Unique Structure of the American Court System
Each court in the American court system serves a specific function. The function of the court is defined by the constitutional provision or statute that created the court. Although variations abound, there are two types of courts: trial courts and appellate courts.
Trial courts are courts that resolve factual disputes. The premise of the common law is that the law develops through the resolution of actual factual disputes presented by persons with opposing interests in the outcome. The trial court is charged with hearing the dispute and arriving at a resolution.
The primary concern of trial court is to determine the facts of the dispute. The determination of facts comes in two steps. First, the parties must present their version of the facts. In the discovery process, the par ties exchange information about the case. This information is sifted, analyzed, and organized in ways de signed to persuade the trial court to reach a specific result. At trial, the parties pre sent their version of the facts in accordance with the rules of evidence. Both versions of the facts are presented, together with arguments about the credibility or relevance of particular facts.
Second, after all parties present their version of the facts, the trial court must decide which version is the truth. This function of the trial court is the
In cases involving a jury, the jury is the finder of fact. In these cases, the jury determines the facts on the basis of instructions from the judge. The instructions also ask the jury to reach a conclusion based on the application of established legal principles to the facts. This conclusion is called a verdict.
Since trial courts are the first line of dispute resolution, the work of most lawyers and paralegals is concentrated at this level. Facts and the interpretation of facts are the most important part of a trial court-level practice. Paralegals must become adept at recognizing, developing, and responding to facts that affect the outcome of a legal dispute.
Arriving at a verdict often involves resolving factual discrepancies. A jury may hear evidence from a witness that a driver was exceeding the speed limit at the time of the accident. The driver may present evidence that he was driving within the speed limit. The jury has the responsibility of resolving this factual dispute and determining the probable facts of the accident.
When the parties choose to present their case to a judge sitting without a jury, the judge assumes the role of finder of fact. The judge's role in this type of case is similar to that of a jury, except that the judge does not receive instructions on the treatment of the evidence. In most cases, the judge will prepare written findings of fact. The findings of fact are the equivalent of a jury verdict.
The application of law to fact is the exclusive function of the judge, regardless of who served as finder of fact. The application of law to fact determines the outcome of the dispute. In cases where the parties agree to the facts, they may ask the judge to apply the law to the facts without the need for a finder of fact. These situations allow the trial court to resolve a legal dispute short of trial for matters when the facts are clear.
A party who disagrees with a decision of a trial court can appeal.
An appeal removes the dispute to another court called an appellate court. An appellate court can be the highest court in the particular legal system or it can be an intermediate appellate court.
Even though appellate courts are superior to trial courts, they do not serve the same function. The main function of the trial court is determining facts; the main function of an appellate court is the selection and application of rules of law to the facts determined by the trial court. Appellate courts do not receive evidence — the presentation of a new witness or document is not allowed. The primary concern of the appellate courts is whether the applicable legal principles were applied correctly to the facts determined by the finder of fact. In general, an appellate court will affirm (agree with) or reverse (disagree with) the trial court's application of law to fact.
Even though appellate courts do not determine facts, their decisions are based on the facts of the dispute as determined by the trial court. It is often useful to carefully examine the facts of an appellate court opinion and compare them to the facts of the client's case. An appellate opinion involving facts that are identical or substantially similar to the client's facts is “on point.” The decisions of appellate courts are usually in writing. This allows these decisions to be reviewed and critiqued by lawyers, legal scholars, and other courts.