In this section, we consider how lawsuits are begun and how the court knows that it has both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over at least one of the named defendants.
The courts are not the only institutions that can resolve disputes. In Alternative Means of Resolving Disputes , we will discuss other dispute-resolution forums, such as arbitration and mediation.
For now, let us consider how courts make decisions in civil disputes. Judicial decision making in the context of litigation (civil lawsuits) is a distinctive form of dispute resolution.
First, to get the attention of a court, the plaintiff must make a claim based on existing laws. Second, courts do not reach out for cases. Cases are brought to them, usually when an attorney files a case with the right court in the right way, following the various laws that govern all civil procedures in a state or in the federal system. (Most US states’ procedural laws are similar to the federal procedural code.)
Once at the court, the case will proceed through various motions (motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, for example, or insufficient service of process), the proofs (submission of evidence), and the arguments (debate about the meaning of the evidence and the law) of contesting parties.
This is at the heart of the adversary system, in which those who oppose each other may attack the other’s case through proofs and cross-examination. Every person in the United States who wishes to take a case to court is entitled to hire a lawyer. The lawyer works for his client, not the court, and serves him as an advocate, or supporter. The client’s goal is to persuade the court of the accuracy and justness of his position. The lawyer’s duty is to shape the evidence and the argument—the line of reasoning about the evidence—to advance his client’s cause and persuade the court of its rightness. The lawyer for the opposing party will be doing the same thing, of course, for her client. The judge (or, if one is sitting, the jury) must sort out the facts and reach a decision from this cross-fire of evidence and argument.
The method of adjudication—the act of making an order or judgment—has several important features. First, it focuses the conflicting issues. Other, secondary concerns are minimized or excluded altogether. Relevance is a key concept in any trial. The judge is required to decide the questions presented at the trial, not to talk about related matters. Second, adjudication requires that the judge’s decision be reasoned, and that is why judges write opinions explaining their decisions (an opinion may be omitted when the verdict comes from a jury). Third, the judge’s decision must not only be reasoned but also be responsive to the case presented: the judge is not free to say that the case is unimportant and that he therefore will ignore it. Unlike other branches of government that are free to ignore problems pressing upon them, judges mustdecide cases. (For example, a legislature need not enact a law, no matter how many people petition it to do so.) Fourth, the court must respond in a certain way. The judge must pay attention to the parties’ arguments and his decision must result from their proofs and arguments. Evidence that is not presented and legal arguments that are not made cannot be the basis for what the judge decides. Also, judges are bound by standards of weighing evidence: the burden of proof in a civil case is generally a “preponderance of the evidence.”
In all cases, the plaintiff—the party making a claim and initiating the lawsuit (in a criminal case the plaintiff is the prosecution)—has the burden of proving his case. If he fails to prove it, the defendant—the party being sued or prosecuted—will win.
Criminal prosecutions carry the most rigorous burden of proof: the government must prove its case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, even if it seems very likely that the defendant committed the crime, as long as there remains some reasonable doubt—perhaps he was not clearly identified as the culprit, perhaps he has an alibi that could be legitimate—the jury must vote to acquit rather than convict.
By contrast, the burden of proof in ordinary civil cases—those dealing with contracts, personal injuries, and most of the cases in this book—is a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the plaintiff’s evidence must outweigh whatever evidence the defendant can muster that casts doubts on the plaintiff’s claim. This is not merely a matter of counting the number of witnesses or of the length of time that they talk: the judge in a trial without a jury (a bench trial), or the jury where one is impaneled, must apply the preponderance of evidence test by determining which side has the greater weight of credible, relevant evidence.
Adjudication and the adversary system imply certain other characteristics of courts. Judges must be impartial; those with a personal interest in a matter must refuse to hear it. The ruling of a court, after all appeals are exhausted, is final. This principle is known as res judicata (Latin for “the thing is decided”), and it means that the same parties may not take up the same dispute in another court at another time. Finally, a court must proceed according to a public set of formal procedural rules; a judge cannot make up the rules as he goes along. To these rules we now turn.