Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A judicial examination and determination of facts and legal issues arising between parties to a civil or criminal action.

In the United States, the trial is the principal method for resolving legal disputes that parties cannot settle by themselves or through less formal methods. The chief purpose of a trial is to secure fair and impartial administration of justice between the parties to the action. A trial seeks to ascertain the truth of the matters in issue between the parties and to apply the law to those matters. Also, a trial provides a final legal determination of the dispute between the parties.

The two main types of trials are civil trials and criminal trials. Civil trials resolve civil actions, which are brought to enforce, redress, or protect private rights. In general, all types of actions other than criminal actions are civil actions. In a criminal trial, a person charged with a crime is found guilty or not guilty and sentenced. The government brings a criminal action on behalf of the citizens to punish an infraction of criminal laws.

The cornerstone of the legal system in the United States is the jury trial. Many of the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which set forth the law of the land, are based on the issues and disputes raised in jury trials. The jury trial method of resolving disputes is premised on the belief that justice is best achieved by pitting the parties against each other as adversaries, with each party advocating its own version of the truth. Under the ADVERSARY SYSTEM, the jury, a group of citizens from the community, decides which facts in dispute are true. A judge presides at the trial and determines and applies the law. At the end of the trial, the judge will enter a judgment that constitutes the decision of the court. The parties must adhere to the judgment of the court.

Not all trials are jury trials. A case may also be tried before a judge. This is known as a court trial or a bench trial. A court trial is basically identical to a jury trial, except the judge decides both the facts and the law applicable to the action. A criminal defendant is always entitled to a trial by jury. Also, common-law civil claims usually are tried by jury. Often, however, actions created by statute may be tried only before the court. In some court trials, the court will have an ADVISORY JURY. The advisory jury observes the proceedings just as an ordinary jury would, but the judge need not accept the advisory jury's verdict.

Historical Background

Jury trials were introduced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1628, because King James of England declared that certain crimes in the colonies were to be tried before juries. In early civil trials, the parties could choose, by mutual consent, a jury or court trial. Criminal defendants could also choose a jury or court trial. By the late 1600s, several colonies were holding jury trials, but jury trials were unavailable to many citizens.

During the revolutionary period, many documents noted the importance of jury trials. The colonists feared that they could not get a fair trial before a judge who usually was appointed by the king or his representatives. The First CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared, in 1774, that the colonists were entitled to the "great and inestimable privilege of being tried by their peers of the vicinage." The 1775 Declaration of Causes and Necessities and Taking Up Arms specifically noted the deprivation of jury trials as a justification for forcibly resisting English rule. The Declaration of Independence noted that many colonists were not permitted jury trials.

The constitution of Virginia, which is considered the first written constitution of modern republican government, contained a bill of rights providing for a jury of 12 and a unanimous verdict in criminal cases, and trial by jury

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in civil cases. After several other states adopted similar provisions in their constitutions, the U.S. Constitution was drafted to require trial by jury in criminal cases. Although the Constitution did not provide for jury trials in civil cases, the first Congress incorporated trial by jury in civil cases into the Bill of Rights. Since that time, trial by jury has become universal in the courts of the United States, although juries are not used in all cases.

Pretrial Matters

Technically, a trial begins after the preliminary matters in the action have been resolved and the jury or court is ready to begin the examination of the facts. The trial ends when the examination is completed and a judgment can be entered. The trial of a jury case ends on the formal acceptance and recording of a verdict decisive of the entire action. Before the trial may begin, however, certain preliminary matters must be resolved.

Venue Venue refers to the particular county or city in which a court with jurisdiction may conduct a trial. The proper venue for most trials is the city or county in which the injury in dispute allegedly occurred or where the parties reside. Venue may, however, be changed to a different jurisdiction. Sometimes the proper venue for a trial is difficult to determine, such as in cases involving multinational corporations or class actions involving plaintiffs from many different states. The venue for a criminal trial can change if a defendant persuades the trial court that he cannot obtain a fair trial in that venue. For example, a defendant may request a change of venue because he feels that extensive PRE-TRIAL PUBLICITY has prejudiced the public.

Pretrial Motions and Conference Motions may be made by the parties at any time prior to trial and may have a significant impact on the case. For example, in a criminal case, the trial judge might rule that the primary piece of incriminating evidence is not admissible in court. In a civil case, the judge might grant SUMMARY JUDGMENT, which means that no significant facts are in dispute and judgment may be entered without the need for a trial. Before the trial begins, the court holds a PRE-TRIAL CONFERENCE with the parties' attorneys. At the pretrial conference, the parties narrow the issues to be tried and decide on a wide variety of other matters necessary to the disposition of the case.

Public vs. Closed Trials Although most trials are presumptively open to the public, sometimes a court may decide to close a trial. Generally a trial may be closed to the public only to ensure order and dignity in the courtroom or to keep secret sensitive information that will come to light during the trial. Thus, a trial might be closed to the public to protect classified documents, protect trade secrets, avoid intimidation of witnesses, guard the safety of undercover police officers, or protect the identity of a juvenile. Although trials are usually open to the public, most jurisdictions do not permit television cameras or other recording devices in the courtroom. A growing minority of states permits cameras in the courtroom, although the judge still has the discretion to exclude the cameras if he or she feels that their presence will interfere with the trial.

Trial Participants

Judge The judge presides over the court and is the central figure in a trial. It is the presiding judge's responsibility to conduct an orderly trial and to assure the proper administration of justice in his court. The judge decides all legal questions that arise during the trial, controls the presentation of evidence by the parties, instructs the jury, and generally directs every aspect of the trial. The judge must be impartial, and any matter that lends even the appearance of impartiality to the trial may disqualify the judge. Because of his importance, the presiding judge must be present in court from the opening of the trial until its close and must be easily accessible during jury trials while the jury is deliberating on its verdict.

The judge holds a place of honor in the courtroom. The judge sits above the attorneys, the parties, the jury, and the witness stand. Everyone in the courtroom must stand when the judge enters or exits the courtroom. The judge is addressed as "your Honor" or "the Court." In...

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