Civil Procedure

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The methods, procedures, and practices used in civil cases.

The judicial system is essentially divided into two types of cases: civil and criminal. Thus, a study of CIVIL PROCEDURE is basically a study of the procedures that apply in cases that are not criminal.

Generally, criminal trials are used by the government to protect and provide relief to the general public by attempting to punish an individual. Civil trials can be used by anyone to enforce, redress, or protect their legal rights through court orders and monetary awards. The two types of trials are very different in character and thus have separate procedural rules and practices.

Procedural law is distinguished from SUBSTANTIVE LAW, which creates, defines, and regulates the rights and duties of individuals. Federal and state constitutions, statutes, and judicial decisions form the basis for substantive CIVIL LAW on matters such as contracts, TORTS,and probate. Procedural law prescribes the methods by which individuals may enforce substantive laws. The basic concern of procedural law is the fair, orderly, efficient, and predictable application of substantive laws. Procedural guidance can be found in court rules, in statutes, and in judicial decisions.

Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

State and federal courts maintain separate procedural rules. On the federal level, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure govern the process of civil litigation at the level of the U.S. district court, which is a trial court. At least one U.S. district court operates in each state. Each district court also exists within one of thirteen federal circuits. Any appeal of a decision by a U.S. district court is heard by the court of appeals for the federal circuit in which the district court sits. Appeals of decisions by a U.S. court of appeals may be heard by the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES.

The Supreme Court and the courts of appeals use procedures contained in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and in the U.S.

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Supreme Court Rules. As reviewing courts, they are concerned with the district courts' application of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are now contained in title 28 of the U.S. Code. Before 1938, the procedural rules in U.S. district courts varied from circuit to circuit. The rules in the western United States, for example, were generally less complex than those in the East. To add to the confusion, federal civil cases were designated either at law, which essentially meant that the relief sought was monetary or equitable, which meant that the court was asked to act on principles of fairness and, generally, to award nonmonetary relief. The distinction was important because the procedural rules for a case at law differed from those for an EQUITY suit.

In response to widespread criticism of procedural complexity, the U.S. Congress in 1934 passed the Federal Rules Enabling Act (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 2071, 2072). This act conferred on the Supreme Court the power to make new rules for federal courts. In 1938, new rules were recommended by an advisory committee appointed by the Supreme Court and approved by Congress. The new rules featured simplified PLEADING requirements, comprehensive discovery procedures, a PRETRIAL CONFERENCE to narrow the scope of a trial and define issues, and broad provisions for joining parties and claims to a lawsuit. In addition, legal and equitable claims were merged to proceed with the same set of rules.

After the first set of uniform federal rules were promulgated, it became clear that continuous oversight of the rules was necessary to ensure their improvement. In 1958, Congress created the JUDICIAL CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED STATES, a freestanding body to study federal civil procedure and propose amendments to the Supreme Court. The Judicial Conference, in turn, created the ongoing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure to help fashion the best procedural rules for federal courts. Subsequently amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure occurred on a regular basis.

State courts generally follow the same judicial hierarchy as federal courts. In all states, a party to a civil suit is entitled to at least one review of a trial court decision. In some states, a party may be entitled to two appeals: one in a court of appeals, and one in the state supreme court.

Procedural rules in state courts are similar to the federal rules. Indeed, many states base their procedural rules on the federal rules. Thus, there is a large measure of uniformity among the states and among state and federal courts.

Litigation Process: Pleadings, Justisdiction, and Venue

A civil action is commenced with the filing of a complaint. The plaintiff must file the complaint with the court and must give a summons to the court and a copy of the complaint to the defendant. The complaint must set forth the claims and the legal bases for them.

Before filing the complaint, the plaintiff must decide where to file it. As a general rule, cases are filed in state, not federal, courts. The question of whether a particular court has authority over a certain matter and certain parties is one of jurisdiction. Federal courts generally have jurisdiction over civil actions in three situations. The most common is when the parties to the suit live in different states and the amount of money in controversy exceeds $50,000. The second instance is when a claim is specifically authorized by federal statute. The third is when a claim is made by or against the federal government or its agents.

The jurisdiction of state courts depends on a number of variables. Plaintiffs filing in state court generally prefer to file in their home state. However, this may be difficult in a case where the defendant lives in another state and the injury occurred outside the plaintiff's home state. A court in the plaintiff's home state can gain jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant in several ways. For example, if the defendant enters the plaintiff's home state, the plaintiff may serve the defendant there and force the defendant to...

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