In discussions with family and friends, it has become obvious to me that many people lack even a rudimentary understanding of how our court systems fundamentally work. This column will be devoted to an absurdly watered down thumbnail sketch of basics. Hopefully, it will clear up some of the confusion. Our forced march begins.
There are three court systems that operate concurrently: local, state, and federal. The local courts generally deal with very minor matters — not having a dog license, littering, etc. The real action is in the state and federal courts.
State courts usually deal with two types of cases, civil and criminal. Civil cases involve claims between private citizens (or business entities) seeking to vindicate their individual rights. The state or federal government is not a player. Examples of civil matters would be a contract dispute, a car accident, or a nasty breakup of a partnership. Criminal disputes involve the allegation by the state or federal government that someone has violated one of the criminal statutes that are written in the law books. What distinguishes a crime from a civil dispute is that it involves disrupting not only an individual, but also the entire community by shattering the peace and calm, “the king’s peace.” An assault, a bank robbery, and a car theft, are all criminal offenses. (Probate courts, dealing with matters pertaining to wills, estate disputes, and guardianship are a separate legal universe.)
Generally, disputes — both civil or criminal — are settled either by agreement or through a more adversarial process. For example, a couple getting divorced might agree on custody and financial issues. Or one party to a contract dispute agrees to pay the other side money to mitigate the other person’s damages. On the criminal side, cases are often resolved through plea-bargaining, with a defendant admitting guilt and an agreed-upon sentence, or, if no agreement can be reached, through a trial.
In civil cases, parties can also have their disputes mediated or arbitrated, which can be quicker and cheaper than litigation. In the absence of a settlement, cases often go to trial before a judge or a jury. At trial, the jury is the final arbiter of the facts and the judge is in charge of explaining the law to the jury and making sure the trial runs smoothly.
Trials are very expensive and very difficult emotionally. Most parties prefer to compromise their civil disputes rather than go through the unpredictable exercise of a trial where the outcome can never be assured. In criminal cases, the State of Connecticut, or the United States government, is accusing someone of violating one of the laws created by the members of the state legislature or the U.S. Congress. All defendants are presumed innocent and to convict a defendant the prosecution must prove the person guilty by a standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In civil cases, the standard is much lower; to prevail, a party must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning more likely than not. In criminal cases, either the judge or the jury hears the evidence and arguments and declares the defendant guilty or not guilty.
The systems are three-tiered. The losing party in a trial has the right to appeal, to take the case to a higher court with the claim that a new trial should be held because of a serious error in the proceedings. For example, one party may claim that the judge erroneously allowed certain evidence to be admitted and that this rendered the case unfair. Another common claim on appeal is that the judge made a significant mistake in explaining legal principles to the jury. To prevail and get a new trial, the appealing party must typically show that the alleged mistake was serious enough to affect the outcome.
In Connecticut, appeals initially travel from the trial court to the Appellate Court, an intermediate appellate court. That is the court I sit on. It is called “intermediate” because if a party loses their appeal in the Appellate Court, they can take the case to the state’s highest court, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court can then either reverse or affirm the ruling issued by the Appellate Court. The Supreme Court has the final say on all matters of Connecticut law. The ruling by the state Supreme Court almost always ends the case —unless there is an issue of federal law to be decided.
What is federal law? Federal law refers to laws passed by the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., composed of United States senators (in Connecticut, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy), who represent the entire state, and representatives, who represent different districts. Federal laws apply throughout the entire country, unlike state laws, which apply only in their own jurisdictions.
As with state proceedings, there are generally three steps in the federal process—trial level, appeal to a court of appeal and then, in rare occasions, an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. You can win the first two stages but lose the third, which means starting the entire case all over again.
To confuse matters, sometimes criminal conduct can violate both state and federal law. Bank robbery is a good example. Robbing a bank is a crime under both federal and state law. Either the state or the federal government can prosecute bank robbers.
Towering over everything in both state and federal law are the state and federal constitutions, spelling out the fundamental legal principles which guide society. Every state has a state constitution, which spells out the supreme state law in each state. The United States Constitution, generally speaking, is the highest law in the land on most questions.
Adherence to a constitution is what separates free societies from tyrannies. Heaven help us all if the United States Constitution loses its special place in our free society.