This classification covers civilian courts of law. Military courts are classified in SIC 9711: National Security.
The law affects every aspect of modern society. It regulates the entire range of relationships among individuals, groups, businesses, and governments, defining rights and restrictions on conduct, communications, and transactions. Everything from paying taxes and entering into contracts to constructing buildings and punishing criminals is touched by the law. Even some aspects of personal relationships, such as divorce or child custody, are governed by law.
Because social needs and attitudes are continually changing, the law is also constantly changing. In many cases, the court system is the impetus for change. Judges play an important part in the development of the law by interpreting how particular laws apply to specific circumstances. When social mores change, judges—the interpreters of the law—can in effect rewrite the laws.
The court system is a vast network of federal, state, county, and local courts that provides a forum in which to interpret laws when disputes arise. Criminal matters are usually separated from civil matters, but a court of "general jurisdiction" may hear either. Issues that involve federal laws or the U.S. Constitution may be brought in federal district courts; matters between private parties are generally heard in a state's "circuit court" or court of common pleas. Courts may gain jurisdiction over foreign defendants who have committed a criminal or civil wrong while in this country. Likewise, through the Alien Tort Claims Act, illegal aliens may sue American companies for wrongs committed in other countries.
The court system encompasses a wide array of external support entities such as sentencing boards, Friends of the Court, probation and parole boards, local police and sheriff departments, state prosecutors and public defenders, lawyers, public service and community organizations, law schools, correctional institutions, and, often, social services. Conversely, within a courtroom, there are bailiffs, court officers, court reporters, administrative staff, and, importantly, the judge's clerk (a misnomer, as the clerk is usually a graduate law student or a full attorney, depending on the level of court).
Judges oversee the legal process and resolve civil disputes or determine guilt in criminal cases for which there is no jury. They also determine the procedural process to be followed in the courts and provide instructions to juries in cases for which a jury is seated. Judges are responsible for assuring that trials are conducted fairly and that individual legal rights are safeguarded—particularly in criminal cases. Judges typically listen to the attorneys for each party while they argue their cases, examine witnesses, and present other evidence. Judges make rulings on the admissibility of evidence, methods of questioning witnesses, and legal validity of disputes between opposing attorneys.
Judges are also responsible for conducting pretrial hearings and other types of formal hearings. They may determine whether there is sufficient evidence to merit a criminal trial, establish whether bail will be allowed for criminal defendants, and set conditions for the release of an accused until trial. They may also rule whether certain evidence can be used at trial and whether television cameras will be allowed in the courtroom. Judges also decide whether a right to a trial by jury exists, and they make sentencing decisions.
Most judges have experience as lawyers prior to joining the bench. They are employed by local and county governments, state governments, and the federal government. Local judges are usually elected in local elections. State supreme court justices are appointed by the governor. Federal judges are appointed for life by the president, with the consent of the Senate. The prestige associated with being a judge fuels keen competition for these coveted positions.
The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch includes the president, his cabinet, and certain federal agencies. The legislative branch is comprised of the U.S. Congress and certain federal agencies. The court system falls under the judicial branch, which is responsible for interpreting the laws passed by the legislative branch. Although the judicial branch is the smallest of the three branches, its power is significant.
The court system in the United States includes federal courts, state courts, and county or municipal courts. Each of these courts serves a particular purpose. In some cases, litigants must go to a particular court; in others, they may, to some degree, choose their "forum." Court systems are generally three-tiered, whether federal or state. First, there are the trial courts, then the courts of appeals, and, finally, the supreme courts (the ultimate appellate courts).
The federal court system begins with the District Court, where trials are held for cases involving...