THE JUDICIAL PROCESS
Thanks to television shows such as "Law and Order" and "The People's Court" and cable television networks such as Court TV, U.S. audiences have become more familiar with the judicial process. Unfortunately, much of the information gleaned from at least some of the shows is distorted and sometimes downright wrong. For example, in "The People's Court," there are no attorneys and the judge plays an active role in questioning the witnesses and parties. Although the proceedings bear at least vague similarities to the fairly informal proceedings in most small claims courts, anyone who spends a day or so observing a real courtroom quickly realizes there are differences between television law and real-world law. 1 Any aspiring journalist should spend at least 1 day watching the proceedings of each of the major courts (state and federal) in the region to acquire some sense of how the judicial process functions.
The purpose of this chapter is to introduce the basics of the judicial process, including a description of a typical civil lawsuit and trial and a typical criminal lawsuit and trial. Put aside any images you may have from television shows and movies -- you are now in the real world of law. You will encounter some strange, new terms, but take them to heart because you may find them indispensable later if you become a practicing journalist. The chapter also introduces to important ethical considerations, especially in covering criminal cases.
The vast majority of lawsuits never reach trial; they are either dropped by the plaintiff or settled out of court by the parties. The courts could never handle the load if all or even half of all cases went to trial because they are extremely busy processing and ruling on motions and other pretrial proceedings. Most cases resolved in the courts are civil cases, although criminal cases often attract the most intense media attention. During the 1992 fiscal year, for instance, 230,509 new civil cases and 48,366 new criminal cases were handled by the federal district courts. 2