.In some criminal cases, there may not be a specific victim. For example, state governments arrest and prosecute people accused of violating laws against driving while intoxicated because society regards that as a serious offense that can result in harm to others.When a court determines that an individual committed a crime, that person will receive a sentence. The sentence may be a monetary penalty (a fine and/or restitution to the victim), imprisonment, or supervision in the community (by a court employee called a U.S. probation officer if a federal crime), or some combination of these three things.

What the Federal Courts Do
How do federal courts know what procedures to follow?

Federal rules of procedure govern the various types of court proceedings. They are as follows:

  • Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Fed. R. Civ. P.);
  • Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (Fed. R. Crim. P.);
  • Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (Fed. R. App. P.);
  • Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure (Fed. R. Bankr. P.); and
  • Federal Rules of Evidence (Fed. R. Evid.).

The rules were developed by the federal courts, with the authorization of Congress. Although all federal courts follow these rules, each district court, bankruptcy court, and court of appeals, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, has also developed its own local rules. Courts develop local rules to clarify local practices and procedures. The local rules can’t contradict the federal rules, but they fill in details that are left open in the federal rules. For example, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide general rules for how a party can start a lawsuit and how the other party answers; some districts’ local rules provide more specifics, including even requirements for the kind of paper to be used for court filings. The federal court system can be compared to a patchwork quilt, with all courts laid out in an orderly manner but each one having some differences from all the others. The differences are not surprising in light of the large size of the federal system and the impact of local legal practices on individual courts.

How the Federal Courts are Organized
How do the different kinds of courts fit together?

Congress has divided the country into ninety-four federal judicial districts. In each district there is a U.S. district court. The U.S. district courts are the federal trial courts — the places where federal cases are tried, witnesses testify, and juries serve. Within each district is a U.S. bankruptcy court, a part of the district court that administers the bankruptcy laws.
Congress uses state boundaries to help define the districts. Some districts cover the entire state, like Idaho. Other districts cover just part of a state, like the Northern District of California.
Congress placed each of the ninety-four districts in one of twelve regional circuits. Each circuit has a court of appeals. If you lose a case in a district court, you can ask the court of appeals to review the case to see if the district judge applied the law correctly. There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, whose jurisdiction is defined by subject matter rather than by geography. It hears appeals from certain courts and agencies, such as the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and certain types of cases from the district courts (mainly lawsuits by people claiming their patents have been infringed).
The Supreme Court of the United States, in Washington, D.C., is the highest court in the nation. If you lose a case in the court of appeals (or, sometimes, in a state supreme court), you can ask the Supreme Court to hear your appeal. However, unlike a court of appeals, the Supreme Court doesn’t have to hear it. In fact, the Supreme Court hears only a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to review.

How the Federal Courts Are Organized
Federal judges and how they get appointed

Supreme Court justices and court of appeals and district judges are appointed to office by the President of the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Senate. Presidents most often appoint judges who are members, or at least generally supportive, of their political party, but that doesn’t mean that judges are given appointments solely for partisan reasons. The professional qualifications of prospective federal judges are closely evaluated by the Department of Justice, which consults with others, such as lawyers who can evaluate the prospect’s abilities. The Senate Judiciary Committee undertakes a separate examination of the nominees. Magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges are not appointed by the President or subject to Congress’s approval. The court of appeals in each circuit appoints bankruptcy judges for fourteen-year terms. District courts appoint magistrate judges for eight-year terms.

What is an Article III judge?
The U.S. Supreme Court, the federal courts of appeals and district courts, and the U.S. Court of International Trade are established under Article III of the Constitution. Justices and judges of these courts, known as Article III judges, exercise what Article III calls “the judicial power of the United States.”

Are there judges in the federal courts other than Article III judges?
Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges conduct some of the proceedings held in federal courts. Bankruptcy judges handle almost all bankruptcy matters, in bankruptcy courts that are technically included in the district courts but function as separate entities. Magistrate judges carry out various responsibilities in the district courts and often help prepare the district judges’ cases for trial. They also may preside over criminal misdemeanor trials and may preside over civil trials when both parties agree to have the case heard by a magistrate judge instead of a district judge. Unlike district judges, bankruptcy and magistrate judges do not exercise “the judicial power of the United States” but perform duties delegated to them by district judges. The judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims are also not Article III judges. Their court is a special trial court that hears mostly claims for money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States. With the approval of the Senate, the President appoints U.S. Court of Federal Claims judges for fifteen-year terms.

How many federal judges are there?
Congress authorizes a set number of judge positions, or judgeships, for each court level. Since 1869, Congress has authorized 9 positions for the Supreme Court. It currently authorizes 179 court of appeals judgeships and 678 district court judgeships.(In 1950, there were only 65 court of appeals judgeships and 212 district court judgeships.) There are currently 352 bankruptcy judgeships and 551 full-time and part-time magistrate judgeships. It is rare that all judgeships are filled at any one time; judges die or retire, for example, causing vacancies until judges are appointed to replace them. In addition to judges occupying these judgeships, retired judges often continue to perform some judicial work.

What are the qualifications for becoming a federal judge?
Although there are almost no formal qualifications for federal judges, there are some strong informal ones. For example, while magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges are required by statute to be lawyers, there is no statutory requirement that district judges, circuit judges, or Supreme Court justices be lawyers. But it would be unheard-of for a president to nominate someone who is not a lawyer. Before their appointment, most judges were private attorneys, but many were judges in state courts or other federal courts. Some were government attorneys and a few were law professors.

Can a federal judge be fired?
Justices and judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution (Supreme Court justices, appellate and district court judges, and Court of International Trade judges) serve “during good behavior.” That means they may keep their jobs unless Congress decides to remove them through a lengthy process called impeachment and conviction. Congress has found it necessary to use this process only a few times in the history of our country. From a practical standpoint, almost all of these judges hold office for as long as they wish. Article III also prohibits lowering the salaries of federal judges “during their continuance in office.” Bankruptcy judges, in contrast, may be removed from office by circuit judicial councils, and magistrate judges may be removed by the district judges of the magistrate judge’s circuit. Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges don’t have the same protections (lifetime appointment and no reduction in salary) as judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution.

Why are some federal judges protected from losing their jobs and having their pay cut?
Federal judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution are guaranteed what amounts to life tenure and unreduced salary so that they won’t be afraid to make an unpopular decision. For example, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court said it is constitutional for the federal and state governments to impose the death penalty if the statute is carefully drafted to provide adequate safeguards, even though many people are opposed to the death penalty.

The constitutional protection that gives federal judges the freedom and independence to make decisions that are politically and socially unpopular is one of the basic elements of our democracy. According to the Declaration of Independence, one reason the American colonies wanted to separate from England was that King George III “made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

For judges who are appointed for life, what safeguards ensure that they remain fair and impartial?
Judges must follow the ethical standards set out in the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which contains guidelines to make sure a judge does not preside over a case in which he or she has any reason to favor one side over the other. For example, a judge must withdraw or recuse himself or herself from any case in which a close relative is a party, or in which he or she has any financial interest, however remote. Judges are required to file a financial disclosure form annually, so that all their stock holdings, board memberships, and other financial interests are on public record. They must be careful not to do anything that might cause people to think they would favor one side in a case over another. For this reason, they can’t give speeches urging voters to pick one candidate over another for public office or ask people to contribute money to civic organizations. Judges without life tenure are also subject to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

When do judges retire?
Most federal judges retire from full-time service at around sixty-five or seventy years of age and become senior judges. Senior judges are still federal judges, eligible to earn their full salary and to continue hearing cases if they and their colleagues want them to do so, but they usually maintain a reduced caseload. Full-time judges are known as active judges.

How are cases assigned to judges?
Each court with more than one judge must determine a procedure for assigning cases to judges. Most district and bankruptcy courts use random assignment, which helps to ensure a fair distribution of cases and also prevents “judge shopping,” or parties’ attempts to have their cases heard by the judge who they believe will act most favorably. Other courts assign cases by rotation, subject matter, or geographic division of the court. In courts of appeals, cases are usually assigned by random means to three-judge panels.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Pleadings

A federal civil case begins when a person, or more likely, that person’s lawyer, files a paper with the clerk of court that says the person was injured by another person’s wrongful act. In legal terminology, the plaintiff files a complaint against the defendant. In most cases, the defendant then files an answer to the complaint. These written statements of the parties’ positions are also called pleadings. In some circumstances, the defendant may file a motion instead of an answer; the motion asks the court to take some action, such as dismiss the case or require the plaintiff to explain more clearly what the lawsuit is about.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Pretrial conferences

In most civil cases, the judge holds pretrial conferences to avoid wasting time during the trial on issues that can be decided before trial. The lawyers and judge agree before trial what issues are in dispute and must be decided at trial and what issues are not in dispute. Both sides reveal whom they intend to call as witnesses and, generally, what evidence they will introduce at trial.

There may be a series of pretrial conferences. The initial conference, or Rule 16 conference (after Fed. R. Civ. P. 16) is the judge’s first contact with most cases; it brings the lawyers and the judge together and launches the case-management process. The final pretrial conference enables the judge to ensure that the attorneys are fully prepared, to avoid surprises at trial, and to streamline the trial.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


DiscoveryOnly on TV and in the movies is a surprise witness’s startling revelation a customary part of trial. In real life, the law recognizes that a case can’t be resolved properly if either side withholds information basic to an understanding of the case. As a result, both parties to a lawsuit are required to cooperate in the pretrial discoveryprocess. During discovery, the lawyers try to develop evidence for their case and learn about their opponent’s case by asking to inspect documents and interviewing people who know something about what happened.Discovery methods include depositions, interrogatories, and requests for admissions. A deposition is an interview under oath. Parties are deposed by opposing counsel; witnesses may be deposed by the lawyers for either side. Usually the party’s or witness’s own attorney is present at the deposition. Interrogatories are written questions asked by one party that the opposing party must answer in writing and under oath. Requests for admissions are written statements submitted by one party that the opposing party must admit or deny. If the lawyers do a thorough job in discovery, they shouldn’t be surprised by any of the answers the opposing party’s witnesses give to their questions during trial. One basic strategy lawyers follow during a trial is “Don’t ask a question if you don’t know what the answer will be.”

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


MotionsAttorneys use motions to request that the court take a specific action–for example, to resolve a dispute between the parties concerning procedure by issuing an order. Motions may be filed at any stage of a case. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 even provides a short list of motions that a defendant may make before filing an answer to a complaint, such as a motion for a more definite statement in the complaint.As discovery gets under way a discovery motion may be filed–for example, asking the judge to order a party to appear for a deposition. Or if the defendant refuses to answer the plaintiff’s interrogatories on the ground that they are too broad or not relevant, the plaintiff might file a motion asking the judge to order the defendant to answer them.An important motion that is often filed in the pretrial phase of a case is one for summary judgmentunder Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The filing party attempts to convince the court that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because after looking at all the evidence in the case, there is no dispute as to the facts. If summary judgment is granted regarding all the issues in dispute, that is the end of the lawsuit.Opposing parties must be served with a copy of any motion. After allowing them time to respond, the judge may hold a hearing before ruling on the motion.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Settlement efforts and alternative dispute resolutionSometimes in the course of the pretrial conferences, it becomes clear that the best outcome for both parties is to settle the civil case instead of going ahead with the trial–in fact, fewer than one out of twenty cases ever goes to trial.Settling doesn’t mean the parties have decided to forgive and forget. What usually happens in a settlement is that the plaintiff agrees to accept an amount for damages that is less than he or she had asked for, and the defendant agrees to pay it simply to put an end to the proceedings.There are a number of reasons parties settle, but several factors are probably central to their decision. By settling the case, they may be able to reach resolution more quickly, less expensively, and with less emotional wear and tear. They may also be able to fashion a settlement agreement that is more creative than a judgment that a jury or judge could award. And they can avoid the unpredictability of having a jury or judge decide their case.Cases can reach settlement by several different paths. First, many parties settle their cases themselves, with no outside assistance. In the course of the pretrial conferences, parties often develop a clearer understanding of the money, time, and emotional costs that will be involved in a trial. Also, as more information is uncovered through discovery a party may become less confident of winning the case. Avoiding a trial through settlement becomes a better choice, and so the parties, through their attorneys, draw up the settlement terms out of court.Second, a judge might make a special effort to help the parties settle the case by assisting them with settlement discussions or by referring them to a magistrate judge for settlement discussions.Third, a judge might suggest that the parties enter into some type of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) procedure. ADR is now available in many district courts and also in some bankruptcy courts and in all courts of appeals.The ADR Act of 1998 requires that each federal district court provide at least one form of ADR to litigants in civil cases. Whether a case is referred to ADR depends on the court in which the case is filed. In some courts, the decision whether to use an ADR process is left to the parties; in other courts, parties are expected to use an ADR process. In most courts, judges have authority to require parties to use ADR; some judges are more likely to refer cases to ADR than others.The types of ADR procedures used in a federal court may include some or all of the following: mediation, arbitration, early neutral evaluation, summary jury trial, and settlement week.Most ADR proceedings are conducted by professionals from the private sector, usually attorneys. A few district courts and most appellate courts employ mediators on staff. All ADR procedures in the federal courts are nonbinding, that is, parties are not bound by a proposed settlement or decision unless they agree to be bound by it.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Jury trialsIn a jury trial, it is the jury’s job to decide what happened and to apply the legal standards the judge tells them to apply to reach a verdict. The plaintiff presents evidence supporting its view of the case, and the defendant presents evidence rebutting the plaintiff’s evidence or supporting its own view of the case. From these presentations, the jury must decide what actually happened and apply the law to those facts. The jury never decides what law applies to the case; that is the role of the judge. For example, in a discrimination case in which the plaintiff alleged that his or her workplace was a hostile environment, the judge would tell the jury the legal standard for a hostile environment. The jury would have to decide whether the plaintiff’s description of events was true and whether those events met the legal standard. In a civil case, a trial jury, or petit jury, may consist of six to twelve jurors.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Bench trialsIf the parties agree not to have a jury trial and to leave the fact-finding to the judge, the trial is called a bench trial. In either kind of trial, the judge makes sure the correct legal standards are followed. In contrast to a jury trial, in a bench trial the judge decides the facts and renders the verdict. For example, in a discrimination case in which the plaintiff alleged that his or her workplace was a hostile environment, the judge would determine the legal standard for a hostile environment and would then decide whether the plaintiff’s description of events was true and whether those events met the legal standard.Some kinds of cases always have bench trials. For example, there is never a jury trial if the plaintiff is seeking an injunction, an order from the judge that the defendant do or stop doing something, rather than money damages. Some statutes also provide that a judge must decide the facts in certain types of cases.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Jury selection

A jury trial begins with the selection of jurors. Citizens are selected for jury service through a process that is set out in laws passed by Congress and in the federal rules of procedure. First, citizens are called to court to be available to serve on juries. These citizens are selected at random from source lists, in most districts lists of registered or actual voters, which may be augmented by other sources, such as lists of licensed drivers in the judicial district. The judge and the lawyers in each case then choose the persons who will actually serve on the jury.

To choose the jurors, the judge and sometimes the lawyers ask prospective jurors questions to determine if they will be able to decide the case fairly. This process is called voir dire. The lawyers may request that the judge excuse jurors they think may not be impartial, such as those who know a party in the case or who have had an experience that might make them favor one side over the other. These requests for rejecting jurors are called challenges for cause. The lawyers may also request that the judge excuse a certain number of jurors without giving any reason; these requests are called peremptory challenges.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Opening statements

Once the jury has been selected, the lawyers for both sides give their opening statements. The purpose of the opening statements is to allow each side to give the jury an overview of the evidence it will present.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Presentation of evidence

The evidence the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) relies on to decide the case consists of two types: (1) physical evidence, such as documents, photographs, and objects (also called exhibits), and (2) the testimony of witnesses who are questioned by the lawyers.

The lawyers start to introduce the evidence after the opening statements. First, the plaintiff’s lawyer questions his or her witnesses. When lawyers question the witnesses they have called to testify, it is called direct examination. After the direct examination of a plaintiff’s witness, the defendant’s lawyer may question the witness; this is called cross-examination. If, after the cross-examination, the plaintiff’s lawyer wants to ask the witness more questions, he or she may do so on a redirect examination, and then the defendant’s lawyer has an opportunity for a recross-examination. After all of the plaintiff’s witnesses have been examined, the defense calls its witnesses, and the same procedures are repeated.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Evidence rulings

The presentation of evidence is subject to rules that are designed to ensure that only reliable and relevant evidence is admitted. Sometimes, the rules even exclude reliable and relevant evidence in order to protect other important interests. For example, a plaintiff’s lawyer is not allowed to introduce evidence that the defendant made repairs after the plaintiff’s injury. The courts made this rule so that people will not be discouraged from repairing dangerous conditions. Thus, a lawyer for a plaintiff who slipped on a wet sidewalk cannot show the jury that the defendant put up a caution sign after the plaintiff fell. The act of putting up the sign could be interpreted as an admission that the sign should have been there at the time of the plaintiff’s accident and that the defendant had a duty to warn the plaintiff of the hazard. Without the rule, putting up a sign to prevent more injuries could actually damage the defendant’s case.

Another evidence rule prohibits the use of certain testimony, called hearsay. For example, if John Smith testified that Bill Jones told him he saw Frank Williams run the stop sign, and Bill Jones was not available as a witness, the testimony would usually be inadmissible as evidence to prove that Frank Williams did run the stop sign. The courts have decided that hearsay is not admissible as evidence in a trial because out-of-court statements are not made under oath and are not subject to cross-examination, and are therefore not reliable.

Sometimes a lawyer will break one of these rules of evidence, either accidentally or on purpose, and will try to present evidence to the jury that it shouldn’t hear. If a lawyer believes that testimony an opposing lawyer asked a witness for is improper, the lawyer may object to it and may ask the judge to instruct the witness not to answer the question. If the witness has already answered, the lawyer may still object and ask the judge to tell the jury to disregard what the witness said. The judge can either sustain the objection and do as the objecting lawyer requests, or overrule it and permit the testimony. When an objection is made, the judge alone decides whether the testimony is admissible.

Occasionally, the judge and the lawyers for both sides have a conference at the bench (called a sidebar) out of the jury’s hearing but with the court reporter present to record what they say. At other times, they might confer in the judge’s chambers, or office. Often, they are discussing whether a certain piece of evidence is admissible. The court doesn’t want the jurors to hear such a discussion because they might hear something that can’t be admitted into evidence and that might prejudice them in favor of one side or the other.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Closing argumentsAfter the evidence has been presented, the lawyers for each party make their closing arguments to the jury. The closing arguments finish the presentation of their cases. Closing arguments review the most important features of each side’s case, but like opening statements, they are not evidence themselves.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Instructions and standard of proof

Following the closing arguments, the judge gives instructions to the jury, explaining the relevant law, how the law applies to the case being tried, and what questions the jury must decide.

How sure do jurors have to be before they reach a verdict? One important instruction the judge gives the jury is the standard of proof they must follow in deciding the case. The courts, through their decisions, and Congress, through statutes, have established standards by which facts must be proven in criminal and civil cases. In civil cases, in order to decide for the plaintiff, the jury must determine by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty and violated the plaintiff’s rights. A preponderance of the evidence means that, based on all the evidence, the evidence favors the plaintiff more (even if only slightly) than it favors the defendant. If the evidence in favor of the plaintiff could be placed on one side of a scale, and that in favor of the defendant on the other, the plaintiff would win if the evidence in favor of the plaintiff was heavy enough to tip the scale. If the two sides were even, or if the scale tipped for the defendant, the defendant would win.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Deliberations and verdict

The jury retires to the jury room to discuss the evidence and to reach a verdict. In civil cases, all the jurors must agree on the verdict unless the parties have told the judge before the trial that they will accept a non-unanimous verdict.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


JudgmentIn civil cases, if the jury (or judge) decides in favor of the plaintiff, the result usually is that the defendant must pay the plaintiff money, or damages. The judge orders the defendant to pay the decided amount. Sometimes the defendant is ordered to take some specific action that will restore the plaintiff’s rights. If the defendant wins the case, however, there is nothing more the trial court needs to do.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Civil Cases


Right to appealThe losing party in a federal civil case has a right to appeal the case to the U.S. court of appeals, that is, ask the court of appeals to review the case to determine whether the trial was conducted properly. The grounds for appeal usually are that the district judge is said to have made an error, either in procedure (admitting improper evidence, for example) or in interpreting the law. The government may appeal in civil cases, as any other party may. Neither party may appeal if there was no trial–that is, if the parties settled their civil case out of court.Click for direct link to Appeals.
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How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Indictment or informationA criminal case formally begins with an indictment or information, which is a formal accusation that a person committed a crime. An indictment may be obtained when a lawyer for the executive branch of the U.S. government–the U.S. attorney or an assistant U.S. attorney, also referred to as the prosecutor–presents evidence to a federal grand jury that, according to the government, indicates a person committed a crime. The U.S. attorney tries to convince the grand jury that there is enough evidence to show that the person probably committed the crime and should be formally accused of it. If the grand jury agrees, it issues an indictment. After the indictment is issued, the accused person (the defendant) is either summoned to court or arrested (if not already under arrest), depending on the severity of the crime.A grand jury is different from a trial jury, or petit jury. A grand jury determines whether the person may be tried for a crime; a petit jury listens to the evidence presented at the trial and determines whether the defendant is guilty of the charge. Petit is the French word for “small”; petit juries usually consist of twelve jurors in criminal cases. Grandis the French word for “large”; grand juries have from sixteen to twenty-three jurors.Grand jury indictments are most often used for felonies, which are the more serious crimes, such as bank robberies or sales of illegal drugs. Grand jury indictments are not usually necessary to prosecute less serious crimes, called misdemeanors, and are not necessary for all felonies. For these crimes, the U.S. attorney issues an information, which takes the place of an indictment. An example of a federal misdemeanor is speeding on a highway in a national park. An information may also be used when a defendant waives indictment by a grand jury.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Arraignment

After the grand jury issues the indictment, the accused person (the defendant) is summoned to court or arrested (if not already under arrest). The next step is an arraignment, a proceeding in which the defendant is brought before a judge, told of the charges he or she is accused of, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty. If the defendant’s plea is guilty, a time is set for the defendant to return to court to be sentenced. If the defendant pleads “not guilty,” a time is set for the trial. A defendant may also enter a plea bargain with the prosecution–usually by agreeing to plead guilty to some but not all of the charges or to a lesser charge, in return for which the prosecution agrees to drop the remaining charges. About nine out of ten defendants in criminal cases plead guilty.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Investigation

In a criminal case, a defense lawyer will conduct a thorough investigation before trial, interviewing witnesses, visiting the scene of the crime, and examining any physical evidence. An important part of this investigation is determining whether the evidence the government plans to use to prove its case was obtained legally. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. To enforce this protection, the Supreme Court has decided that for most purposes, illegally seized evidence cannot be used at trial. For example, if the police seize evidence from a defendant’s home without a search warrant, the lawyer for the defendant can ask the court to exclude the evidence from use at trial. The court then holds a hearing to determine whether the search was unreasonable under the circumstances.

If the court rules that key evidence was seized illegally and therefore cannot be used, the government often drops the charges against the defendant. However, if the government already has a strong case and the court rules that the evidence was obtained legally, the defendant may decide to plead guilty rather than go to trial, where a conviction is likely.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Jury trialsIn a jury trial, the function of the jury is to hear the evidence and decide whether it establishes that the defendant committed the crime or crimes alleged. The government presents its case, and the defendant may (but is not required to) present evidence in his or her behalf. Even if the defendant presents no evidence, the jury must decide whether the government’s evidence is sufficient to meet its burden of proof. The jury never decides what law applies to the case; that is the role of the judge.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Bench trials

Because of the criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a jury trial, most criminal trials are jury trials. However, sometimes a defendant decides to waive the right to a jury trial and to leave the fact-finding to the judge; the defendant is then tried in what is called a bench trial. In either kind of trial, the judge makes sure the correct legal standards are followed. In contrast to a jury trial, in a bench trial the judge decides the facts and renders the verdict. For example, in a price-fixing case in which the defendant claims that he or she should be found not guilty because there was no bad intent, the judge would know that bad intent doesn’t matter and would decide whether the defendant actually agreed to fix prices.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Jury selectionA jury trial begins with the selection of jurors. Citizens are selected for jury service through a process that is set out in laws passed by Congress and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. First, citizens are called to court to be available to serve on juries. These citizens are selected at random from source lists, in most districts, these are lists of registered or actual voters, which may be augmented by other sources, such as lists of licensed drivers in the judicial district. The judge and the lawyers in each case then choose the persons who will actually serve on the jury.To choose the jurors, the judge and sometimes the lawyers ask prospective jurors questions to determine if they will be able to decide the case fairly. This process is called voir dire. The lawyers may request that the judge excuse any jurors they think may not be able to be impartial, such as those who know a party in the case or who have had an experience that might make them favor one side over the other. These requests for rejecting jurors are called challenges for cause. The lawyers may also request that the judge excuse a certain number of jurors without giving any justification; these requests are called peremptory challenges.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Opening statementsOnce the jury has been selected, the lawyers for both sides give their opening statements. The purpose of the opening statements is to allow each side to give the jury an overview of the evidence it will present.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Presentation of evidenceThe evidence the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) relies on to decide the case consists of two types: (1) physical evidence, such as documents, photographs, and objects (also called exhibits); and (2) the testimony of witnesses who are questioned by the lawyers. The defendant may be called as a witness, but the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution gives him or her a right not to testify. If the defendant chooses not to testify, the court instructs the jurors that this does notmean that the defendant must be guilty.The lawyers start to introduce the evidence after the opening statements. First, the prosecutor questions his or her witnesses. When lawyers question the witnesses they have called to testify, it is called direct examination. After the direct examination of a government’s witness, the defendant’s lawyer may question the witness; this is called cross-examination. If, after the cross-examination, the prosecutor wants to ask the witness more questions, he or she may do so on a redirect examination, and then the defendant’s lawyer has an opportunity for a recross-examination. After all of the government’s witnesses have been examined, the defense calls its witnesses, and the same procedures are repeated.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Evidence rulings The presentation of evidence is subject to rules that are designed to ensure that only reliable and relevant evidence is admitted. Sometimes, the rules even exclude reliable and relevant evidence in order to protect other important interests. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government may not use evidence that it seizes illegally, such as evidence that it found while searching the defendant’s home without a search warrant. The courts adopted this rule to prevent the government from searching people’s homes without cause.Another rule concerning the introduction of evidence limits the use of unreliable testimony, called hearsay. For example, if John Smith testified, “Bill Jones told me he saw Frank Williams rob the Green Valley Bank,” and Bill Jones was not available as a witness, the testimony would usually be inadmissible as evidence to prove that Frank Williams robbed the bank. The courts have decided that hearsay is not reliable and, therefore, should not be used as evidence in a trial.Sometimes a lawyer will break one of these rules of evidence, either accidentally or on purpose, and will try to present evidence to the jury that it shouldn’t hear. If a lawyer believes that testimony an opposing lawyer asked a witness for is improper, the lawyer may object to it and may ask the judge to instruct the witness not to answer the question. If the witness has already answered, the lawyer may still object and ask the judge to tell the jury to disregard what the witness said. The judge can either sustain the objection and do as the objecting lawyer requests, or overruleit and permit the testimony. When an objection is made, the judge alone decides whether the testimony is admissible.Occasionally, the judge and the lawyers for both sides confer at the bench (called a sidebar), out of the jury’s hearing but with the court reporter present to record what they say. At other times, they might confer in the judge’s chambers, or office. Often, they are discussing whether a certain piece of evidence is admissible. The court doesn’t want the jurors to hear such a discussion because they might hear something that can’t be admitted into evidence and that might prejudice them in favor of one side or the other.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Closing argumentsAfter the evidence has been presented, the lawyers for each side make their closing arguments to the jury. The closing arguments finish the presentation of their cases. Closing arguments review the most important features of each side’s case, but like opening statements, they are not evidence themselves.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Instructions and standard of proof Following the closing arguments, the judge gives instructions to the jury, explaining the relevant law, how the law applies to the case being tried, and what questions the jury must decide. One important instruction the judge gives the jury is the standard of proof they must follow in deciding the case. The courts, through their decisions, and Congress, through statutes, have established standards by which facts must be proven in criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases (federal or state), the defendant may be convicted only if the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) believes that the government has proved the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Remember that for the grand jury to issue an indictment, it only has to believe that the defendant probably committed the crime. However, for the petit jury to find the defendant guilty, it must be certain that the defendant committed the crime; it can have no “reasonable doubt” about it.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Deliberations and verdict

After receiving its instructions from the judge, the jury retires to the jury room to discuss the evidence and to reach a verdict (a decision on the factual issues in the case). A criminal jury verdict must be unanimous, meaning that all jurors must agree that the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the jurors cannot agree, the judge declares a mistrial, and the prosecutor must then decide whether to ask the court to dismiss the case or have it presented to another jury.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Judgment and sentencing

In federal criminal cases, if the jury (or judge, if there is no jury) decides that the defendant is guilty, the judge sets a date for a sentencing hearing. In federal criminal cases, the jury doesn’t decide whether the defendant will go to prison or for how long; the judge does. In federal death penalty cases, however, the jury does decide whether the defendant will receive a death sentence.

The judge’s sentencing decision is controlled by sentencing statutes passed by Congress. In addition, judges use Sentencing Guidelines, issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as a source of advice as to the proper sentence. The guidelines take into account the nature of the particular offense and the offender’s criminal history. A presentence report, prepared by one of the court’s probation officers, provides the judge with various types of information about the offender and the offense, including the sentence recommended by the guidelines. After determining the sentence, the judge signs a judgment, which includes the plea, the verdict, and the sentence.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Criminal Cases


Right to appealA defendant who is found guilty in a federal criminal trial has a right to appeal the decision to the U.S. court of appeals, that is, ask the court of appeals to review the case to determine whether the trial was conducted properly. The grounds for appeal usually are that the district judge is said to have made an error, either in procedure (admitting improper evidence, for example) or in interpreting the law. A defendant who pled guilty may not appeal the conviction. However, a defendant who pled guilty may have the right to appeal his or her sentence.The government may not appeal if a defendant in a criminal case is found not guilty, because the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that no person shall “be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb” for the same offense. This reflects our society’s belief that, even if a second or third trial might finally find a defendant guilty, it is not proper to allow the government to harass an acquitted defendant through repeated retrials. However, the government may sometimes appeal a sentence.

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How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Bankruptcy Cases



A bankruptcy case is a special kind of civil case, involving people or companies or other entities who can no longer pay their debts (debtors) and people or companies or other entities such as government agencies or state or municipal taxing authorities to whom the debtor owes money (creditors). Congress has established special federal courts, called bankruptcy courts, to help decide these cases.Bankruptcy protects both debtors and creditors. In most bankruptcy cases, fault doesn’t matter. Everything boils down to how much money creditors are going to get and which debts don’t have to be paid.The Bankruptcy Codeprovides individuals and businesses with the legal procedure for dealing with debt problems. The most commonly filed bankruptcy cases are those under Chapters 7, 11, and 13 of the Bankruptcy Code.Chapter 7 is the liquidationchapter. For the individual, Chapter 7 offers a chance for a financial fresh start. The debtor gives up most of his or her assets, which are sold to raise money to pay creditors. The debtor is allowed to keep some property that is exempt under state or federal law, and his or her debts are discharged, which means the debtor is excused from paying creditors more than the amount raised by the liquidation. This is true even if creditors don’t get a nickel in the case. In contrast to individual debtors, businesses don’t get a discharge or exemptions under Chapter 7, but simply cease to exist after the liquidation. A business would choose liquidation only as an orderly way of going out of business.Businesses in financial trouble that want to survive use Chapter 11. It’s known as the business reorganization chapter, although in some circumstances individuals can use it too. The debtor gets to keep its property, but it has to come up with a plan of reorganization that says how it will pay all or part of its debts. Usually, the debtor pays less than it owes and has more time to pay. Creditors decide whether to approve the plan. The basic idea behind Chapter 11 is that it’s often better to keep a financially troubled business alive than to let it disappear. Its employees get to keep their jobs, people in the community can continue to do business there, suppliers keep a customer, and the local economy benefits from a lower unemployment rate and increased tax revenue. The benefits of Chapter 11 extend to creditors. They probably won’t get all the money the debtor owes them, but a successful Chapter 11 reorganization will give them more than they would get under Chapter 7.Chapter 13is similar to Chapter 11, but it’s for individuals with fairly small debts, and the court, not the creditors, decides whether to approve the repayment plan. Congress designed Chapter 13 for people who work hard and try to pay their bills, but get into financial trouble because of emergencies or poor money-management skills. People who have more debts than Chapter 13 allows must file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 if they want to reorganize.Chapter 12, family farmer bankruptcy, is similar to Chapter 13 in that the debtor submits a plan for approval by the court for repayment through a trustee of all or part of claims of creditors. Chapter 12 was enacted in 1986 as temporary legislation to meet the needs of financially distressed family farmers. It is currently in effect until mid-2003.The first three chapters of the Bankruptcy Code–1, 3, and 5–apply to all types of bankruptcy filings. These chapters contain definitions and explain general duties and obligations of debtors and creditors. They answer such questions as What does “consumer debt” mean? When do creditors meet? What is property of the estate? What specific property is exempt? Chapter 9 describes bankruptcies involving municipalities, like cities and towns, and is rarely used.In the pages that follow, you will learn more about Chapters 7, 11, and 13.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


PetitionTypically, a Chapter 11 case begins when the debtor files a voluntary petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.At the same time or shortly after filing the petition, the debtor must file a list of creditors, a list of the twenty largest unsecured creditors, a schedule of assets and liabilities, a statement of financial affairs, and other information. The debtor must pay a filing fee. If the debtor is an individual and unable to pay the filing fee in full, the debtor may file an application to pay the filing fee in installments.The Bankruptcy Code also permits creditors to initiate a Chapter 11 case, called an involuntary filing, unless the debtor is a farmer, a nonprofit company, or a foreign bank. If the debtor has fewer than twelve creditors, a single creditor with a large enough claim can file a petition; if there are twelve or more creditors, three must join in the petition. Involuntary cases aren’t nearly as common as voluntary cases, but if approved they proceed in the same way. By filing the petition, the creditors are trying to force the debtor into bankruptcy. The debtor may fight back by trying to have the case dismissed.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Automatic stayAt the time of the filing of the bankruptcy petition, an automatic stay goes into effect. The automatic stay “stops the clock,” giving the debtor some time to get back on its financial feet by stopping creditors from collecting from the debtor. The debtor doesn’t have to ask for it, and the court doesn’t have to order it. The automatic stay applies against all creditors, including government units, those who don’t know about the stay, and those who have already sued and even won judgments against the debtor. Once the bankruptcy petition is filed, all creditors must go to the bankruptcy court to have their claims enforced or to seek relief from the automatic stay in order to pursue their claims in other forums while the debtor is in bankruptcy.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Continued control by managementShortly after the petition is filed, the case is assigned to a bankruptcy judge and added to the docket of the U.S. trustee. U.S. trustees relieve bankruptcy judges of routine matters, such as supervising cases and conducting certain meetings. In contrast to the procedure in a Chapter 7 case, the U.S. trustee does not appoint a case trustee in the typical Chapter 11 case. Instead, the U.S. trustee monitors the progress of the Chapter 11 case, including reviewing financial reports of the debtor, who continues to operate the business, and the adequacy of the disclosure statement and reorganization plan. The debtor is required to send to the U.S. trustee quarterly fees based on disbursements until the case is converted to Chapter 7 or dismissed. Only in unusual circumstances, such as fraud or gross mismanagement by the debtor, is a case trustee appointed.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Role of the creditors’ committeeCreditors have a more active role in a Chapter 11 case than in other bankruptcy cases. The official unsecured creditors’ committee, which is appointed by the U.S. trustee and made up of the seven largest unsecured creditors of the debtor who are willing to serve, monitors the progress of the case. A secured claim is one that gives the creditor an interest in property as assurance of payment, such as a mortgage on the house to secure a home loan; the holder of an unsecured claim can’t look to any specific property of the debtor for payment. The committee negotiates with the debtor to develop a plan that will protect the interests of unsecured creditors. Because there is no case trustee in a Chapter 11 case, the committee has the authority to perform investigative functions, such as reviewing the debtor’s assets, liabilities, and financial conduct to determine its ability to continue in business.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Creditors’ meeting

Section 341 of the Bankruptcy Code requires a creditors’ meeting. In a voluntary Chapter 11 case, it may take place twenty to forty days after the bankruptcy petition is filed. The 341 meeting, as it is called, is the creditors’ chance to meet with the debtor and get a preliminary idea of the debtor’s financial situation and of the creditors’ prospects for getting their money.

The debtor is required to attend the meeting and may even be arrested to compel attendance. The clerk of the bankruptcy court sends notices of the meeting to all persons or businesses the debtor has listed as creditors. In large cases in which some creditors may not be known, the court may advertise the meeting in newspapers. The U.S. trustee or an assistant typically presides at the 341 meeting in a Chapter 11 case. The judge is prohibited by law from even attending the 341 meeting.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Plan of reorganizationAt the heart of a Chapter 11 case is the plan of reorganization, which spells out how the debtor proposes to repay its creditors. Debtors may use a number of strategies in developing a plan, such as trying to reduce payments to some creditors and spread them out over a longer period of time. There are other options as well, such as laying off employees, renegotiating rent, applying for loans, and canceling existing purchase orders. A debtor may file a plan at the same time it files the petition or anytime thereafter. However, 120 days after the filing, the debtor’s exclusivity periodends, and creditors may also file plans.In developing the plan, the debtor consults with its creditors. Chapter 11 is set up to encourage early involvement of and continuing negotiation among the parties. The rationale is that creditors are more likely to accept a plan if they have had a hand in developing it. Generally this “informed consent” approach means that if the parties are happy with a Chapter 11 plan, the court won’t step in and substitute its judgment for that of the parties. However, the debtor needs a plan that most of its creditors will accept, because creditors who don’t like a plan may come up with their own plans after the debtor’s exclusivity period has passed, or they may simply vote to reject the debtor’s plan.A reorganization plan first divides creditors into classes according to the type and size of debt. It must treat like creditors alike. For example, all employees to whom the debtor owes back pay must be put in the same class. Creditors in some classes may be paid in full; those in other classes may not be paid at all. Still others may be paid part of what they are owed, over a much longer period of time than the debtor had agreed on originally.All the debtor’s property is included in the bankruptcy estate, as it is in a Chapter 7 case, but it is not liquidated, and not all of it goes to creditors. The plan must provide funds for the continued operation of the business as well as the repayment of debts; in fact, with the court’s approval, the debtor may even borrow more money during the reorganization process.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


DisclosureThe debtor must file a disclosure statement, which must be approved by the court. The statement gives creditors information about the debtor’s financial condition, which creditors use to determine how to vote on the reorganization plan. After the debtor files the statement, the court will set a date for a disclosure hearing. Creditors and the U.S. trustee may file objections to the proposed statement until the hearing date or whatever deadline the judge sets for filing objections. When the judge approves the disclosure statement, he or she will also set a time limit on voting for or against the reorganization plan and a date for the plan confirmation hearing.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Voting and confirmationOnce the debtor has a reorganization plan, the court must approve, or confirm, it before it can take effect. Before the confirmation hearing, each class of creditors votes separately by mail on whether to accept the plan. If a majority of the voters in each class and holders of two-thirds of the amount of claims in each class approve the plan, the court will generally confirm the plan. The plan then becomes binding on all of the preconfirmation creditors, whether they voted for or against it.It’s extremely difficult for a plan to take effect without the approval of each class of creditors, but it can happen. If majorities of all classes don’t approve the plan, the debtor may attempt a cramdown, which is forcing a plan on objecting creditors using a very complex set of rules. Debtors try to avoid a cramdown; it’s costly, it’s time-consuming, and it makes for strained relationships. The bankruptcy court, which must approve all plans, will require a compelling reason to confirm a debtor’s Chapter 11 plan over the objection of a class of creditors.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


DischargeWhen the reorganization plan is confirmed, the debtor receives a discharge: Most claims for preconfirmation debts are wiped out. The business debtor only has to pay the debts spelled out in the plan. If the debtor completes the reorganization successfully, it doesn’t have to go out of business. Under Chapter 11, business debtors get a much more complete discharge than individual debtors do; individual debtors may only discharge debts that would be dischargeable in a Chapter 7 case.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Paying creditorsThe debtor has a legal obligation to make payments according to the reorganization plan until all its terms are met. If the payments stop, creditors may seek liquidation of the debtor by moving to convert the case to Chapter 7, or they may sue to force the debtor to make the plan payments.A Chapter 11 filing can create more prolonged anxiety for creditors than a Chapter 7 filing. If a Chapter 11 plan succeeds, creditors generally receive more than they would in a Chapter 7 case, but payment takes time and is by no means guaranteed. Generally, only 10% to 20% of Chapter 11 plans get confirmed, and even a confirmed plan does not ensure payment of creditors; probably less than half of the debtors actually make all the payments the plans require.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


Dispute resolutionAdversary proceedings and contested matters are methods of handling disputes that may arise during a bankruptcy case. An adversary proceeding is basically a civil trial within the context of a bankruptcy case. It is initiated by a complaint, requires a filing fee, and follows rules much like the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Contested matters are more informal. They are initiated by motions, and most do not require a filing fee. The Bankruptcy Rules establish the types of disputes that fall into each category. For example, adversary proceedings include objections to the discharge of debts; contested matters include objections to sales of the debtor’s property. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is also available in some bankruptcy courts. Click here for more information on ADR.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases


AppealProcedures for appeal of a bankruptcy order depend on the circuit. The bankruptcy laws authorize the circuits to set up a bankruptcy appellate panel (BAP); about half the circuits have chosen this option. A panel of three bankruptcy judges takes on the appellate role in bankruptcy cases, but only if the district judges have authorized the panel to do so. In other circuits, district courts hear the appeals. Appeals of the decision of the BAP or district court are heard by the court of appeals for the circuit.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals


Assignment of judgesThe courts of appeals usually assign cases to a panel of three judges. The panel decides the case for the entire court. Sometimes, when the parties request it, or when there is a question of unusual importance, all the judges on the appeals court, sitting en banc, will reconsider a panel’s decision or hear the case anew. Rarely, an initial hearing of an appeal is held en banc.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals


Alternative Dispute ResolutionAlternative dispute resolution (ADR) is available in all of the courts of appeals. For more information on ADR, click here.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals


Review of lower court decisionIn making its decision, the panel reviews key parts of the record. The record consists of all the documents filed in the case at trial along with the transcript of the proceedings at the trial. The panel then learns about the lawyers’ legal arguments from the lawyers’ briefs. Briefs are written documents that each side submits to explain its case and tell why the court should decide in its favor.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals


Oral argument

If the court permits oral argument, the lawyers for each side have a limited amount of time to explain their case to the judges in a formal courtroom session, and the judges frequently question them about the relevant law.

If you visit a court of appeals in session, you’ll notice how it differs from the federal trial courts. There are no jurors, witnesses, or court reporters. The lawyers for both sides are present, but the parties usually are not.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals


Decision

After the submission of briefs and oral argument, the judges discuss the case privately, consider any relevant precedents (court decisions in earlier cases with facts and legal issues similar to those in the case they are considering), and reach a decision. Courts are required to follow some precedents. For example, a U.S. court of appeals must follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions; a district court must follow the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the decisions of the court of appeals of its own circuit. Courts are also influenced by decisions they are not required to follow, such as the decisions of other circuits. Courts also follow their own precedents unless they set forth reasons for the change.

At least two of the three judges on the panel must agree on a decision. One of those who agree is chosen to write an opinion, which announces and explains the decision. If a judge on the panel disagrees with the majority’s opinion, the judge may write a dissent, giving his or her reasons for disagreeing. Many appellate opinions are published in books of opinions, called reporters. The opinions are read carefully by other judges and lawyers looking for precedents to guide them in their own cases. The accumulated judicial opinions make up a body of law known as case law, which is usually an accurate predictor of how future cases will be decided. For decisions that the judges believe are important only to the parties and contribute nothing to the case law, the courts of appeals frequently use short, unsigned opinions that often are not published.

If the court of appeals decides that the trial judge incorrectly interpreted the law or followed incorrect procedures, it will reverse the district court’s decision. For example, the court of appeals might say that the district judge allowed the jury to base its decision on evidence that never should have been admitted, and therefore the defendant can’t be found guilty. Most of the time courts of appeals uphold, rather than reverse, district court decisions.

Sometimes when a higher court reverses the decision of the district court, it will send the case back to the district court for another trial, or in legal terms, remand it. For example, in the famous Miranda case, the Supreme Court ruled that Ernesto Miranda’s confession could not be used as evidence because he had not been advised of his right to remain silent or of his right to have a lawyer present during questioning. However, the government did have other evidence against him. The case was remanded for a new trial, in which the improperly obtained confession was not used as evidence, and Miranda was convicted on the basis of the other evidence.

How Cases Move Through Federal Courts
Appeals


The Supreme Court of the United StatesThe Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the nation. It’s a different kind of appeals court; its major function is not correcting errors made by trial judges, but clarifying the law in cases of national importance or when lower courts disagree about the interpretation of the Constitution or federal laws.The Supreme Court does not have to hear every case that it is asked to review. Each year, losing parties ask the Supreme Court to review about 8,000 cases. Almost all these cases come to the Court as petitions for writ of certiorari. The court selects only about 80 of the most significant cases to review.The decisions the Supreme Court hands down on these cases set precedentsfor the interpretation of the Constitution and federal laws, precedents that all other courts, both state and federal, must follow.The power of judicial review makes the Supreme Court’s role in our government vital. Judicial review is the power of any court, when deciding a case, to declare that a law passed by a legislature or an action of an executive branch officer or employee is invalid because it is inconsistent with the Constitution. Although district courts, courts of appeals, and state courts can exercise the power of judicial review, their decisions about federal law are always subject to review by the Supreme Court on appeal. When the Supreme Court declares a law unconstitutional, however, its decision can only be overruledby a later decision of the Supreme Court or by an amendment to the Constitution. Seven of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution have invalidated decisions of the Supreme Court. However, most Supreme Court cases don’t concern the constitutionality of laws, but the interpretation of laws passed by Congress.Although Congress has steadily increased the number of district and appeals court judges over the years, the Supreme Court has remained the same size since 1869; it consists of a Chief Justice and eight associate justices. Like federal court of appeals and district judges, the justices are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. However, unlike the judges in the courts of appeals, the Supreme Court justices never sit in panels. All nine justices hear every case, and cases are decided by a majority ruling.The Supreme Court begins its annual session, or term, on the first Monday of October. The term lasts until the Court has announced its decisions in all of the cases in which it has heard argument that term—usually late June or early July. During the term, the Court, sitting for two weeks at a time, hears oral argument on Monday through Wednesday and then holds private conferences to discuss the cases, reach decisions, and begin preparing the written opinions that explain its decisions. Most decisions, along with their opinions, are released in the late spring and early summer.

Who Does What
In the Courtroom

Who Does What
Judge


The judge presides over the trial from the bench, which is an elevated platform. The judge has five basic tasks:

  • to preside over the proceedings and see that order is maintained;
  • to determine whether any of the evidence that the parties want to use is illegal or improper;
  • in jury trials, to give the jury instructions about the law that applies to the case and the standards it must use in deciding the case before it begins its deliberations about the facts in the case;
  • in bench trials, to determine the facts and decide the case; and
  • to sentence convicted criminal defendants.

Who Does What
Judge: Qs & As


What is an Article III judge?
Are there judges in the federal courts other than Article III judges?
How many federal judges are there?
How does a person become a federal judge?
What are the qualifications for becoming a federal judge?
Can a federal judge be fired?
Why are some federal judges protected from losing their jobs and having their pay cut?
For judges who are appointed for life, what safeguards ensure that they remain fair and impartial?
When do judges retire?
How are cases assigned to judges? What is an Article III judge?
“Article III judge” is a shorthand term used to denote federal judges who under Article III of the Constitution to are enabled to exercise “the judicial power of the United States” without fear of losing their jobs. They serve for what Article III calls “good Behaviour,” which means they can be removed from office only by the rarely used process of impeachmentand conviction. Article III further provides that their compensation cannot be reduced. “Article III judges” are those on the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal courts of appeals and district courts, and the U.S. Court of International Trade.Are there judges in the federal courts other than Article III judges?
Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges conduct some of the proceedings held in federal courts. Bankruptcy judges handle almost all bankruptcy matters, in bankruptcy courts that are technically included in the district courts but function as separate entities. Magistrate judges carry out various responsibilities in the district courts and often help prepare the district judges’ cases for trial. They also may preside over criminal misdemeanor trials and may preside over civil trials when both parties agree to have the case heard by a magistrate judge instead of a district judge. Unlike district judges, bankruptcy and magistrate judges do not exercise “the judicial power of the United States” but perform duties delegated to them by district judges. Bankruptcy and magistrate judges serve for fourteen and eight-year terms, respectively, rather than “during good Behaviour.” The judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claimsare also not Article III judges. Their court is a special trial court that hears mostly claims for money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States. With the approval of the Senate, the President appoints U.S. Court of Federal Claims judges for fifteen-year terms.How many federal judges are there?Congress authorizes a set number of judge positions, or judgeships, for each court level. Since 1869, Congress has authorized 9 positions for the Supreme Court. As of 2007, it had authorized 179 court of appeals judgeships and 678 district court judgeships. (In 1950, there were only 65 court of appeals judgeships and 212 district judgeships). As of 2007, Congress had authorized 352 bankruptcy judgeships and 551 full-time and part-time magistrate judgeships. It is rare that all judgeships are filled at any one time; judges die or retire, for example, causing vacancies until judges are appointed to replace them. In addition to judges occupying these positions, retired judges often continue to perform some judicial work.How does a person become a federal judge?
Supreme Court justices and court of appeals and district judges are appointed to office by the President of the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Senate. Presidents most often appoint judges who are members, or at least generally supportive, of their political party, but that doesn’t mean that judges are given appointments solely for partisan reasons. The professional qualifications of prospective federal judges are closely evaluated by the Department of Justice, which consults with others, such as lawyers who can evaluate the prospect’s abilities. The Senate Judiciary Committee undertakes a separate examination of the nominees. Magistrate judges and bankruptcy judgesare not appointed by the President or subject to Congress’s approval. The court of appeals in each circuit appoints bankruptcy judges for fourteen-year terms. District courts appoint magistrate judges for eight-year terms.What are the qualifications for becoming a federal judge?
Although there are almost no formal qualifications for federal judges, there are some strong informal ones. For example, while magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges are required by statute to be lawyers, there is no statutory requirement that district judges, circuit judges, or Supreme Court justices be lawyers. But it would be unheard-of for a president to nominate someone who is not a lawyer. Before their appointment, most judges were private attorneys, but many were judges in state courts or other federal courts. Some were government attorneys, and a few were law professors.Can a federal judge be fired?
Justices and judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution (Supreme Court justices, appellate and district court judges, and Court of International Trade judges) serve “during good Behaviour.” That means they may keep their jobs unless Congress decides to remove them through a lengthy process called impeachment and conviction. Congress has found it necessary to use this process only a few times in the history of our country. From a practical standpoint, almost all of these judges hold office for as long as they wish. Article III also prohibits lowering the salaries of federal judges “during their continuance in office.” Bankruptcy judges, in contrast, may be removed from office by circuit judicial councils, and magistrate judges may be removed by the district judgesof the magistrate judge’s district. Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges don’t have the same protections as judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution.Why are some federal judges protected from losing their jobs and having their pay cut?
Federal judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution are guaranteed what amounts to life tenure and unreduced salary so that they won’t be afraid to make an unpopular decision. For example, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court said it is constitutional for the federal and state governments to impose the death penalty if the statute is carefully drafted to provide adequate safeguards, even though many people are opposed to the death penalty.The constitutional protection that gives federal judges the freedom and independence to make decisions that are politically and socially unpopular is one of the basic elements of our democracy. According to the Declaration of Independence, one reason the American colonies wanted to separate from England was that King George III “made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”For judges who are appointed for life, what safeguards ensure that they can do their jobs fairly and capably?
Judges follow the ethical standards set out in the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which contains guidelines to help them avoid situations that might limit their ability to be fair–or that might make it appear to others that their fairness is in question. It tells them, for example, to be careful not to do anything that might cause people to think they would favor one side in a case over another, such as giving speeches that urge voters to pick one candidate over another for public office or asking people to contribute money to civic organizations. Additionally, Congress has enacted laws telling judges to withdraw or recusethemselves from any case in which a close relative is a party or in which they have any financial interest, even one share of stock. Congress requires judges to file a financial disclosure form annually, so that their stock holdings, board memberships, and other financial interests are on public record. Most judges maintain more frequent lists of their holdings for lawyers to inspect.Congress has also enacted a law that lets anyone file a complaint alleging that a judge (other than a Supreme Court justice) has engaged in conduct “prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts” or that a judge has a mental or physical disability that makes him or her unable to discharge the duties of the office. A complaint is filed with the clerk of the court of appeals of the respective judge’s circuit and considered by the chief judge of the court of appeals. If the chief judge believes the complaint deserves attention, the chief judge appoints a special committee of the circuit judicial council to investigate it. If the committee concludes that the complaint is valid, it may recommend various actions, such as temporarily removing the judge from hearing cases, but it may not recommend that an Article III judge be removed from office. Only Congress may do that, through the impeachment process.Chief judges dismiss the great majority of complaints filed under this law, because the complaints involve judges’ decisions in particular cases. This law may not be used to complain about decisions, even what may appear to be a very wrong decision or very unfair treatment of a party in a case. Parties in a lawsuit who believe the judge issued an incorrect ruling may appeal the case to a higher court, under the rules of procedure.When do judges retire?
Most federal judges retire from full-time service at around sixty-five or seventy years of age and become senior judges. Senior judges are still federal judges, eligible to earn their full salary and to continue hearing cases if they and their colleagues want them to do so, but they usually maintain a reduced caseload. Full-time judges are known as active judges.How are cases assigned to judges?
Each court with more than one judge must determine a procedure for assigning cases to judges. Most district and bankruptcy courts use random assignment, which helps to ensure a fair distribution of cases and also prevents “judge shopping,” which refers to parties’ attempts to have their cases heard by the judge who they believe will act most favorably. Other courts assign cases by rotation, subject matter, or geographic division of the court. In courts of appeals, cases are usually assigned by random means to temporary three-judge panels.

Who Does What
Jury

The group of people seated in the boxed-in area on one side of the courtroom is the petit jury, or trial jury. The judge decides the law in the case and instructs the jury on the law. It’s the jury’s role to decide the facts in the case and apply the law on which the judge has instructed it to reach a verdict. In cases in which there is conflicting evidence, it’s the jury’s job to resolve the conflict and decide what really happened. For example, in a criminal case, the jury might listen to the testimony of a witness who claims she saw the defendant commit the crime and then listen to the testimony of the defendant’s friend, who claims the defendant was with him in another part of town when the crime was committed. It’s the jurors’ job to decide who is telling the truth.

Who Does What
Jury: Qs & As


When did the jury system get started?
How many jurors are there?
What is a grand jury, and how is it different from a petit jury?
What happens if the jurors can’t agree?
Can anyone be on a jury?
How are jurors selected?
What if someone doesn’t want to be a juror?
Do jurors get paid?
How often can a person be required to serve on a federal jury?When did the jury system get started?
Juries were first used hundreds of years ago in England. The jury was a factor in the events that led to the Revolutionary War. The Declaration of Independence charged that King George III deprived the colonists “in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.” Our Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial to most defendants in criminal cases and to the parties in most civil cases.How many jurors are there?
In federal criminal cases, there are usually twelve jurors and from one to six alternate jurors. Alternate jurors replace jurors who become ill, disqualified, or unable to perform their duties. In federal civil cases, there are from six to twelve jurors. Unlike criminal cases, civil cases do not have alternate jurors. All of the jurors are required to participate in reaching the verdict unless the court excuses a juror from service during the trial or deliberations.What is a grand jury, and how is it different from a petit jury?
A grand jury is a group of citizens who listen to evidence of criminal activity presented by the government in order to determine whether there is enough evidence to justify issuing an indictment, in which they charge the defendant with a crime. Federal grand juries have from sixteen to twenty-three members. Unlike petit jurors, who are selected to serve on one trial only, grand jurors serve for about a year, sitting one or two days a week, and may hear evidence in many different cases.What happens if the jurors can’t agree?
In a criminal case, all twelve jurors must agree on the verdict. If they can’t agree after continued deliberations, the judge may declare a hung jury, which results in a mistrial. At that point the prosecutor must decide whether to try the case again with a different jury. Some cases are tried a second time, and even a third; in other cases, the prosecutor decides that convincing a second jury would be just as difficult, so the prosecutor drops the charges and the defendant goes free. In civil cases, the parties can agree in advance to accept the verdict of a majority of the jurors rather than requiring unanimity, but this happens very rarely.Can anyone be on a jury?
A juror must

  • be over age 18;
  • be a U.S. citizen;
  • have lived in the judicial district for a year;
  • be able to speak, read, and write English well enough to complete a questionnaire;
  • be free of mental and physical infirmities that would render him or her incapable of serving; and
  • have no felony convictions or pending felony charges.

Failure to meet any of these conditions disqualifies a person from federal jury service. How are jurors selected?
Congress requires that each district court develop a plan for selecting jurors. Generally, the selection process begins when the clerk of court randomly draws names from the list of registered voters in the judicial district, and sometimes from other sources, such as the list of licensed drivers. This selected group is called the master wheel. The clerk then sends questionnaires to all the people on the master wheel to determine whether they meet the requirements for jury service. People who fall into certain groups may ask to be excused at this point. For example, a person who provides care for a young child or an elderly person may ask to be excused. The group found eligible to serve and not excused is called the qualified wheel.

The jury administrator then chooses by random means a group of prospective jurors from the qualified wheel, who receive a summons to appear at the courthouse to serve on juries as trials are scheduled. At this point, prospective jurors may ask the court to excuse them from service upon a showing of “undue hardship or extreme inconvenience” or may ask for a deferral. For example, a person in a rural area with no transportation may request a hardship excuse; a person who is scheduled for surgery on the date of the summons may request a deferral. The remaining potential jurors must either appear in court or remain available to be used as grand or petit jurors during their term of service. When a jury is needed for a trial, some members of this group, or a panel of potential jurors, are chosen and sent to the courtroom. The trial jurors for the case are then selected from the panel, in the courtroom, during a question-and-answer process called voir dire.

What if someone doesn’t want to be a juror?
Serving on a jury is one of the duties of citizenship in this country and can be quite interesting. Some individuals may be eligible for a hardship excuse. The hardship must be extreme; judges don’t excuse people from jury service just because they need to go to work. A person who wants to avoid serving on a particular jury because of familiarity with the parties or subject matter will have a chance to tell the judge about it during voir dire. Such a person may be excused “for cause” from serving on that case, but will still be eligible for other juries. For example, a person who was a victim of a robbery would probably be excused from serving on the jury in a robbery case, but might end up on the jury for a civil case.

Do jurors get paid?
Federal courts must pay jurors a $40 attendance fee for each day of service, plus a travel allowance that is based on the distance from the juror’s home to the court and that includes toll charges. The court, in its discretion, can pay for reasonable parking fees. The court also has the discretion to pay up to $10 more per day if a jury trial lasts longer than thirty days or if a grand juror is required to put in more than forty-five days of service.

How often can a person be required to serve on a federal jury?
In a two-year period, a person cannot be required to

  • serve as a petit juror for a total of more than thirty days, unless it takes more than thirty days to complete service in a particular case;
  • serve on more than one grand jury; or
  • serve as both a grand juror and a petit juror.

However, a person may fulfill the federal jury service requirement and still be called for state jury duty during the same two-year period.

Who Does What
Parties


The people or entities who are directly involved in a lawsuit are called parties. They are plaintiffs (those who are suing in a civil case) or defendants (those who are being sued in a civil case or accused in a criminal case). The parties may be present at the counsel tables with their lawyers during the trial. Defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to be present at their trials. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Parties in civil cases also have a right to attend their trials, but they often choose not to.

Who Does What
Parties: Qs & As


Can a corporation be a party?
Can a plaintiff sue more than one defendant in the same case?
Is there an upper limit on the number of parties in a single case?
If a plaintiff files a case that makes no sense or sues the wrong person, can the defendant just ignore the lawsuit?Can a corporation be a party?
A corporation can be a plaintiff or a defendant in a civil case, or a defendant in a criminal case. Sometimes an officer is a party along with the corporation. For example, ABC Corp. might sue XYZ Corp. and John Jacob Jones, as president of XYZ Corp. If a corporation is found guilty in a criminal case, it may be ordered to pay a fine; sometimes a codefendant officer is sentenced to a prison term as well. The same is true of partnerships and other business entities.Can a plaintiff sue more than one defendant in the same case?
As long as the subject matter is related, one case can include the plaintiff’s claims against multiple defendants. Take, for example, a lawsuit in which it’s alleged that a car crashed because of a defective steering mechanism (called a product liability lawsuit). An injured passenger, the plaintiff, might sue as defendants the driver, the car manufacturer, the designer of the defective part, and the service station that inspected the car and failed to find the problem. Sometimes one defendant will sue another. If the driver sues the car manufacturer, this cross-claim is part of the same case. It would be unlikely in our hypothetical case, but sometimes a defendant sues the plaintiff–a counterclaim. Or a defendant might sue someone else who wasn’t included in the original lawsuit; this is called a third-party claim.Is there an upper limit on the number of parties in a single case?
There is no upper limit as long as the parties all have a common involvement in the facts of the case. If a group of plaintiffs is very large, the court may, in exceptional circumstances, designate the case a class action, such as when a lot of people claim they were injured by the same product, which makes it subject to special rules to keep things from getting too complicated. In a class action, one or more members of the group, or class, sue as representative partieson behalf of the entire class.If a plaintiff files a case that makes no sense or sues the wrong person, can the defendant just ignore the lawsuit?
When a person becomes a defendant in a civil case, he or she must respond by filing either an answer or a motion to dismiss the case. Just ignoring the lawsuit can result in the plaintiff’s winning the case. If it becomes clear that the plaintiff doesn’t have a legitimate claim against the defendant, the judge will dismiss the case.

Who Does What
Witnesses

Witnesses give testimony about the facts or issues in the case that are in dispute. During their testimony, they sit on the witness stand, facing the courtroom. Because the witnesses are asked to testify by one party or the other, they are often referred to as plaintiff’s witnesses, government witnesses, or defense witnesses.

Who Does What
Witnesses: Qs & As


If someone is called to be a witness, can the person refuse?
What is an expert witness?
Are witnesses ever paid for their testimony?
Do witnesses ever give a speech or presentation, or do they always answer questions from the lawyers?
Are there limits on the number of witnesses a party can use in a case?If someone is called to be a witness, can the person refuse?
The court can issue a subpoena, or order to appear, to a witness whose testimony is believed to be important to the outcome of the case. There are some restrictions; for example, the court can’t order a non-party witness to travel a great distance to testify. The Fifth Amendment provides that a person can always refuse to testify against himself or herself.What is an expert witness?
An expert witness is a person with specialized training and experience about particular subject matter; parties may ask an expert to testify in a case to offer an opinion on the case based on his or her knowledge. An expert witness might testify, based on his knowledge of ballistics, that the bullets found on the scene were fired from the defendant’s gun. Another expert witness might testify, based on her knowledge of psychiatry and on testing of the defendant, that the defendant didn’t understand what he was doing when he fired the gun. Fact witnesses, on the other hand, know something about what happened in the particular case. For example, in a criminal case involving a shooting, a fact witness might testify that she saw a person who looked like the defendant running from the crime scene.Are witnesses ever paid for their testimony?
Fact witnesses may be reimbursed for their expenses, such as travel to the court, but they are never paid for their testimony. Expert witnesses typically are paid by the party for whom they testify, and for some, testifying is a significant part of their livelihood.Do witnesses ever give a speech or presentation, or do they always answer questions from the lawyers?
Witnesses are limited to answering questions asked by the lawyers; however, a single answer can be long and detailed. For example, a lawyer might introduce a chart or diagram into evidence and then ask an expert witness to explain it.Are there limits on the number of witnesses a party can use in a case?
There are no limits that apply to all cases, but the judge often sets limits on the number of witnesses and the amount of time for testimony in a particular case. This happens during the pretrial conference process. The goal in setting limits is to ensure that each party has sufficient time to make his or her case, but without redundancy. The interest of each party in presenting everything that might influence the jury must be balanced with the interests of other parties who are waiting for their trial dates. So, for example, in an environmental case, a lawyer who wants to call three expert witnesses to testify about air quality might be required to choose just one, but if soil content is a separate issue requiring a different expert, the lawyer would be permitted to call another expert.

Who Does What
Lawyers: Prosecutor, Public defender, Private attorneys

In the courtroom, the lawyers for each party will either be sitting at the counsel tables near the bench or be speaking to the judge, a witness, or the jury. Each lawyer’s task is to bring out the facts that put his or her client’s case in the most favorable light, but to do so using approved legal procedures. In a federal criminal case, the government’s lawyer–the prosecutor–is the U.S. attorney or an assistant U.S. attorney. The defendant may be represented by a federal public defender, a lawyer appointed by the court, or a private attorney hired by the defendant. In a civil case, the parties must hire their own lawyers.

Who Does What
Lawyers: Qs & As


In a criminal case, what is the U.S. attorney’s role?
What happens if a criminal defendant can’t afford a lawyer?
Who decides whether a defendant is eligible to have a lawyer appointed?
What if a party in a civil case can’t afford a lawyer?
Does the losing party in a case ever have to pay the winner’s legal fees?
Can a party fire his or her lawyer?
Can a lawyer fire a client?
Are there limits on how aggressively a lawyer can defend his or her client?
What is attorney-client privilege?In a criminal case, what is the U.S. attorney’s role?
The U.S. attorney and his or her assistants work for the executive branch of the federal government, which has the job of prosecuting federal crimes on behalf of society. The U.S. attorney also represents the United States in civil cases in which the U.S. government is a party. A U.S. attorney is chosen by the President, with the approval of the Senate, for each of the ninety-four judicial districts.What happens if a criminal defendant can’t afford a lawyer?
Under the Constitution, as the Supreme Court has interpreted it, a person who is accused of a crime for which he or she could be imprisoned and who can’t afford to hire a lawyer may have a lawyer appointed to represent him or her at no cost. In the federal courts, these lawyers are usually

  • federal public defenders, who are full-time federal employees;
  • members of private defense organizations; or
  • private lawyers who meet certain standards and are found to be qualified to represent criminal defendants.

Although court-appointed lawyers are appointed by the judge and usually paid with public funds, they do not work for the judge–they work for their client, the defendant.

On rare occasions, defendants in criminal cases attempt to present their cases themselves, without using a lawyer. They are said to act pro se, a Latin phrase meaning “on one’s own behalf.”

Who decides whether a defendant is eligible to have a lawyer appointed?
The district judge or a magistrate judge determines whether a defendant is eligible for a court-appointed attorney at the defendant’s first appearance in federal court, after making inquiries into the person’s financial situation.

What if a party in a civil case can’t afford a lawyer?
There is no constitutional right to legal representation for a plaintiff in a civil case that parallels the right of a criminal defendant. A person may choose to bring or defend a civil case without using a lawyer. As in a criminal case, the person is said to act pro se, a Latin phrase meaning “on one’s own behalf.” Pro se parties in civil cases -and pro se debtors and creditors in bankruptcy cases–are much more common than pro se criminal defendants.

There are several alternatives available for someone who can’t pay a lawyer, and clerk’s offices have information about the options available in their districts.

Legal services organizations exist that may be willing to litigate certain cases. Some are interested in a particular kind of case (for example, cases in which someone alleges that his or her civil rights or civil liberties are being infringed) or a particular type of party (for example, children, war veterans, or people of a certain nationality or ethnicity). Many law firms take some cases on a pro bono publico (a Latin phrase meaning “for the good of the public”) basis. And plaintiffs in some types of cases–notably personal injury and medical malpractice–often seek out lawyers to represent them on a contingency basis, which means that the lawyer gets paid only if the plaintiff wins the case. In contingency-fee cases, the lawyer and client agree at the outset what percentage of the plaintiff’s damages the lawyer will get.

Does the losing party in a case ever have to pay the winner’s legal fees?
The losing party in a case has to pay the winning party’s legal fees in only a few specific types of cases. The statutes defining civil rights violations and some kinds of antitrust violations, for example, provide that successful plaintiff’s attorneys may ask the court to direct that their fees be paid by the defendant. This furthers the policy of encouraging plaintiffs to bring these cases, which benefit the public as well as the individual plaintiff.

Can a party fire his or her lawyer?
A party in a civil case may discharge a lawyer for any reason (or even no reason), but the party must pay any fees he or she has agreed to pay or any amounts due the lawyer for work already done. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant In a criminal case has the right to an attorney and an attorney will be appointed by the trial court if the defendant is unable to pay for one. A defendant does not have the right to fire his or her appointed counsel without the court’s approval. A defendant must show good cause, and the court has discretion to weigh the defendant’s reasons against other considerations, such as timeliness, in deciding whether to grant the defendant’s request. A criminal defendant has the right to discharge counsel, whether appointed or hired, and elect to defend himself or herself if the court determines that the defendant’s decision is voluntary and that he or she understands the disadvantages of self-representation.
Can a lawyer fire a client?
If a complaint has been filed and the case has formally begun, a lawyer may withdraw from the case only with the judge’s permission.

Are there limits on how aggressively a lawyer can defend his or her client?
Lawyers practicing in federal court are bound to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 requires that a lawyer who signs a pleading make a reasonable inquiry into the facts and determine that the pleading has merit. Documents are not to be filed for any improper purpose, “such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.” If an attorney violates this rule, the court may impose penalties or sanctions, such as ordering the attorney’s client to pay expenses incurred by the other party as a result of an improper pleading. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 forbids attorneys from blocking the discovery process- for example, by failing to respond to discovery requests or giving misleading responses. In addition to the Federal Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure, lawyers must follow rules of professional conduct and state bar rules.

What is attorney-client privilege?
The doctrine of attorney-client privilege generally provides that anything the client tells the lawyer who represents him or her, and any notes or documents the lawyer generates in the course of preparing the client’s case, remain confidential and can’t be disclosed in response to a discovery request from the other side. Thus, clients are encouraged to be honest with their lawyers so that their lawyers can represent them more effectively.

Who Does What
Courtroom Deputy Clerk

The courtroom deputy clerk, sometimes called the courtroom deputy, who is usually seated in the courtroom near the judge, administers oaths to witnesses and interpreters, takes care of records and exhibits, keeps minutes of proceedings, prepares criminal judgments and verdict forms, and generally helps the judge keep the trial running smoothly. The courtroom deputy clerk is employed by the office of the clerk of court. Typically, one or more courtroom deputy clerks support each active district and magistrate judge in a court. They work closely with the judges and chambers staff.

Who Does What
Court Reporter

The court reporter sits near the witness stand in the courtroom and records everything that is said during the trial or introduced into evidence by typing it on a stenographic machine or by making an electronic sound recording. This becomes the official record of the trial. Federal law requires that a word-for-word record be made of every trial. The court reporter also produces a written transcript of the proceedings if either party appeals the case or requests a transcript. Court reporters don’t work only in the courtroom. They also record depositions in attorneys’ offices and some conferences in judges’ chambers.

Court reporters may be hired as court staff or they may be independent contractors. Four methods of court reporting are approved. The great majority of court reporters use a stenotype, a machine that translates keystrokes into symbols that correspond to the spoken word. A few use shorthand, and a few use a steno mask, repeating everything that is said in the courtroom into a mask connected to a tape recorder and transcribing it later. Finally, electronic sound recording uses microphones placed in the courtroom to record proceedings on a multitrack tape, which is monitored by a clerk’s office employee (who need not be trained as a court reporter).

Who Does What
Court Interpreter


In cases in which a party or witness does not speak or understand English, his or her testimony may be interpreted by a court interpreter, whose job is to present a verbatim rendition of the testimony, as opposed to a summary. It is the English rendition by the interpreter that becomes part of the official court record. Federal Rule of Evidence 604 requires that the interpreter take an oath to faithfully and impartially interpret the speech of the witness or defendant. The court interpreter’s job is to interpret exactly what the witness or defendant says, without commenting on it, even if the interpreter believes the person is lying. If a witness doesn’t understand a question, the interpreter may not use his or her own words to explain. Rather, the interpreter must translate the witness’s request for explanation to the attorney or whoever asked the question, and that person has to explain or rephrase what he or she said. The interpreter then translates that for the witness.The Court Interpreters Act provides that the court shall use an interpreter when a “party, including a defendant in a criminal case, or a witness . . . speaks only or primarily a language other than the English language . . . so as to inhibit such party’s comprehension of the proceedings or communication with counsel . . . .” If the person who doesn’t understand English is a criminal defendant, the interpreter interprets everything said in the courtroom for that person’s benefit. Although the court hires and pays the interpreter for the period of time needed, most interpreters are not full-time court employees. In civil cases, the only use of a court interpreter is to translate non-English-speaking witnesses’ testimony. A civil party (as opposed to a criminal defendant) who doesn’t speak English is not entitled to court-provided interpretation.

Who Does What
U.S. Marshal


The U.S. Marshals Service is not an agency of the federal courts, although it works very closely with the courts. It is part of the executive branch’s Department of Justice. Marshals attend to juries throughout trial in criminal trials and to all juries during their deliberations, whether in civil or criminal trials. They transport and guard prisoners, defendants in criminal cases, and witnesses in federal custody. They execute arrest warrants and arrest probation violators. They also provide security for meetings of judges that take place outside the courthouse. In cases in which a party cannot afford to pay for service of process (such as serving of a subpoena for a witness to appear in court) and is eligible to have service performed by the court, U.S. marshals carry out the service. The U.S. Marshals Service uses judiciary funds to contract with private security firms for court security officers (CSOs) to assist with routine security functions. CSOs provide guard services at courthouse entrances and operate X-ray screening equipment.

Who Does What
Outside the Courtroom


Who Does What
Chambers Staff: Judge’s Law Clerk and Judicial Assistant

The staff in a judge’s office, or chambers, are the judge’s law clerks and the judicial assistant (or judicial secretary). These individuals assist with as many administrative and legal tasks as possible, leaving the judge more time for the aspects of judging that no one else can do.

Although the specific duties of judicial staff vary from judge to judge, the law clerks’ duties usually include

  • conducting legal research;
  • preparing memoranda (including bench memos, which appellate judges use during oral argument);
  • preparing draft orders and opinions;
  • proofreading the judges’ orders and opinions; and
  • verifying citations.

Law clerks may also perform administrative duties, such as maintaining the chambers library, assembling documents, and even swearing in witnesses and marking exhibits. The judicial assistant (or judicial secretary) manages the chambers. Like those of law clerks, the precise duties of judicial assistants vary from one chambers to the next, but the judicial assistant is usually responsible for

  • organizing the judge’s calendar;
  • making travel arrangements;
  • coordinating judicial committee activities;
  • maintaining office records and files; and
  • performing the other numerous tasks that keep the chambers running smoothly.

The law clerks and judicial assistant may also deal with lawyers and members of the public on behalf of the judge.

Who Does What
Chambers Staff: Qs & As


Where do judges get their law clerks?
How long do law clerks keep their jobs?
How many law clerks does each judge have?
Do law clerks attend sessions in the courtroom?
What is an “elbow law clerk”?
What special training is needed to become a judicial assistant?
Do judges tend to keep the same judicial assistant for a long time?Where do judges get their law clerks?
Most new law clerks are recent law school graduates who applied for the position. Federal clerkships are regarded as excellent training for new lawyers and are very prestigious jobs, so judges have a lot of applicants to choose from.How long do law clerks keep their jobs?
One- and two-year clerkships are typical. Some judges hire one new law clerk for a two-year term every year, so that there is always one person who has had the job at least a year, and the senior law clerk can help to train the junior one. Career law clerks, who are hired with the expectation that they will serve for an extended period, are much less common. Whether law clerks are given term or career appointments is a matter of the individual judge’s style; some judges prefer a long-term working relationship.How many law clerks does each judge have?
Under current Judicial Conference policy, court of appeals judges may hire up to five people as law clerks or judicial assistants (secretaries); district judges may employ up to three people; bankruptcy and magistrate judges, up to two people. Restrictions on the way in which judges allocate their positions among law clerks and assistants (secretaries) vary according to the type of judge.Do law clerks attend sessions in the courtroom?
Many law clerks attend courtroom sessions. Law clerks’ duties vary from one judge to the next and may also depend on the judge’s current caseload. Many judges assign their law clerks to handle exhibits during trial; some also discuss cases with their law clerks and confer on decisions. Law clerks for district, magistrate, and bankruptcy judges have more contact with the courtroom and the public than law clerks for appellate judges do; appellate law clerks’ main duties are research and writing.What is an “elbow law clerk”?
Elbow law clerk is a term sometimes used to refer to the law clerks who work in judges’ chambers. It suggests the closeness of the working relationship between judge and law clerk; the law clerk is, figuratively and sometimes literally, “at the judge’s elbow,” unlike other clerks and lawyers who work for the court in other capacities such as staff attorneys.What special training is needed to become a judicial assistant?
To become a judicial assistant, an applicant must have excellent secretarial skills, the ability to interact effectively with the public, and at least one year of general experience in secretarial work or the equivalent educational experience. Specialized experience, such as work in a law office, is looked on favorably.Do judges tend to keep the same judicial assistant for a long time?
Most judges hire a judicial assistant in the hope that it will be a long-term working relationship. Because much of the judge’s work can’t be delegated, most judges are glad to be able to delegate the chambers-management responsibility to a reliable judicial assistant who knows the chambers and court procedures and personnel.

Who Does What
Clerk of Court and Clerk’s Office Staff


The clerk of courtis an officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge and other judges in overseeing the court’s administration, especially managing the flow of cases through the court. Structure and functions of clerks’ offices vary somewhat depending on the type of court, and some courts also have divisional offices in which some of the work is handled. In all courts, though, the clerk of court and clerk’s office staff play many vital roles; they are sometimes referred to as the nerve center of the court. The clerk’s office is usually the first stop when a person visits the court for the first time–it is the place where cases are opened and additional case pleadings are filed. The clerk’s office is also the source of public information, including information about cases currently before the court. In addition, clerk’s office functions include

  • screening pleadings and other documents submitted to the court to ensure that they comply with legal requirements and court rules;
  • recruiting, hiring, and training staff;
  • managing the process by which potential jurors are identified and summoned;
  • developing and implementing a records management system;
  • maintaining a system for collection, accounting, and disbursement of funds;
  • preparing budgetary requests and spending plans to meet the court’s goals;
  • monitoring the construction of court space and alterations;
  • maintaining a liaison with all branches of the court and related government agencies; and
  • providing non-confidential information to the press. Clerks’ offices vary widely in organizational structure. The units of the clerk’s office described below are based on functions that each court needs, but how they fit together varies from court to court. In most appellate courts, there are no separate units such as intake, docketing, and filing; instead, all employees are generalists.
    Intake, docketing, and records

      Most new cases and pleadings come into the court through the clerk’s office intake desk. The intake desk is run by deputy clerks who accept filings; give basic case information in docket sheets or the case file; answer questions about local rules, deadlines, and court operations; and provide official court forms. Although the deputy clerks serve the court’s customers in many ways, they are strictly prohibited from giving legal advice, which includes whether to bring a case before the court and what remedies to seek.
    Case files are maintained in the records section, which is usually located near the intake desk. Every new case is assigned a number and entered into the court’s

docket

    . The docket is a list of every case before the court and includes entries of all pleadings and other papers filed in the case. The docket is now automated in all courts and can be accessed by computer. Pleadings, memoranda, motions, and orders are docketed promptly and kept in the clerk’s office. Deputy clerks use an automated case-tracking system to monitor cases. How work is allocated among deputy clerks varies from court to court. Some courts have case-management teams, and each team of a few deputies does all of the docketing, calendaring, case management, and courtroom deputy work for one or a few judges. Other courts are organized by function, such as intake, docketing, filing, records, courtroom deputies, and noticing.

Human resources director

    The human resources director is responsible for all personnel files in the court; he or she processes entry and termination papers, resolves problems, and answers questions about payroll deductions, life and health insurance benefits, and other personnel matters. On-the-job staff training sometimes is handled through the human resources office, but more often is coordinated through court training specialists throughout the courts.

Courtroom services

    The

courtroom deputy clerk

    , who is sometimes called the courtroom deputy, is usually seated in the courtroom near the judge, administers oaths to witnesses and interpreters, takes care of records and exhibits, keeps minutes of proceedings, prepares criminal judgments and verdict forms, assists with calendaring of proceedings, and generally helps the judge keep the trial running smoothly. The courtroom deputy is employed by the office of the

clerk of court

    . The courtroom deputy works closely with the judges and chambers staff.

Automation

    The automation department provides computer hardware and software support to the court. (Some probation offices have separate automation offices.) This support includes installation, maintenance, and troubleshooting. Automation staff orient new employees to the court’s computer system. They are responsible for automated docketing systems, such as CM/ECF.

Finance

    The finance office is responsible for the money that comes into the court, including money deposited by parties to be held in interest-bearing accounts and later refunded to them and fees paid to the court for deposit into the U.S. Treasury. The finance office also pays the court’s bills, reimburses judges and other court staff for expenses incurred during official travel, pays jurors, and submits finance reports to the

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

    .

Procurement

    The procurement section assists court staff in selecting, ordering, and inventorying furniture, equipment, and office supplies and ensures that purchases meet the federal government’s procurement guidelines. Procurement staff order everything purchased by the court and keep track of inventory. They also participate in the court’s yearly budget process and keep an accounting of money allocated for furniture, equipment, supplies, and services. They coordinate moves of judicial chambers and dispose of court property that is no longer needed or usable. They also handle the telephone needs of the court.

Training function

    Each court unit provides orientation and on-the-job and in-service training to line managers and staff. The training function is led by a full- or part-time court training specialist who plans, develops, implements, and administers a comprehensive training program tailored to the unit’s individual needs.Court training specialists also serve as a resource for both the

Federal Judicial Center

    and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in identifying training needs and implementing programs.

Who Does What
Court Legal Staff

Court legal staff fall into three categories: staff attorneys, circuit mediators, and pro se law clerks.

Staff attorneys
Each court of appeals maintains a staff attorneys office. Staff attorneys’ duties vary, but generally they prepare memoranda of law for the judges on issues raised in motions and appeals. They may also assist the court with jurisdictional issues. As opposed to the “elbow law clerk,” who is hired by and works with one judge, staff attorneys are part of the central staff of a court of appeals. They may do work for a number of judges.

Circuit mediators (also referred to as conference attorneys or settlement counsel)
Each of the thirteen regional courts of appeals also maintains a mediation program, which began in some courts under the name pre-argument conference program. More recently, courts have begun to use names such as appellate mediation program, conference program, or settlement program. Although the programs go by various names, they are essentially mediation programs. These programs bring lawyers in pending cases together (often with the parties) to discuss settlement, narrow the issues on appeal, and resolve procedural problems. The conferences usually occur at an early stage in the appeal, usually before parties file their briefs. Circuit mediators conduct the conferences. They are, like staff attorneys, part of the central staff of a court of appeals. In some courts, senior federal judges mediate some of the cases and, in one court, the director of the mediation program routinely assigns cases to volunteer attorney-neutrals who meet the court’s stringent qualifications.

Pro se law clerks
District courts employ pro se law clerks to handle pro se prisoner petitions and complaints and other civil rights complaints. Many of the prisoner cases are habeas corpus petitions, by which prisoners seek release from prison by trying to show that they are being wrongly imprisoned. In some courts, pro se law clerks are hired as chambers staff; in others, they are hired by the clerk’s office. In either case, they work primarily on prisoner matters, in contrast to the elbow law clerk, who works on any of the judge’s cases. The number of pro se law clerks allocated to each court depends on the number of prisoner petition filings the court has.

Who Does What
Pretrial Services Officer

The work of the pretrial services officer (sometimes called a PSO) focuses on defendants–individuals who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime. Shortly after an arrest, the officer begins to gather information about the defendant, through records checks and an interview, to help the judge decide whether the defendant can be released until trial or should be detained. If the judge decides at the detention hearing to grant pretrial release to a defendant, the officer’s job with respect to that defendant shifts to pretrial supervision. Some districts have a pretrial services office that is separate from the probation office; in other districts, the probation office is responsible for both pretrial services and probation work.

Who Does What
Pretrial Services Officer: Qs & As


Does the pretrial services officer help to decide whether the defendant is guilty?
Isn’t it unconstitutional to lock a person up before the judge has even thought about whether the person is guilty?
What goes into the pretrial services report, and how does the officer get the information?
How does a pretrial services officer supervise a defendant who is out on pretrial release?
When does supervision end?
What are the requirements to become a federal pretrial services officer?
What entity do pretrial services officers work for?Does the pretrial services officer help to decide whether the defendant is guilty?
Whether the defendant committed the crime he or she was arrested for is not the concern of the pretrial services officer (PSO). By law, it’s the PSO’s job to assess two risks concerning the defendant: danger to the community and nonappearance at later court proceedings. So the pretrial services report focuses not on the current offense, which the defendant is presumed innocent of at this point, but on factors relevant to those two risks. The report describes the defendant’s family ties and employment status, for example, and may provide important facts about why the defendant should be released. For example, if the defendant is responsible for the care of family members, it’s less likely that he or she would flee before trial.Isn’t it unconstitutional to lock a person up before the judge has even thought about whether the person is guilty?
The U.S. Constitution gives defendants the right to a speedy trial, but for the period of time between the arrest and the trial, the judge has to balance the defendant’s interests with the community’s interests in keeping dangerous people off the streets and in ensuring that the defendant will be present at trial. Congress has provided standards for judges to use in balancing these factors.What goes into the pretrial services report, and how does the officer get the information?
The pretrial services report includes any prior criminal record the defendant has. The PSO has access to various automated databases so that he or she can find this information. The officer then seeks to interview the defendant, often in a holding cell, concentrating on facts relevant to the risks of flight and danger to the community, such as whether the defendant has a job, where and with whom he or she lives, and the defendant’s ties to the community, health issues, and financial status. The officer includes any relevant information in the report. The officer also writes a recommendation, which may go beyond a simple “release” or “detain” to include the least restrictive conditions to minimize the risks of letting the defendant await trial in the community. For example, one condition that is becoming much more common is home confinementthrough electronic monitoring; the defendant wears an electronic device that alerts the officer if the defendant leaves the permissible area.How does a pretrial services officer supervise a defendant who is out on pretrial release?
The first step of supervision is developing a supervision plan that reflects the defendant’s circumstances and addresses every condition the court has imposed. The PSO may meet with the defendant as often as once a week, or they may meet only monthly or even quarterly. If the judge has imposed conditions–for example, that the defendant submit to drug testing or look for employment–the officer works with the defendant to make sure that the conditions are met. Sometimes the officer helps the defendant find other resources, such as counseling or job training.When does supervision end?
Supervision ends if a defendant is found not guilty in a trial or the charges against him or her are dropped. If a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty in a trial, the pretrial services officer prepares a status report, to tell the judge how the person–now an offender–has done on pretrial release. Because of the Speedy Trial Act’s time limits for filing an indictment and commencing the trial, supervision doesn’t usually last more than a few months. And the PSO’s supervision of the offender may continue even after a plea or finding of guilt–and may overlap with the involvement of the probation officer who will prepare the presentence report–because there is often a delay between sentencing and the time a person’s sentence begins.What are the requirements to become a federal pretrial services officer?
All federal pretrial services officers are required to have bachelor’s degrees, usually in criminal justice or the social sciences. Many also have master’s degrees or work experience in a state or local probation system, criminal justice, or social work. The upper age limit for new officers is thirty-seven.What entity do pretrial services officers work for?
Pretrial services officers work for the court, not the U.S. attorney or the police. Many pretrial services and probation officers describe themselves as “the eyes and ears of the court.” Some judicial districts have a separate pretrial services office, headed by a pretrial services chief. In others, the probation office, headed by a chief probation officer, handles pretrial services work as well as probation work. Most districts also have officers who specialize in supervising offenders with certain problems, such as drug abuse and mental illness.

Who Does What
Probation Officer

Probation officers (sometimes called POs) work in two primary areas. First, they prepare presentence reports, making an in-depth search for all facts about the offense and the offender that might have an impact on the appropriate sentence under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Second, they perform postsentence supervision of offenders. In some districts, probation officers handle pretrial services work as well; other districts have a separate pretrial services office.

Who Does What
Probation Officer: Qs & As


Does the probation officer help the judge decide what the sentence should be?
What goes into a presentence report?
What is supervised release?
Do probation officers supervise other offenders?
What are some typical conditions of release?
Is the officer’s main job to rehabilitate offenders or to police them?
How often does the PO see each offender?
Can the PO send the offender back to prison?
What are the requirements to become a federal probation officer?
What entity do probation officers work for?Does the probation officer help the judge decide what the sentence should be?
Judges in the federal courts are bound by sentencing laws enacted by Congress. In addition, judges use Sentencing Guidelines issued by a body called the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as a source of advice as to the proper sentence. Sentencing requires an in-depth understanding of the offense itself and the offender’s background. Although the judge makes the final call on a sentence, he or she depends heavily on the PO’s presentence report and sentencing recommendation.What goes into a presentence report?
The presentence report typically includes information from the pretrial services report, including the offender’s criminal history and personal circumstances. The presentence report goes into much more detail, however. Unlike the pretrial services report, it focuses on the specifics of the offense. For example, a bank robbery will result in different sentences depending on whether the offender carried, brandished, or used a gun. The impact of the crime on the victim is also taken into account.What is supervised release?
It’s common today for a federal sentence to include a period of time in prison, followed by a period of time in the community called supervised release. A person on supervised release must follow conditions imposed by the court, based on his or her own situation, under the supervision of a probation officer. Failure to follow the court’s conditions can result in a return to prison. The term of supervised release can range from one to five years.Do probation officers supervise other offenders?
A PO’s caseload includes probationers–offenders whose sentences consist of probation, perhaps with a fine, restitution, or community service, but with no prison time. It also includes parolees; however, federal parole, under which the U.S. Parole Commission released some offenders before their sentences ended, applies only to offenders sentenced before November 1, 1987, when the Sentencing Guidelines took effect. Only a few of these offenders who are eligible for parole are still being released from prison into community supervision by probation officers. Part of the theory of the Sentencing Guidelines is that the judge determines how much time the offender will spend in prison and how much time he or she will spend in community supervision, and this is not subject to change later. The parole system is still alive in the state courts.What are some typical conditions of release?
Some conditions are common to all supervision cases, such as no illegal drug use. Others vary depending on the individual and the crime, such as regular urine tests for drug use, no travel outside a certain area, or no association with coconspirators. Some offenders are required to remain in their homes during certain hours and are monitored electronically to make sure they do so.Is the officer’s main job to rehabilitate offenders or to police them?
The law gives the PO three supervision goals: enforcing the conditions of the sentence, reducing risk, and providing or arranging for correctional treatment for the offender. Everything the officer does is in furtherance of those goals–starting with the initial review of a newly assigned offender’s file and development of a case supervision plan. The officer identifies goals and potential problems, and figures out how to help the offender achieve the goals and prevent or deal with the problems.How often does the PO see each offender?
How often the probation officer sees offenders varies widely depending on the supervision plan the officer has developed for each offender. Some offenders may require weekly meetings and even more frequent phone contact; for others, occasional contact is sufficient. Some meetings take place at the probation office; others, at the offender’s home or workplace. “Collateral contacts” with the offender’s family members, friends, neighbors, and employers can be extremely helpful in giving the officer a sense of how things are going in an offender’s life, what special risks or problems may be coming up, and whether action is needed.Can the PO send the offender back to prison?
The probation officer can’t send an offender back to prison, but it is part of the officer’s job to notify the court of an offender’s violation of a condition. Typically, if the officer learns of a minor violation of a condition or believes that a violation is likely, he or she tries to work with the offender to head off a more serious problem. Or the officer might ask the judge to modify the conditions of release to impose a restriction geared to helping the offender resist temptation or to require needed treatment. After a serious violation or repeated violations, the officer may believe that a particular offender can’t or won’t do what it takes to serve a sentence outside prison. It’s then the officer’s job to notify the judge and request a revocation of supervised release. The offender is entitled to a revocation hearing, at which the judge may decide to revoke the supervised release and send the offender back to prison.What are the requirements to become a federal probation officer?
All federal probation officers are required to have bachelor’s degrees, usually in criminal justice or the social sciences. Many also have master’s degrees or work experience in a state or local probation system, criminal justice, or social work. The upper age limit for new officers is thirty-seven.What entity do probation officers work for?
Probation officers work for the court, not the U.S. attorney or the police. Many pretrial services and probation officers describe themselves as “the eyes and ears of the court.” More specifically, each district has a chief probation officer, a deputy chief probation officer, and several officers who supervise other officers. Most districts also have officers who specialize in supervising offenders with certain problems, such as drug abuse and mental illness.

Who Does What
Librarian

Each court of appeals maintains a library at its headquarters, and those circuits that cover a large geographic area have branch libraries at other locations. Although court libraries are primarily for the use of judges and their staffs, they generally are open to members of the bar, employees of other government agencies, and the public.

Each library is managed by a librarian. In addition to the usual responsibilities involved in managing a library, some librarians publish a periodic newsletter describing new publications and listing books and articles of particular interest to their court. They may also make recommendations for new acquisitions and provide or arrange for training in legal research for court employees. Some librarians do research for the judges. In some circuits, for example, the library staff will prepare a legislative history of a statute for a judge on request.

Who Does What
U.S. Trustee


U.S. trustees are unique to bankruptcy. They relieve bankruptcy judges of administrative matters, such as appointing case trustees, naming creditors’ committees, and conducting meetings of creditors.Although they work closely with bankruptcy judges and clerks’ office staff, U.S. trustees are notfederal court employees. They work for the Department of Justice, an executive branch agency. The Attorney General of the United States appoints them for five-year terms.There are twenty-one U.S. trustee “regions.” Each region serves the bankruptcy courts in one or more federal districts. The regions don’t correspond with circuit boundaries. Only the federal judicial districts of North Carolina and Alabama do not use U.S. trustees.U.S. trustees are not the same as case trustees, interim trustees, orstanding trustees. U.S. trustees are government employees; the other kinds of trustees are private citizens–often attorneys or accountants. The U.S. trustee appoints and supervises them, and they handle administrative matters in various types of filings. For instance, a case trustee in a liquidation sells the debtor’s property and distributes the money among creditors.

The Federal Courts and the Other Branches of Government
What is the authority for the creation of federal courts?

Article III of the Constitution calls for a Supreme Court and whatever other federal courts Congress thinks are necessary. Congress created the district courts, bankruptcy courts, and courts of appeals; sets the number of judges in each federal court (including the Supreme Court); and determines what kinds of cases the courts will hear, subject to the constitutional limitations on federal jurisdiction.

The Federal Courts and the Other Branches of Government
How does Congress interact with the federal courts?

  • The courts review and interpret laws passed by Congress. If the courts strike down a federal law as unconstitutional, or interpret it in a way different from what Congress intended, Congress may come up with a different version of the law.
  • Congress creates federal judgeships and courts. As of 2007, Congress had authorized 179 court of appeals judgeships and 678 district court judgeships and had authorized 352 bankruptcy judgeships and 551 full-time and part-time magistrate judgeships. Congress also controls the types of cases that the federal courts may hear.
  • Through the confirmation process, the Senate decides which of the President’s judicial nominees will become federal judges.
  • Congress can impeach federal judges and remove them from office.
  • Congress sets the budget for the courts. Every year, representatives of the courts testify to Congress about how much money is needed for different kinds of court operations, salaries, and other expenses, and Congress decides how much to allocate for the next fiscal year.

The Federal Courts and the Other Branches of Government
How does the Executive Branch interact with the federal courts?

  • The President appoints most federal judges with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
  • Executive branch agencies propose legislation that often affects the courts.
  • The Department of Justice, an executive branch agency, is the most frequent litigator in the federal courts. It prosecutes federal crimes and represents the government in civil cases.
  • The courts have the power of review over presidential actions when these actions are properly brought before the courts in a lawsuit.
  • The Chief Justice of the United States presides over impeachment proceedings against the President.
  • Judges depend on the executive branch to enforce court decisions.

The Federal Courts and the Other Branches of Government
What is judicial independence, and why is it important?

The founders of this country recognized that the judicial branch must remain independent to fulfill its mission effectively and impartially. Article III of the Constitution protects certain types of judges by providing that they serve “during good behavior” and by prohibiting reductions of their salaries. The judges who are protected are sometimes called Article III judges. They are Supreme Court justices and judges of the courts of appeals and district courts and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Other federal judges, including bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges, serve for limited terms and are not considered Article III judges. The constitutional protections for Article III judges mean that, once appointed, these judges keep their jobs as long as they wish, unless Congress decides to remove them through a lengthy process called impeachment and conviction, which may also be used to remove the President and other government officials. Only eight federal judges have been impeached and convicted in the entire history of the country.

These constitutional protections allow judges to make unpopular decisions without fear of losing their jobs or having their pay cut. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 declared racial segregation in the public schools to be unconstitutional. This decision was unpopular with large segments of society at that time. Some members of Congress even wanted to replace the judges who made the decision, but the Constitution wouldn’t let them.

Federal Court Governance and Administration
National

All of the national agencies described below are housed in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in Washington, D.C., named for the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Judicial Conference of the United States and Its Committees

The Judicial Conference of the United States is a body of twenty-six judges, plus the Chief Justice of the United States, who presides. The Conference establishes national policies for the administration of the federal courts. Its members are the chief judge of each of the thirteen courts of appeals and the U.S. Court of International Trade, and a district judge elected from each of the twelve regional circuits. The Conference meets twice a year in Washington, D.C. Much of its work is done through some twenty committees made up largely of court of appeals, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges. These committees consider and make recommendations to the Conference on issues relating to the judiciary’s budget, human resources, security, space, facilities, and automation, as well as the Federal Civil, Criminal, Bankruptcy, and Appellate Rules. The Chief Justice appoints all the members of Conference committees.

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (the AO) is the federal judicial system’s national agency for policy guidance and administrative support. Created by Congress in 1939, it exercises its many statutory duties under the supervision and direction of the Judicial Conference. It is managed by a director who is appointed by the Chief Justice in consultation with the Judicial Conference. The AO administers the federal courts’ budget and is responsible for space, facilities, personnel matters, and a multitude of other aspects of administering the federal courts. It collects and publishes extensive statistics on all aspects of the judiciary’s activities. It maintains close contact with Congress to convey the official judicial branch position on legislation that may affect the administration of the federal courts. It supports the judiciary’s automation programs and its libraries. It also publishes the Guide to Judiciary Policies and Procedures, sometimes called the red book, which provides detailed information on personnel, administrative, and financial matters.

Federal Judicial Center

Congress created the Federal Judicial Center in 1967 “to further the development and adoption of improved judicial administration in the courts of the United States.” The Center presents a full range of educational programs for judges and other court employees and provides research and analysis of federal court procedures and operations, often for the committees of the Judicial Conference. Its policies are set by a Board chaired by the Chief Justice. The Board’s members are two circuit judges, three district judges, one bankruptcy judge, and one magistrate judge elected by the Judicial Conference; the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is an ex officio member. The Board appoints the director and deputy director of the Center.

The Center provides orientation programs (like this one) as well as numerous seminars, workshops, and other educational programs on a wide range of topics in many different forms. Center programs are developed to serve the needs of judges and their staffs, and to train those who work in the offices that support the courts.

United States Sentencing Commission

Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) in 1984 and charged it with establishing uniform policies to guide federal judges as they sentence criminal offenders. The USSC’s first set of sentencing guidelines took effect in 1987. The USSC also has the authority to submit guideline amendments to Congress annually. If Congress does not disapprove them, the amendments take effect automatically 180 days after submission. The USSC also monitors the performance of probation officers with regard to sentencing recommendations. It has established a research program that includes a clearinghouse and information center on federal sentencing practices. It also provides court personnel, outside attorneys, and others with education about the guidelines, coordinating with the Federal Judicial Center to avoid duplication.

The Sentencing Commission consists of a chair, three vice chairs, and three other voting commissioners who are appointed for six-year terms by the President of the United States. The seven members must include no more than three federal judges; no more than four members may belong to the same political party. The Attorney General of the United States is an ex officio member of the USSC, as is the chair of the U.S. Parole Commission.

Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation is responsible for considering the transfer of civil cases that are pending in different districts to a single district for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. The criterion for transfer is that the cases must involve common questions of fact. For example, the panel has ordered the transfer of mass tort actions arising from asbestos-related illnesses from the districts in which they were filed to a single district. Established by statute in 1968, the panel consists of seven court of appeals and district court judges designated by the Chief Justice.

Federal Court Governance and Administration
Regional

Circuit Judicial Councils

The federal judicial system is too large and too diverse to be administered solely by a single national body. That is why much of the system’s operation is the responsibility of the judicial councils of the circuits. Each circuit judicial council is chaired by the chief judge of the circuit and includes an equal number of court of appeals and district judges. The councils monitor the state of business of the courts in the circuit, including any backlogs of cases. They approve district court operating plans in such areas as juror utilization and court reporters, and they play a key role in acting upon complaints charging a judge with disability or misconduct. The councils also appoint the circuit executive.

The chief judge of the circuit also has the statutory option to call a conference for all federal judges in the circuit, usually with lawyers who are members of the bar. These circuit conferences, which usually meet once a year or once every two years, consider a variety of issues and may provide a bridge between the judges and the lawyers.

There are no “district judicial councils” that parallel the circuit councils, but the district courts are responsible for much of their own administration, especially since the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (the AO) has delegated to them significant responsibilities that are vested by statute in the AO.

Chief Judge of the Circuit

The chief judge of the circuit (or chief circuit judge) is the chief judge of the circuit’s court of appeals, presides over the circuit’s judicial council, and serves as one of the circuit’s two members on the Judicial Conference of the United States. As chief judge of the court of appeals, the chief presides over whatever three-judge panels he or she is assigned to, and also at en banc hearings. The chief judge generally supervises the administration of the court of appeals, assisted by the circuit executive and the clerk of court and by committees that the various courts of appeals create, and serves as the court’s chief representative to other components of the federal judicial system and others in the community. The chief judge of the circuit presides over meetings of the circuit council and, with the assistance of the circuit executive, sees to it that the council’s many responsibilities are carried out. Generally, a judge may not serve as chief circuit judge for more than seven years and must step down upon reaching the age of 70. When a chief judge relinquishes the post, it passes to the judge on the court who is next highest in seniority and is 64 years old or younger. Because of chief judges’ many administrative duties, some courts of appeals assign chief judges fewer cases than they do other judges.

Circuit Executive

The circuit executive is appointed by the circuit judicial council. His or her responsibilities are delegated by the circuit council and subject to supervision by the chief judge of the circuit. These duties typically include

  • administering all nonjudicial, administrative activities of the court of appeals in the circuit;
  • administering the personnel system and the budget of the court of appeals in the circuit;
  • providing services to courts of the circuit, for example, advice and assistance concerning courthouse construction or information technology;
  • conducting studies relating to the business and administration of the courts within the circuit and preparing reports and recommendations to the chief judge, the circuit council, and the Judicial Conference;
  • serving as the circuit’s liaison to state courts, bar groups, the media, and the public; and
  • preparing an annual report to the circuit and the AO for the preceding calendar year, including recommendations for improvements in handling the business of the courts.

Federal Court Governance and Administration
Local

Chief Judge of the District

The chief judge of the district generally supervisesthe administration of the court, assisted by the clerk of court and by committees that the various district courts create. Chief district judges also have judicial responsibilities, like any member of the court, but because of the chief judge’s many administrative duties, some courts assign chief judges fewer cases than other judges. The chief judge’s major statutory assignment is to enforce whatever rules the court has adopted for the assignment of cases to the judges. In addition to this and a few other formal assignments, the chief judge is generally expected to see to it that the district court operates effectively and that nonjudicial officers of the court perform their responsibilities properly, and to represent the district court in its interactions with other components of the federal judicial system and others in the community. Although the chief judge has no control whatsoever over the judicial decisions of other judges on the court, most chief judges assume some responsibility for dealing with such delicate problems as a judge who has aheavy backlog of undecided cases or who may have become physically or mentally unable to serve. Generally, a judge may not serve as chief judge for more than seven years and must step down upon reaching the age of 70. When a chief judge relinquishes the post, it passes to the judge on the court who is next highest in seniority and is 64 years old or younger.

Chief Judge of the Bankruptcy Court

The bankruptcy judges in a district, by law, constitute a unit of the district court, known as the bankruptcy court. Although the judges of the court of appeals select the bankruptcy judges, the judges of the district court designate one of those judges to serve as the chief judge of the bankruptcy court. The district judges often designate as chief judge a judge recommended by the bankruptcy judges. Congress has specifically directed chief bankruptcy judges to ensure that the rules of the bankruptcy court and of the district court are observed and that the business of the bankruptcy court is handled effectively and expeditiously. Unlike the chief judges of the courts of appeals and district courts, the chief bankruptcy judge has no statutory limit on the amount of time he or she may serve as chief judge (although bankruptcy judges themselves serve a fourteen-year term and are eligible for reappointment).

Clerk of Court

The clerk of court is an officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge and other judges in overseeing the court’s administration, especially managing the flow of cases through the court. The clerk or court’s structure and functions vary somewhat depending on the type of court, and some courts also have divisional offices in which some of the work is handled. In all courts, though, the clerk of court and clerk’s office staff play many vital roles; they are sometimes referred to as the nerve center of the court. The clerk’s office is usually the first stop when a person visits the court for the first time; it is the place where cases are opened and additional case pleadings are filed. The clerk’s office is also the source of public information, including information about cases currently before the court. In addition, clerk’s office functions include

  • screening pleadings and other documents submitted to the court to ensure that they comply with legal requirements and court rules;
  • recruiting, hiring, and training staff;
  • managing the process by which potential jurors are identified and summoned;
  • developing and implementing a records management system;
  • maintaining a system for collection, accounting, and disbursement of funds;
  • preparing budgetary requests and spending plans to meet the court’s goals;
  • monitoring the construction of court space and alterations;
  • maintaining a liaison with all branches of the court and related government agencies; and
  • providing non-confidential information to the press.

Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees

Judicial branch employees must maintain exceptionally high standards of conduct. Judges, their staffs, officials under judges’ control, and all other employees of the judiciary should strive to maintain the public’s confidence in the federal court system.

The Judicial Conference of the United States has adopted a code of conduct for federal judges and another for judicial employees.

The Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees provides as follows:
Canon 1: A judicial employee should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary and of the judicial employee’s office.Canon 2: A judicial employee should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.Canon 3: A judicial employee should adhere to appropriate standards in performing the duties of the office.Canon 4: In engaging in outside activities, a judicial employee should avoid the risk of conflict with official duties, should avoid the appearance of impropriety, and should comply with disclosure requirements.Canon 5: A judicial employee should refrain from inappropriate political activity.

The code provides more detailed explanations of what is prohibited. The Codes of Conduct Committee of the Judicial Conference issues advisory opinions addressing specific circumstances at the request of employees covered by the code.

Definitions

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Z

341 meeting of creditors — a meeting held shortly after a bankruptcy petition is filed, as required by section 341 of the Bankruptcy Code. Its purpose is to give the trustee and creditors an opportunity to question the debtor under oath.

acquittal — a finding that the defendant is not guilty of the charges brought by the government. This finding may be reached by the trial judge either in a case tried before the judge or on a motion for judgment of acquittal made by a defendant or the judge in a jury trial. The jury may make such a finding in a case tried before it.

active judge — a judge in the full-time service of the court. Compare with senior judge.

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) — the federal agency responsible for collecting court statistics, administering the federal courts’ budget, processing the federal courts’ payroll, and performing other administrative functions, under the direction and supervision of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

admissible — a term used to describe evidence that may be heard by a jury and considered by a judge or a jury in federal civil and criminal cases.

adversary proceeding — in bankruptcy, a method of handling disputes that may arise during the course of a case. It is literally a lawsuit within a case and is generally initiated by a complaint and requires a filing fee. The Bankruptcy Rules establish the types of disputes that are considered adversary proceedings. Compare with contested matter.

adversary process — the method courts use to resolve disputes. Through the adversary process, each side in a dispute has the right to present its case as persuasively as possible, subject to the rules of evidence, and an independent fact finder, either judge or jury, decides in favor of one side or the other.

alternate juror — a juror who is selected in the same manner as a regular juror and hears the evidence in a case along with the regular jurors, but does not help decide the case unless called upon to replace a regular juror.

alternative dispute resolution (ADR) — a procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom or helping to make the trial more efficient, such as mediation, arbitration, or minitrial. Most forms of ADR are usually not binding on the parties and involve referral of the case to a neutral party. ADR is becoming more common in the federal courts.

amicus curiae — a Latin term meaning “friend of the court.” An amicus curiae is a person or organization that is not a party in the case on appeal, has a strong interest in the outcome of the case, and files a brief with the court of appeals called an “amicus brief.” This brief may call important legal or factual matters to the court’s attention and thus help the court reach a proper decision in the case.

answer — the formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint and sets forth the grounds for defense.

appeal — a request, usually made after a trial, asking another court (usually the court of appeals) to decide whether the trial court proceeding was conducted properly. To make such a request is “to appeal” or “to take an appeal.”

appellant — the party who appeals a lower court’s decision, usually seeking reversal of that decision. Compare with appellee.

appellate court — a court that reviews decisions of lower courts. In the federal courts, the primary appellate courts are the U.S. courts of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

appellee — the party against whom an appeal is taken and who seeks to protect the judgment or order of the lower court. Compare with appellant.

arbitration — a form of alternative dispute resolution in which an arbitrator (a neutral decision maker) issues a judgment on the legal issues involved in a case after listening to presentations by each party. Arbitration can be binding or nonbinding, depending on the agreement among the parties before the proceeding.

arraignment — a proceeding in which a person accused of committing a crime is brought into court, told of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

arrest — a law enforcement officer’s detaining a person or otherwise leading that person to reasonably believe that he or she is not free to leave.

Article III — the section of the U.S. Constitution that places “the judicial power of the United States” in the federal courts.

Article III judges — judges who exercise “the judicial power of the United States” under Article III of the Constitution. They are appointed by the President, subject to the approval of the Senate. Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, district court judges, and Court of International Trade judges are Article III judges; bankruptcy and magistrate judges are not.

assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) — a federal prosecutor who assists the U.S. attorney in the judicial district by prosecuting criminal cases for the federal government and representing the government in civil actions. It is important to distinguish a U.S. attorney from a district attorney (DA), who prosecutes criminal cases for a state, county, or city.

attorney-client privilege — the doctrine that ensures that communications between an attorney and his or her client remain confidential and that the attorney cannot be compelled to disclose them.

Attorney General — the executive branch official appointed by the President to head the Justice Department.

automatic stay — a provision that goes into effect as soon as a bankruptcy case is filed and that stops most creditors from suing or foreclosing against a debtor without prior permission of the bankruptcy court.

bail — the release of a person charged with an offense prior to trial under specified financial or nonfinancial conditions designed to ensure the person’s appearance in court when required.

bankruptcy — federal statutes and judicial proceedings involving persons or businesses that cannot pay their debts and thus seek the assistance of the court in getting a “fresh start.” Under the protection of the bankruptcy court and the laws of the Bankruptcy Code, debtors may “discharge” their debts, perhaps by paying a portion of each debt.

bankruptcy appellate panel (BAP) — in the circuits that have them, a panel of three bankruptcy judges that shares the appellate role of the district court in bankruptcy filings.

bankruptcy court — see U.S. bankruptcy court.

bankruptcy estate — a debtor’s assets (money or property) that, unless exempt, must be used to pay creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding.

bankruptcy judge — a federal judge, appointed by the court of appeals for a fourteen-year term, who has authority to hear matters that arise under the Bankruptcy Code.

bench trial — a trial without a jury, in which the judge decides the facts. Compare with jury trial.

brief — a written statement submitted by the lawyer for each side in a case that explains the legal and factual arguments why the court should decide the case in favor of that lawyer’s client.

burden of proof — the level or quality of proof that a party needs to prove his or her case. In civil cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence, which means the plaintiff’s proof must outweigh the defendant’s at least slightly for the plaintiff to win; if the two sides are equal, the defendant wins. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proof, and that burden is much higher: A verdict of guilty requires the government to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

case file — a complete collection of every document in a case.

case law — the law as laid down in the decisions of the courts; the law in cases that have been decided. Compare with statute.

case management — techniques used to process cases from one stage of the proceeding to another, such as setting deadlines for discovery or scheduling a series of pretrial conferences. Case management calls for different approaches from one case to the next and is the primary responsibility of judges, assisted by lawyers and clerks’ office personnel.

case trustee — in bankruptcy, a person, often a lawyer or accountant, hired to preside over liquidation of the debtor’s estate. The case trustee collects and sells the debtor’s nonexempt property and distributes the proceeds to creditors, and he or she pursues legal claims on behalf of the debtor for purposes of getting as much money for the estate as possible.

challenge for cause — a lawyer’s attempt to prevent a prospective juror from sitting on a jury because, in the lawyer’s view, the juror’s answers to voir dire questions suggest that he or she cannot approach the case impartially. If the judge agrees with the lawyer, the judge will then strike (excuse) the prospective juror for cause. Compare with peremptory challenge.

chambers — the offices of a judge.

chief judge — the judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court, but also decides cases. Chief appellate judges and chief district judges take office according to rules regarding age and seniority; chief bankruptcy judges are appointed by the district judges of the court. Compare with Chief Justice.

Chief Justice — the “first among equals” on the U.S. Supreme Court, who has numerous responsibilities for the administration of the federal judicial system as well as for hearing cases. The President appoints the Chief Justice, with approval of the Senate, when a vacancy occurs in the office.

circuit — the regional unit of federal judicial appeals. Congress has divided the federal judicial system into twelve regional circuits (the eleven numbered circuits and the District of Columbia Circuit). In each circuit is a court of appeals to hear appeals from district courts in the circuit, and a circuit judicial council to oversee the administration of the courts of the circuit. See also district.

circuit court — an informal name for a U.S. court of appeals (also the name of some state trial courts).

circuit executive — a federal court employee appointed by a circuit judicial council to assist the chief judge of the circuit and provide administrative support to the courts of the circuit.

circuit judge — an informal name for a U.S. court of appeals judge.

circuit judicial council — a governing body in each federal circuit created by Congress to ensure the effective and expeditious administration of justice in that circuit. Each council has an equal number of circuit and district court judges; the chief judge of the circuit is the presiding officer.

civil case — a lawsuit brought by a party (the plaintiff) against another party (the defendant) claiming that the defendant failed to carry out a legal duty owed to the plaintiff and that the defendant’s breach of duty caused financial or personal injury to the plaintiff. Usually, the purpose of bringing the case is to get a court order for the defendant to pay for damages suffered by the plaintiff.

class action — a lawsuit in which one or more members of a large group, or “class,” of individuals or other entities sue as “representative parties” on behalf of the entire class. There must be questions of law or fact common to the class, and the district court must agree to “certify the class,” thus allowing the action to proceed as a class action.

clerk of court — an officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge and other judges in overseeing the court’s administration, especially to assist in managing the flow of cases through the court.

closing arguments — after all the evidence has been presented in a trial, lawyers’ presentations summarizing the evidence and attempting to persuade the jury to draw conclusions favorable to their clients. Closing arguments, like opening statements, are not themselves evidence.

community defender organization — a nonprofit defense counsel service organized by a group of lawyers in private practice and authorized by the district court to represent criminal defendants in court who cannot afford to pay for their defense. Compare with federal public defender organization.

complaint — a written statement by the person (called the “plaintiff”) starting a civil lawsuit which details the wrongs allegedly committed against that person by another person (called the “defendant”).

concurring opinion — see opinion.

condition — a court-imposed requirement that a defendant or offender must abide by in order to remain under community supervision by a pretrial services or probation officer, as an alternative to imprisonment. For example, refraining from use of illegal drugs is a mandatory condition for everyone under federal supervision; a person who is known to have used illegal drugs in the past may also have regular drug testing as a condition.

confirmation hearing — (1) in bankruptcy, the court proceeding at which the judge determines whether a debtor’s plan of reorganization meets the requirements of the Bankruptcy Code, whether creditors have accepted or rejected the plan, and whether to confirm the plan as presented. (2) the hearing in which Senate Judiciary Committee members question persons nominated by the President to be federal judges.

Constitution — see U.S. Constitution.

contested matter — in bankruptcy, a method of handling disputes that may arise during the course of a case. Contested matters are initiated by motion and generally do not require a filing fee. The Bankruptcy Rules establish the types of disputes that are handled as contested matters. Compare with adversary proceeding.

contract — an agreement between two or more persons that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

convert — in bankruptcy, to change a case to another type of proceeding; for example, if creditors initiate a filing under Chapter 7, the debtor may convert the case to Chapter 11.

counsel — a lawyer or a team of lawyers. The term is often used during a trial to refer to lawyers in a case.

count — an allegation in an indictment charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment may contain allegations that the defendant has committed more than one crime. The separate allegations are referred to as the counts of the indictment.

counterclaim — a claim filed by a defendant against the plaintiff in response to the plaintiff’s original suit. The defendant becomes the counterclaim plaintiff in the case, and the plaintiff becomes the counterclaim defendant (in addition to their being defendant and plaintiff).

court — an agency of government authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges and lawyers sometimes use the term court to refer to the judge, as in “the court has read the pleadings.”

court of appeals — see U.S. court of appeals.

court of appeals judge — see U.S. court of appeals judge.

court interpreter — a court employee who orally translates what is said in court from English into the language of a non-English-speaking party or witness and translates that person’s testimony into English.

court reporter — a person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in a court proceeding and produces a transcript of the proceeding on request.

courtroom deputy clerk — a court employee who assists the judge by keeping track of witnesses, evidence, and other trial matters, and sometimes by scheduling cases.

cramdown — in bankruptcy, court confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan despite the opposition of certain creditors.

creditor — any person, business, or other entity, such as a government agency, to whom a debtor owes money. In bankruptcy, creditors usually receive a reduced amount because the debtor is unable to pay the full amount owed.

criminal case — a case prosecuted by the government, on behalf of society at large, against an individual or organization accused of committing a crime. If the defendant is found guilty, the sentence (or punishment) is often imprisonment.

Criminal Justice Act (CJA) — a federal statute designed to implement the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in criminal cases by providing court-appointed attorneys to represent defendants who cannot afford to pay for an attorney’s services. Some district courts order these defendants to pay to the court at a later date the amount of money it has spent in providing the defendant with a lawyer. Reimbursement may be made a term of the judgment at sentencing, or a condition of probation or supervised release.

criminal record — a record listing a defendant’s previous arrests and convictions. A copy of the defendant’s criminal record, if any, must be given to the defense upon request during discovery.

cross-claim — in a case with more than one defendant, a claim filed by one defendant (the “cross-claim plaintiff”) against another (the “cross-claim defendant”). A cross-claim may allege that any injury to the plaintiff was caused by the cross-claim defendant, who should pay any damages to which the plaintiff is entitled, and/or it may allege a separate but related injury to the cross-claim plaintiff caused by the cross-claim defendant.

cross-examination — questions directed to a witness by a lawyer for any other party, after the direct examination of the witness. The questions focus on matters the witness testified to during direct examination and may be designed to test the witness’s credibility. Leading questions (those which suggest, by their wording, how the attorney would like the witness to answer) may be asked on cross-examination. Compare with direct examination.

damages — money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case that the plaintiff has won, to compensate the plaintiff for loss or injury.

deadlocked jury — a jury that is unable to agree upon a verdict (also called a hung jury). A deadlocked jury results in a mistrial.

debtor — a person or business that owes money to another person or business. In bankruptcy, the debtor usually repays a reduced amount because of inability to pay the full amount owed.

debtor-in-possession (DIP) — in bankruptcy, the manager of a debtor business in a Chapter 11 reorganization that continues to operate and control the business after the bankruptcy petition is filed unless the court orders otherwise.

default judgment — a judgment against the defendant awarding the plaintiff the relief demanded in the complaint because of the defendant’s failure to appear in court. A summons must notify the defendant that failure to appear and defend against the lawsuit in a timely manner will result in the court’s entry of a default judgment.

defendant — (1) in a civil suit, the person complained against; (2) in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.

deposition — a frequently used means of obtaining discovery in civil cases, in which the attorney who requested the deposition questions a party, witness, or any person with information about the case, and the person (the deponent) answers under oath.

deputy clerk — see courtroom deputy clerk.

detention hearing — under the Bail Reform Act, a hearing that may be held in a case involving a defendant who is charged with a serious felony or whose record indicates that he or she may flee or pose a serious risk of danger to the community if released prior to trial. If, after an evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge who conducts the hearing finds that no pretrial release conditions will reasonably ensure the appearance of the defendant in court, the safety of the community, or the safety of another person, the magistrate judge may order the defendant detained without bail pending trial.

direct examination — the initial questioning of any witness by the attorney who calls the witness to the stand, to bring out evidence for the fact finder (judge or jury). Compare with cross-examination.

discharge — (1) the payment of a debt or satisfaction of some other obligation; (2) in bankruptcy, a legal device that releases a debtor from monetary obligations; it prevents creditors from trying to collect prebankruptcy debts from a debtor after a bankruptcy proceeding is over.

disclosure statement — in bankruptcy, a statement that gives Chapter 11 creditors information to use in deciding whether to vote to accept or reject a debtor’s plan of reorganization.

discovery — (1) in a civil case, pretrial procedures by which the lawyers representing the parties try to learn as much as they can about their opponents’ cases by examining the witnesses, physical evidence, and other information that make up the case; (2) in a criminal case, a meeting of the defendant’s attorney and the prosecutor in which the defendant’s attorney requests disclosure of certain types of evidence against the defendant. The government may then make a discovery request of the defendant.

discovery plan — a plan developed at a prediscovery meeting by the parties in a civil case (or their lawyers) and filed with the court. This plan is required by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure except in cases exempted by a local rule or court order. The parties discuss their claims and defenses, explore possibilities for settlement, and make or arrange for the disclosures required by the rules.

dissent — see opinion.

district — a geographic region over which a particular U.S. district court has jurisdiction. Congress has divided the country into districts to organize the administration of justice. See also circuit.

district court — see U.S. district court.

district judge — see U.S. district judge.

diversity jurisdiction — the federal district courts’ authority to hear and decide civil cases involving plaintiffs and defendants who are citizens of different states (or U.S. citizens and foreign nationals) and who meet certain statutory requirements.

docket — a list of court proceedings and filings in chronological order.

early neutral evaluation — a form of alternative dispute resolution in which an experienced, impartial attorney with expertise in the subject matter of the case (a neutral evaluator) gives the parties a nonbinding assessment of the case and may also provide case-planning guidance and assistance with settlement.

elbow law clerk — a lawyer employed by the court who works closely with a judge in the judge’s chambers.

electronic monitoring — see home confinement.

en banc — a French term meaning “on the bench.” The term refers to a session in which all of the judges on an appellate court participate in the decision. The judges of the U.S. courts of appeals usually sit in panels of three, but for some important cases they may sit en banc.

evidence — information in the form of testimony, documents, or physical objects that is presented in a case to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case for one side or the other.

exclusivity period — in bankruptcy, the time during which only the debtor in a Chapter 11 reorganization can propose a plan of reorganization. The exclusivity period is generally at least the first 120 days after the bankruptcy filing.

exemption — money or property that is not liquidated as part of the bankruptcy estate.

exhibit — an item of physical evidence (a document or an object).

expert witness — a person with specialized training and experience about particular subject matter who testifies in a case to offer an opinion on an issue in the case based on his or her specialized knowledge.

fact finder — the jury in a jury trial or the judge in a bench trial who weighs the evidence in a case and determines the facts.

fact witness — a person with knowledge about what happened in a particular case who testifies in the case about what happened or what the facts are.

federal courts — courts established under the U.S. Constitution. The term usually refers to courts of the federal judicial branch, which include the Supreme Court of the United States, the U.S. courts of appeals, the U.S. district courts (including U.S. bankruptcy courts), and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Congress has established other federal courts in the executive branch, such as immigration courts.

federal crime — a violation of a criminal law passed by Congress. Federal crimes are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies and prosecuted by the U.S. attorney for the judicial district in which the crime occurred.

Federal Judicial Center (FJC) — the federal judicial system’s agency for research and education. Its responsibilities include developing and administering education programs and services for judges and other court employees, and undertaking empirical and exploratory research on federal judicial processes, court management, and sentencing, often at the request of the committees of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

federal public defender organization — as provided for by the Criminal Justice Act, an organization established within a federal judicial district (or more than one district) to represent criminal defendants who can’t afford to pay a lawyer. Each organization is supervised by a federal public defender appointed by the court of appeals for the circuit.

federal-question jurisdiction — the federal district courts’ authorization to hear and decide cases arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.

federal rules — bodies of rules developed by the federal judiciary that spell out procedural requirements. The federal rules are the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. Rules can take effect only after they are forwarded to Congress for review and Congress declines to change them.

federalism — a principle of our Constitution which gives some functions to the U.S. government and leaves the other functions to the states. The functions of the U.S. (or federal) government involve the nation as a whole and include regulating commerce that affects people in more than one state, providing for the national defense, and taking care of federal lands. State and local governments perform such functions as running the schools, managing the police departments, and paving the streets.

felony — a crime that carries a penalty of more than a year in prison.

fine — a form of punishment for a crime, in which the defendant must pay a sum of money to the public treasury.

final decision — a court’s decision that resolves the claims of the parties and leaves nothing further for the court to do but ensure that the decision is carried out. The U.S. courts of appeals have jurisdiction over appeals from final decisions of U.S. district courts.

foreperson — the juror who presides over the jury’s deliberations. The foreperson is either elected by the jurors or selected by the judge, depending on the practice in the particular court.

grand jury — a group of citizens who listen to the government present evidence of criminal activity by an individual or individuals in order to determine whether there is enough evidence to justify filing an indictment charging the individual or individuals with a crime. Federal grand juries are made up of sixteen to twenty-three persons and serve for about a year, sitting one or two days a week.

Guidelines Manual — the manual published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which contains the federal sentencing guidelines, policy statements, and commentary.

guilty plea — a criminal defendant’s admission to the court that he or she committed the offense he or she is charged with and his or her agreement to waive the right to trial. If the court accepts the plea, the case proceeds to sentencing.

guilty verdict — a verdict convicting a criminal defendant of a charge or charges. When a verdict of guilty is returned, the court orders a presentence investigation of the defendant and sets a sentencing date.

habeas corpus — a Latin phrase meaning “that you have the body.” A prisoner may file a habeas corpus petition seeking release on grounds that he or she is being held illegally.

hearsay — evidence that is presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in a trial.

home confinement — a court-imposed requirement that a defendant or offender being supervised in the community by a pretrial services or probation officer must remain within his or her home, either all the time or during certain hours of the day. Electronic monitoring may be used to verify the person’s whereabouts; the person wears an electronic device which contacts the supervising officer if it leaves the permissible area.

hung jury — a jury that is unable reach a verdict (also called a deadlocked jury). A hung jury results in a mistrial.

impeachment — (1) the process of charging government officials with serious misconduct in office that can lead to their removal; (2) the process of calling the credibility of a witness into question, as in “impeaching the testimony of a witness.”

imprisonment — a term in prison served by an offender as part of a federal criminal sentence.

indictment — the formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed a crime to justify having a trial. Indictments are used primarily for felonies. An indictment may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. The separate allegations are referred to as the counts of the indictment. Compare with information.

indigent defendant — a defendant who does not have the financial resources to hire an attorney and qualifies for a court-appointed attorney under the Criminal Justice Act.

in forma pauperis — a Latin phrase meaning “as a pauper.” A party unable to pay the filing fees and other costs involved in an appeal may file a motion in the district court asking to proceed in forma pauperis. If the motion is granted the party may proceed with the appeal without paying any fees or costs.

information — a formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor. Compare with indictment.

initial appearance — following an arrest, the appearance of a defendant before a magistrate judge, who informs the defendant of the nature of the charges against him or her. The defendant is also informed of his or her rights to be represented by counsel, to remain silent, and to have a preliminary examination. The magistrate judge then decides whether to detain the defendant or release him or her on bail.

injunction — a judge’s order that a party take or refrain from taking certain action. An injunction may be preliminary, until the outcome of a case is determined, or permanent.

interim trustee — in bankruptcy liquidations, a person who takes “possession of, preserves, and protects” the debtor’s nonexempt property (the property that will be divided among creditors) until the creditors elect a case trustee. See also case trustee.

interlocutory appeal — an appeal from a nonfinal, or interlocutory, district court order, such as an injunction. An interlocutory order is issued during litigation of the case in the district court, not at the end of it. Interlocutory appeals are permitted by statute as an exception to the general policy requiring a final district court decision or order before an appeal is permitted.

interrogatories — a form of discovery consisting of written questions to be answered in writing and under oath. Interrogatories are submitted to a party in the case by the party seeking discovery.

involuntary filing — a bankruptcy case that a creditor or group of creditors initiates, rather than the debtor. Compare with voluntary filing.

judge — a governmental official with authority to preside over and decide lawsuits brought to courts.

judgment — a final order of the court that resolves the case and states the rights and liabilities of the parties.

judgment as a matter of law — a ruling that not enough credible evidence has been introduced on a particular claim to allow the jury to consider it. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure give any party the right, at the end of the presentation of an opponent’s evidence, to ask the court to enter judgment against the opponent.

Judicial Conference of the United States — the federal courts’ administrative governing body. The Chief Justice of the United States chairs the Conference, and it meets twice a year. Much of the Conference’s work is done through some twenty committees of judges, which make recommendations to the Conference on various issues.

Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation — the federal agency responsible for considering the transfer of civil cases that are pending in different districts but involve common questions of fact to a single district for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. The panel consists of seven court of appeals and district court judges designated by the Chief Justice.

judicial review — (1) the authority of a court, in a case involving either a law passed by a legislature or an action by an executive branch officer or employee, to determine whether the law or action is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution, and to declare the law or action invalid if it is inconsistent; although judicial review is usually associated with the U.S. Supreme Court, it can be, and is, exercised by lower courts; (2) a form of appeal to the courts for review of an administrative body’s findings of fact or of law.

jurisdiction — (1) the legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case; (2) the geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases.

jury — a group of citizens whose duty is to weigh evidence fairly and impartially and decide the facts in a trial (see petit jury) or to decide whether evidence against a defendant is sufficient to file an indictment charging him or her with a crime (see grand jury).

jury instructions — instructions given by the judge to the jury after all the evidence in a case has been presented, either before or after closing arguments, and before the jury begins deliberations. The instructions cover such matters as the responsibilities of the jurors, how the jurors are to go about deciding the case, and the law applicable to the case.

jury trial — a trial in which a jury decides the facts. Compare with bench trial.

Justice Department — the agency of the federal executive branch with responsibilities in a wide range of areas bearing on the administration of justice and enforcement of laws passed by Congress. The Justice Department is responsible for investigating alleged criminal conduct, deciding which cases merit prosecution in the federal courts, and prosecuting those cases. It also represents the U.S. government in many civil actions.

lawsuit — any one of various proceedings in a court of law.

leading question — a question an attorney asks a witness in a trial which, by its very wording, suggests how the attorney would like the witness to answer. Leading questions are permissible during cross-examination but not during direct examination.

liquidation — the more traditional type of bankruptcy filing, in which the debtor gives up most of its assets in return for not having to pay most of its debts.

litigants — see parties.

local rules — rules that govern practice and proceedings in a specific federal court. Local rules can supplement but not contradict the federal rules.

magistrate judge — a judge appointed by a federal district court for an eight-year term. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases when a defendant agrees to allow a magistrate judge instead of a district judge to preside, and they may conduct civil trials when the parties agree to it.

mandatory minimum sentence — a statutorily defined minimum term of imprisonment that the court is required to impose on a defendant at sentencing. For example, a defendant convicted of distributing one kilogram or more of a substance containing a detectable amount of heroin must be sentenced to “a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 10 years or more than life” under federal law.

Marshals Service — see U.S. Marshals Service.

master wheel — the list of registered voters in a district, supplemented in some districts with other sources, which is used as a source of prospective jurors. The clerk’s office sends a questionnaire to each person on the master wheel.

mediation — the alternative dispute resolution method most commonly used in the district courts. Mediation is an informal process in which a mediator facilitates negotiations between the parties to help them resolve their dispute.

misdemeanor — a criminal offense less severe than a felony, generally punishable by a fine only or by imprisonment of less than one year.

mistrial — a trial that has been terminated because of some extraordinary event, a fundamental error prejudicial to the defendant, or a jury that is unable to reach a verdict.

motion — an application to the court for an order of some kind. Some kinds of motions may be filed only within certain time limits, and others may be filed at any stage of a case.

nolo contendere plea — a plea in which the defendant does not admit guilt, but does waive the right to trial and authorize the court to impose punishment at sentencing. Nolo contendere is a Latin term that means “it is not contested.” This type of plea is rarely entered. The motivation for entering a nolo plea is that unlike a plea of guilty, a nolo plea may not be used against the defendant as an admission in a related civil case.

objection — a lawyer’s belief, stated to the judge, that something is wrong with a question posed by opposing counsel, the way opposing counsel phrases a question, or the way a witness answers it. If the judge thinks the objection is valid, he or she will sustain the objection and tell the witness not to answer or tell the jury to disregard the answer. If there is no basis for the objection, the judge will overrule it and let the questioning continue.

opening statements — before the evidence is presented in a trial, lawyers’ presentations to the jury summarizing what they intend to present as evidence. Opening statements, like closing arguments, are not themselves evidence.

opinion — a judge’s written explanation of a decision in a case or some aspect of a case. An opinion of the court explains the decision of all or a majority of the judges. A dissenting opinion is an opinion by one or more judges who disagree with the majority. A concurring opinion is an opinion by one or more judges that agrees with the decision of the majority but offers further comment or a different reason for the decision. A per curiam opinion is an opinion handed down by an appellate court but not signed by an individual judge.

oral argument — in appellate cases, an opportunity for the lawyers for each side to appear before the judges to summarize their positions and answer the judges’ questions.

order — a decision or direction made by a judicial authority. Judges issue orders in response to motions.

overrule — (1) a judge’s ruling at trial that a lawyer’s objection is without merit, and that the questioning or testimony objected to may continue; (2) a court’s decision to set aside the authority of a former decision.

panel — (1) in appellate cases, a group of three judges assigned to decide the case; (2) in the process of jury selection, the group of potential jurors from which the jury is chosen; (3) in criminal cases, a group of private lawyers whom the court has approved to be appointed to represent defendants unable to afford to hire lawyers.

parole — the suspension of a convict’s prison sentence and the convict’s release from prison, at the discretion of an executive branch agency and conditioned on the convict’s compliance with the terms of parole. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished federal parole. Offenders whose crimes were committed on or after November 1, 1987, are sentenced by the court under sentencing guidelines established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and, unlike previous offenders, may not have their sentences reviewed by the U.S. Parole Commission. See also probation and supervised release.

parties — the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) in a lawsuit.

per curiam opinion — see opinion.

peremptory challenge — an attorney’s striking (excusing) a person from a panel of prospective jurors during jury selection for a trial without stating any reason. Attorneys have the right to a certain number of peremptory challenges in each case. Peremptory challenges may be made for a variety of reasons, including hunches, but may not be based on race or gender. Compare with challenge for cause.

petition — (1) a document filed in a U.S. court of appeals to commence an appeal of a final decision of a federal agency, board, commission, or officer; (2) a document filed in bankruptcy court to initiate a bankruptcy case.

petitioner — the party filing a petition in the court of appeals, seeking review of an order issued by a federal agency, board, commission, or officer.

petition for rehearing — a document filed by a party who lost a case in the U.S. court of appeals to ask the panel to reconsider its decision. If the panel grants the petition, it may ask the parties to file additional briefs and reargue the case.

petit jury (or trial jury) — a group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial in a case and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of twelve persons, and sometimes additional persons serve as alternate jurors in case one or more of the twelve cannot continue. Federal civil juries consist of six to twelve persons. Petit is French for “small,” thus distinguishing the trial jury from the larger grand jury (grand is French for “large”).

plaintiff — the person who files the complaint in a civil lawsuit.

plan of reorganization — in bankruptcy, a plan that sets out how a debtor in a Chapter 11 reorganization proposes to repay its creditors.

plea — in a criminal case, the defendant’s statement to the court that he or she is “guilty” or “not guilty” of the charges.

plea agreement — an agreement between the government and the defendant to resolve a pending criminal case by the defendant’s entering a guilty plea rather than going to trial. The prosecutor may agree to dismiss or reduce certain charges, or recommend a certain sentence in return for the defendant’s entering a guilty plea and, in some cases, providing information to the prosecutor.

plea bargain — The process in which the defendant and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts in a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than the defendant would have received if convicted of the more serious charges.

pleadings — in a civil case, the written statements of the parties stating their positions about the case.

precedent — a court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to those in a case currently before a court. Courts are required to follow some precedents. For example, a U.S. court of appeals must follow decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court; a district court must follow decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and of the court of appeals of its own circuit. Courts are also influenced by decisions they are not required to follow, such as the decisions of other circuits. Courts also follow their own precedents unless they set forth reasons for changing the case law.

prediscovery meeting — a meeting required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(f), at which the parties or their attorneys in a civil case discuss their claims and defenses, explore possibilities for settlement, make or arrange for the disclosures required by Rule 26(a), and develop a discovery plan to be filed with the court.

preliminary examination — a preindictment hearing at which the prosecutor must present evidence sufficient to establish probable cause to believe that a federal offense was committed and that the defendant committed it.

preponderance of the evidence — see burden of proof.

presentence report — a report a probation officer prepares on the basis of an investigation of a convicted defendant that the officer conducted at the request of the court. It provides extensive information about the defendant’s background, financial condition, criminal offense or offenses, and criminal history for the judge to use in determining an appropriate sentence for the defendant.

presumption of innocence — the requirement in a criminal trial that the jury presume that the defendant is innocent of all charges. The judge instructs the jury that, before the defendant can be found guilty, the government must overcome the presumption of innocence and convince the jurors that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

pretrial conference — (1) in a civil case, a meeting of the judge and lawyers conducted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(d) to decide which matters are in dispute and should be presented to the jury, to review evidence and witnesses to be presented, to set a timetable for the case, and sometimes to discuss settlement of the case; (2) in a criminal case, a meeting which the court may conduct, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 17.1, upon motion of any party or on its own motion, “to consider such matters as will promote a fair and expeditious trial.”

pretrial release conditions — the conditions under which a defendant may be released prior to trial under the Bail Reform Act of 1984. The conditions may be designed to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court or the safety of the community.

pretrial services officer — an officer of the court who collects and verifies information to be used by judges in deciding issues related to defendants’ pretrial release and detention. In districts that do not have pretrial services offices, probation officers also serve as pretrial services officers.

pretrial services report — a report a pretrial services officer prepares that contains information learned through a pretrial services investigation about a defendant’s personal history, criminal record, and financial status. The report is given to the U.S. magistrate judge, the prosecutor, and defense counsel for use in deciding issues related to bail.

priority unsecured claim — in bankruptcy, a claim that takes priority over unsecured claims. A creditor with a priority unsecured claim does not have an interest in any specific property of the debtor as assurance of payment, but by operation of bankruptcy law must be paid in full before creditors who have claims without priority get anything. Examples of priority unsecured claims are those for employee wages, child support, and administration of the bankruptcy estate.

privilege against self-incrimination — a person’s right to remain silent in the face of accusation or questioning by government agents. Also known as the right to remain silent, the privilege against self-incrimination is contained in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. People may invoke the privilege at any time, including immediately after an arrest, at the police station, before the grand jury, and at trial.

pro bono publico — a Latin term meaning “for the good of the public.” Some lawyers take on certain kinds of cases pro bono, without expectation of payment; these cases are called “pro bono cases.”

pro se — a Latin term meaning “on one’s own behalf.” In courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.

probable cause — the legal standard defining the amount of evidence or information needed to justify a search or an arrest. The Fourth Amendment requires that arrests and searches made by law enforcement officers be justified by probable cause. An arresting officer has probable cause for an arrest only if there is enough reliable information or evidence to support the officer’s reasonable belief that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it.

probation — a criminal sentence in which the offender is placed under court supervision for a specified period of time, but allowed to remain in the community. While on probation the offender is required to report to a probation officer and comply with other court-imposed conditions (compare with supervised release).

probation officer — an officer of the court who is responsible for conducting presentence investigations of offenders and preparing presentence reports, and is responsible for supervising persons on probation or supervised release.

proof beyond a reasonable doubt — see burden of proof.

prosecute — to charge a person or organization with a crime and seek to gain a criminal conviction against that person or organization.

prosecutor — the government lawyer responsible for prosecuting criminal defendants. In federal cases, the prosecutor is the U.S. attorney or assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA).

qualified wheel — the group of potential jurors who are not excused or exempted from the master wheel, and who are thus found eligible to serve. An individual on the qualified wheel may request a hardship excuse to be removed from the qualified wheel. See master wheel.

reaffirmation — in bankruptcy, an agreement by a debtor to repay a particular debt even though there is no legal obligation to do so.

record — all the documents filed in a case and a written account of the trial proceedings.

record on appeal — the record of a case made as proceedings unfold in the U.S. district court, and assembled by clerks in the district court clerk’s office and transmitted to the U.S. court of appeals. It consists of the pleadings and exhibits filed in the case, the written orders entered by the trial judge, a certified copy of the docket entries, and a transcript of the relevant court proceedings. Court of appeals judges review parts of the record, along with briefs presented by the parties, when considering appeals of lower courts’ decisions.

recross-examination — questions directed to a witness by the lawyer who conducted the cross-examination of the witness. Recross-examination follows redirect examination and focuses on matters that were raised for the first time during cross-examination. The questions focus on matters the witness testified to during redirect examination and are designed to test the witness’s credibility. Leading questions may be asked on recross-examination, as they may on cross-examination. See also leading question.

recuse — to withdraw or disqualify oneself as a judge in a case because of personal prejudice, conflict of interest, or some other good reason why the judge should not sit in the interest of fairness.

redirect examination — questions directed to a witness by the lawyer who conducted the direct examination of the witness. Redirect examination follows cross-examination and focuses on matters that were raised for the first time during cross-examination.

referral order — an order that assigns a magistrate judge responsibility for handling a variety of pretrial issues in a civil case and for ensuring that the parties adhere to a strict case-preparation schedule. In some courts, it is common for district judges to enter referral orders in newly filed civil cases.

relief — money damages or any other remedy the plaintiff seeks in a complaint.

remand — the act of an appellate court sending a case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

removal — a procedure applicable to most cases in which a federal court has jurisdiction because there is a federal question or diversity (parties who live in different states), but the plaintiff chooses to sue in state court. The federal removal statute allows the defendant to get the case removed to federal court, in part to ensure fairness to out-of-state defendants.

reorganization — a type of bankruptcy filing in which the debtor gets to keep most, if not all, of its assets but has to pay all or some specified part of its debts according to a plan of reorganization.

reorganization plan — see plan of reorganization.

representative party — a party who sues on behalf of the class in a class action. The claims or defenses of the representative party must be typical of the class, and the representative party must protect the interests of the class. See class action.

requests for admission — a form of discovery in which one party asks another to admit or deny the truth of facts or the genuineness of documents.

requests for production of documents — a form of discovery in which one party requests that another make certain documents and other objects available for inspection and copying.

restitution — payment by an offender of money or services to the victim of a crime for losses suffered as a result of the crime. Restitution must be ordered as part of the defendant’s sentence for certain crimes. It may also be ordered as a condition of probation or of supervised release.

reverse — to set aside a lower court’s decision or order and enter a different decision or order. A reversal is often followed by a remand.

revocation of probation or supervised release — a court’s order that a probationer or supervised releasee who has violated one or more conditions of probation or supervised release can no longer serve his or her sentence in the community and must be imprisoned.

right to remain silent — see privilege against self-incrimination.

search warrant — a written court order authorizing a law enforcement officer to search certain premises for specified items and to seize the items described.

secured claim — in bankruptcy, a creditor’s interest in specific property of the debtor as assurance of payment.

senior judge — a judge who has retired from active duty but continues to perform some judicial duties, usually maintaining a reduced caseload. Compare with active judge.

sentence — a judgment of the court imposing punishment upon a defendant for criminal conduct.

Sentencing Commission — see U.S. Sentencing Commission.

sentencing guidelines — uniform policies established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) to guide federal judges as they sentence criminal offenders. The first set of sentencing guidelines took effect in 1987, and the USSC amends the guidelines annually.

sentencing hearing — a court hearing at which a defendant who is convicted of a crime is sentenced. At the hearing, the judge considers the probation officer’s recommendations for sentencing, allows the attorneys to state their positions, and gives the defendant an opportunity to make a statement before imposing sentence.

sequestration — (1) the court’s exclusion of witnesses from the courtroom until they testify, so that their testimony will not be influenced by the testimony of prior witnesses; this practice is normally available if counsel request it, but does not apply to parties, who have the right to be present in court throughout the trial; (2) the court’s requirement that jurors remain isolated while deliberating on a case because justice requires that they be protected from outside influences.

service of process — bringing a judicial proceeding to the notice of a person affected by it by delivering to him or her a summons, or notice of the proceeding. See summons.

settlement — an agreement between the parties to a lawsuit to resolve their differences among themselves without having a trial or before the judge or jury renders a verdict in a trial.

settlement week — a type of alternative dispute resolution in which a court suspends normal trial activity for a week and, aided by volunteer mediators, sends trial-ready cases to mediation sessions held at the courthouse. Cases unresolved during settlement week are returned to the court’s regular docket for further pretrial or trial proceedings as needed.

sidebar (or sidebar conference) — a discussion between the judge and lawyers held out of earshot of the jury and spectators.

Speedy Trial Act — a statute that imposes a series of time limits upon a court and prosecutors for carrying out the major events in a criminal case to ensure that the defendant receives a speedy trial.

staff attorney — a member of the central legal staff of the court of appeals.

standard of proof — see burden of proof.

standing trustee — in bankruptcy, a private citizen appointed by the U.S. trustee to handle the administration of a large block of Chapter 13 cases.

state courts — courts established by various state governments, including county and local courts.

statute — a law passed by a legislature. Compare with case law.

statute of limitations — a law setting a fixed time period (for example, one year) after which a person may not sue someone for an alleged injury or a government may not prosecute someone for a crime. It prevents legal proceedings from taking place long after the injury or crime occurred, when evidence and witnesses may be hard to find.

stay — the postponement or halting of a judicial proceeding or judgment. A motion for a stay pending appeal seeks to delay the effect of a district court order or agency order until a U.S. court of appeals decides whether that order is valid.

stipulate — to enter into a binding agreement on an issue that is not genuinely in dispute. Matters stipulated to in a court case are considered proven, so neither side is required to present evidence on them.

sua sponte — a Latin term meaning “on its own responsibility or motion.” A sua sponte order is an order issued by a court without prior motion by either party.

subpoena — a court order that requires that a person produce documents or appear at a trial, hearing, or deposition for the purpose of testifying as a witness.

summary judgment — under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a court’s judgment as a matter of law when the court determines that, after looking at all the evidence in the case, there is no dispute as to the facts. A party may file a motion asking the court to order summary judgment on some or all claims in the case.

summary jury trial — a form of alternative dispute resolution used late in the pretrial proceedings of cases headed for lengthy jury trials. It provides for a short hearing at which counsel present the evidence to a jury in summary form, with no witnesses, and the jury delivers a nonbinding advisory verdict to be used as a basis for subsequent settlement negotiations.

summons — a document the plaintiff in a lawsuit must file with the court and serve on the defendant, along with a copy of the complaint, to give the defendant notice of a lawsuit. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4 governs the form and content of a summons and explains the different methods that can be used to serve a summons on a defendant, so that the defendant learns of the lawsuit.

superdischarge — in bankruptcy, the discharge a debtor receives in a Chapter 13 case. It is generally broader than the discharge a debtor receives under Chapter 7. It discharges all debts under the bankruptcy plan except certain long-term debts, such as mortgages, alimony and child support, certain education loans, restitution based on criminal convictions, and debts for death or personal injury caused by drunken driving.

supervised release — a criminal sentence in which the offender is placed under court supervision for a specified period of time, but is allowed to remain in the community. Like offenders placed on probation, offenders placed on supervised release are supervised by probation officers and are required to observe certain conditions of release. The court must order a term of supervised release when it is required to do so by statute and when it orders a sentence of more than one year in prison.

Supreme Court of the United States — the highest federal court in the United States. Its primary function is to clarify the law when lower courts disagree. Its members are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.

sustain — to rule at trial that a lawyer’s objection to questioning or testimony is valid. When the judge sustains an objection, the questioning or testimony objected to must stop or be modified.

term — the time during which the U.S. Supreme Court sits for the transaction of business, also referred to as a session. Each year’s term begins on the first Monday in October and ends when the Court has announced its decisions in all the cases it has heard during the term, usually in late June or early July.

testimony — evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or depositions or before grand juries.

third-party claim — a claim that a defendant can include in its answer to a complaint, stating that a breach of duty by an entity not a party to the lawsuit gave rise to all or part of the plaintiff’s claim. Service of the third-party complaint brings the entity into the suit as a third-party defendant, and the filing defendant becomes a third-party plaintiff.

transcript — a written, word-for-word record of what was said either in a proceeding, such as a trial, or during some other exchange, such as a telephone conversation.

trial — the proceeding at which parties in a civil case, or the government and the defense in a criminal case, produce evidence for consideration by a fact finder in court. The fact finder, who may be a judge or a jury, applies the law to the facts as it finds them and decides whether the defendant is guilty in a criminal case or which party should win in a civil case.

trial court — see U.S. district court.

trial jury — see petit jury.

unsecured claim — in bankruptcy, a claim that does not give the creditor an interest in any specific property of the debtor as assurance of payment.

unsecured creditors’ committee — in bankruptcy, a committee that negotiates the reorganization plan and protects the interests of unsecured creditors in a Chapter 11 reorganization. The committee usually consists of the holders of the seven largest unsecured claims willing to serve.

uphold — to allow a lower court’s decision to stand as is. After reviewing the lower court’s decision, an appellate court may uphold or reverse it. Compare with reverse.

U.S. attorney — a lawyer appointed by the President, in each judicial district, to prosecute cases for the federal government and represent the government in civil actions.

U.S. bankruptcy court — a federal court that hears and administers matters that arise under the Bankruptcy Code. Although it is a unit of the district court and technically hears cases referred to it by the district court, for most practical purposes it functions as a separate administrative unit.

U.S. Constitution — the document written by the founders of this country, which establishes the basic structure and functions of the federal government, grants certain specified rights (often called constitutional rights), to the American people, and places limits on the powers and activities of our federal and state governments. The term U.S. Constitution also includes its amendments. The first ten amendments to the Constitution are referred to as the Bill of Rights.

U.S. court of appeals — a federal court that reviews decisions of the district court when a party in a case asks it to. Some use circuit court to refer to the court of appeals, although technically circuit court refers to a federal trial court that functioned from 1789 to the early twentieth century.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit — a federal court of appeals located in Washington, D.C., whose jurisdiction is defined by subject matter rather than geography. It hears appeals only in certain types of cases, including those involving patent laws and those decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

U.S. court of appeals judge — a judge of one of the thirteen U.S. courts of appeals. When a party appeals a district court decision in a case, appeals judges review what happened in the district court to see if the district judge made any mistakes that would require them to change or modify the decision or to order that the case be retried. Court of appeals judges are among the group often referred to as Article III judges, because their power to hear and decide cases stems from Article III of the Constitution, and they thus have irreducible salaries and tenure during good behavior.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims — a special trial court with nationwide jurisdiction which hears cases involving money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States, including disputes over federal contracts, federal takings of private property for public use, and rights of military personnel. With the approval of the Senate, the President appoints U.S. Court of Federal Claims judges for fifteen-year terms.

U.S. district court — a federal court with general trial jurisdiction. It is the court in which the parties in a lawsuit file motions, petitions, and other documents and take part in pretrial and other types of status conferences. If there is a trial, it takes place in the district court. Also referred to as a trial court.

U.S. district judge — a judge of the federal district courts, appointed by the President, subject to the approval of the Senate. District judges are among the group often referred to as Article III judges, because their power to hear and decide cases stems from Article III of the Constitution, and they thus have irreducible salaries and tenure during good behavior.

U.S. Marshals Service — an agency of the Justice Department charged with providing courtroom security in federal district courts, apprehending federal fugitives, transporting federal prisoners, and supervising the Justice Department’s Federal Witness Protection Program.

U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent commission in the judicial branch of the government established by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Its mission is to develop sentencing policies and practices for use in the federal courts.

U.S. trustee — a person who supervises the administration of bankruptcy cases and trustees and relieves bankruptcy judges of routine administrative matters, such as appointing case trustees, naming creditors’ committee members, and conducting meetings of creditors. U.S. trustees are appointed by the Attorney General of the United States for a five-year term.

verdict — a petit jury’s or a judge’s decision on the factual issues in a case.

voir dire — the process by which judges and lawyers select a petit jury from a panel of citizens eligible to serve. They do this by questioning the members of the panel. Voir dire is a French term that means “to speak the truth.”

voluntary filing — a bankruptcy case that the debtor initiates. Compare with involuntary filing.

waiver — the act of knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily giving up a right. For example, a defendant who pleads guilty waives the right to a jury trial.

waiver of service — a procedure under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that gives the plaintiff in a lawsuit the option of requesting in writing that the defendant sign a form waiving service of the summons. The defendant receiving such a request has a duty to avoid the “unnecessary costs” involved in serving a summons, and the rule provides the defendant with the two incentives of lower cost and more time to answer.

witness — a person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court.

writ of certiorari — an order by a court requiring that the lower court produce the records of a particular case tried so that the reviewing court can inspect the proceedings and determine whether there have been any irregularities. Almost all parties seeking review of their cases in the U.S. Supreme Court file a petition for a writ of certiorari. The Court issues a limited number of writs, thus indicating the few cases it is willing to hear among the many in which parties request review.

writ of execution — a means of enforcing a judgment in which, at the plaintiff’s request, the clerk directs the U.S. marshal to seize the defendant’s property, sell it, and deliver to the plaintiff the amount of money necessary to satisfy the judgment.

writ of garnishment — a means of enforcing a judgment in which the defendant’s property (e.g., a bank account, wages, or any debt owed to the defendant by someone else) is to be seized and is in the hands of a third person .

writ of habeas corpus — a document filed as a means of testing the legality of a restraint on a person’s liberty, usually imprisonment. The writ commands the officials who have custody of a prisoner to bring the prisoner before the court, so that the court can determine whether the prisoner is being detained lawfully.

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