THE U.S. LEGAL SYSTEM
Although the structure, functions, and procedures of our judicial systems (federal and state) can be confusing, complex, and even intimidating to the layperson, journalists must be familiar with not only the basics but with some of the intricacies as well. There are at least three major reasons for acquiring this knowledge.
First, all of the major news media are devoting substantially more coverage to judicial decisions and proceedings, especially civil and criminal trials and criminal pretrial proceedings, and to appellate court rulings. Some of this increased coverage can probably be explained by the series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions favoring greater access of the public and the press to the judicial process. Another explanation for the increase may be that nearly all states now provide for regular access of video, film, and still cameras to criminal and, in some cases, civil trials. It is certainly not unusual on an average weekday to see at least two or three stories in the local daily newspaper and on the local television newscasts focusing on a civil or criminal proceeding.
Major U.S. Supreme Court cases are usually decided each week the court is in session -- from the first Monday in October until late June or early July. These decisions frequently lead radio and television newscasts, including those of the major networks, and receive front-page attention in major dailies. Occasionally, even lower federal and state appellate court decisions attract headlines.
Second, the trend toward more specialized beats, such as consumer reporting and legal affairs, has accelerated the need for journalists to have a broad base of legal knowledge. For example, professional athletes and team owners and managers frequently engage in legal battles over contracts, antitrust issues, and even potential liability for personal injuries suffered by spectators. The professional sports writer who cannot distinguish a judgment non obstante veredicto from a directed verdict or a summary judgment from a summary jury may not be able to write a complete story about a major league baseball player's suit against a team mascot for injuries suffered in a home plate collision. Not only should the writer understand and know how to explain to the readers the issues being litigated in such a suit, but he or she should also