Chapter 2

JurisdictionUnited States

Before exploring the nature of courts, we should know a little bit about the disputes they resolve.

There are many kinds of disputes. In court, they are generally described as civil or criminal. Understanding what is criminal is easy. A crime occurs when a person or corporation commits an act forbidden by law as an offense against the government (federal, state, city) that carries a possible sentence of a fine or imprisonment. Criminal law, enforced only by the government, punishes.

Civil law, on the other hand, does not seek to punish (though a civil case can end in a ruling that in fact punishes because of special financial penalties.) Its basic purpose is to restore the injured parties to where they were before an improper act by another party. Civil lawsuits may be brought by the government but also may be brought by private parties, including corporations. A couple of examples will help.

Jones and Smith agree in writing that Jones will pay Smith $5,000 if Smith moves Jones' household goods to a new house he has purchased. Smith completes the move and Jones fails to pay him the $5,000. Smith sues Jones, telling the court that they had a contract and Jones failed to keep his part of the bargain. Jones, in turn, may then say that all of that is true but that in moving the goods, Smith was careless and damaged several pieces of furniture. Jones might then tell the court that he ought not to have to pay for the bad job done by Smith.

Or Johnson and King are both driving their cars with Johnson behind King when King suddenly brakes for a squirrel running across the road. Johnson's car hits King's, and King sues and claims that Johnson was following too closely and was careless in doing so.

The first of these examples is a contracts case, and the second is what is called a torts case. Torts are a variety of wrongs that one can do to another that fall short of being criminal, but for which the law allows some remedy other than criminal fine or imprisonment. Generally, that remedy is meant to make up for the losses of one of the parties.

But money damages are not the only things one seeks in civil law. Sometimes you are in civil court to ask the court to order forcing the other party to do something or to stop doing something. These orders are often called injunctions.

For example, let us say...

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