Trial Courts: The Players in the Courtroom
When a case actually goes to trial, there are many people involved and each plays an important role in the court process. A trial revolves around an argument involving two or more people. The people who bring their argument to trial are called the parties to the case. In a civil trial, one person is complaining about something another person did or failed to do. The person who does the complaining is called the plaintiff. The person the plaintiff is complaining about is called the defendant. In a criminal case, a person is accused of a particular act, which the law calls a crime, such as murder or robbery. Because this crime offends not only the particular victim, but the public or State as well, the plaintiff in a criminal case is the government or State. The person accused of the crime is the defendant.
Usually both parties will hire lawyers and instruct them to prepare the case and make arguments for them in court. A lawyer is both an advisor and an advocate. As an advisor, a lawyer informs clients about their legal options. As an advocate, a lawyer represents a client in court. A lawyer also advocates (argues) on behalf of clients in other settings, such as resolving disputes out of court. All lawyers are officers of the court. Lawyers are highly regulated by court rules, as well as by law and the professional ethics rules. If a lawyer is representing a client, the lawyer is bound by professional rules of confidentiality, meaning the lawyer must safeguard the secrecy of their conversations with the client. These rules protect clients who put a great deal of trust in lawyers to help them settle their disputes.
In a criminal case, a lawyer called a prosecutor argues on behalf of the State. The prosecutor speaks on behalf of the government, which represents the people of the state or nation. The defendant in a criminal case can either hire a lawyer called a defense attorney, or if the defendant cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to be the lawyer for the defendant.
Certain Lawyers Must be Elected. Prosecutors are lawyers that represent the State in a criminal case. Prosecutors are lawyers for their county or judicial circuit and must be elected by the voters.
Possibly the easiest person to identify in the court process is the judge. The judge sits at the front of the courtroom usually dressed in a black robe. Judges are like umpires in baseball, or referees in football or basketball. Their role is to see that both sides follow the rules of court procedures. Even though the judge works for the State, a judge doesn't try to prove people guilty. The judge is an impartial figure in the courtroom and makes decisions according to the facts and law.
In a jury trial, the judge rules on points of law and tells the jury about the law that governs the case. If the defendant chooses not to have a jury trial, the judge determines the facts, rules on motions, resolves disputes, and issues the judgment.
Trial Judges are Elected. In Indiana, the voters elect the judges of most courts every six years, but there are some exceptions.
Lake and St. Joseph Counties (which include the cities of Gary and South Bend).
- Candidates for superior court judge are nominated by local nominating commissions, chaired by a Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court or a Judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals.
- After nomination, the Governor appoints judges to serve six-year terms.
- Thereafter, they run on a "yes-no" retention ballot.
- Superior court judges are elected in a nonpartisan election.
- Superior court judges are elected at the general election on a separate ballot without a party designation.
- Vacancies, however, are filled by the Governor from a list of three candidates nominated by the Allen County Judicial Nominating Commission.
- Judges of local city and town courts are elected every four years by local voters.
Requirements for the Courtroom's Players
Lawyer Requirements. Becoming a lawyer usually requires a college degree and a degree from law school. Then, in almost all states, the graduate must pass a rigorous test, called the bar exam, to get a license to practice law. A license to practice law in Indiana was not required until 1931!
Judge Requirements. The primary requirement for someone to become a judge is that they have a law degree and be a licensed attorney. Most judges usually practice law first to gain more experience and knowledge about the law. But there are some exceptions. There are some city and town courts in Indiana where the local judge does not have to be an attorney to be a judge.
Fun Fact. Only the local judges of the following city and town courts must be attorneys: Anderson City Court, Avon Town Court, Brownsburg Town Court, Carmel City Court, East Chicago City Court, Gary City Court, Hammond City Court, Muncie City Court, Noblesville City Court, and Plainfield Town Court.
The bailiff calls the court to order and announces the judge's entry into the courtroom. The bailiff also helps to keep order in the courtroom and is often responsible for security in the courtroom and courthouse. Bailiffs are sometimes law enforcement officers, like police officers.
Each judge has a court clerk who administers oaths, manages the court file, numbers the exhibits, maintains the exhibits during the trial, and is responsible for all court documents.
The court reporter is the person responsible for taking down everything said during a trial. The court reporter is also responsible for making a permanent word-for-word typewritten transcript of the proceedings and putting it into certified transcript form.
The defendant has the choice of a bench trial where the judge decides the outcome of the case, or a jury trial where a jury decides the outcome of the case. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the defendant's right to a trial by jury in all criminal cases and the Seventh Amendment guarantees the defendant's right to a trial by jury in a civil case as long as the dispute exceeds $20. While the $20 limit may seem like a small amount, this limit was set in 1789 when the amendment was first proposed by Congress. In the Indiana Constitution, a defendant's right to a trial by jury is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights by Article 1 §13 and §20.
- What is a Jury? A jury is a group of people summoned and sworn to decide issues of fact at a trial. A master list of possible jurors is compiled from things like voter registration lists and driver license lists. Citizens from the master list are randomly selected and called into court for jury duty. Potential jurors undergo a pre-selection process called voir dire, which means, "to speak the truth." In this process, the lawyers for both sides and/or the judge question potential jurors to determine whether they might be biased toward the case in question. The lawyers for either side can dismiss jurors if for some reason the juror might be prejudiced. Traditionally in Indiana, twelve jurors are selected to serve in criminal trials, and six jurors are selected to serve in civil trials.
The jury listens to the evidence during a trial, and then decides whether a defendant is "guilty" or "not guilty" in criminal cases, and "liable" (responsible) or "not liable" (not responsible) in civil cases. When cases are tried before a jury, the judge still has a major role in determining which evidence the jury may consider. The jury is the fact-finder, but it is left to "find" facts only from the evidence that is legally admissible. The judge instructs the jury on the legal principles or rules that must be followed in weighing the facts. If the jury finds the accused guilty, it is up to the judge to sentence the defendant.
In criminal cases, the jury's verdict (decision) is required to be unanimous, meaning the jury members must all agree. If the members of the jury cannot agree after a long period of deliberation, then a "hung jury" occurs, and a new trial is held, or the case may be dismissed.
In civil cases, the parties can agree any time before the verdict is given that the jury's verdict need not be unanimous, but must represent the majority of the jurors' votes.
Today, juries are used in only about five percent of all criminal and civil cases, but juries are fundamental to justice in the United States. Juries also serve as an important way for citizens to maintain an active role in their government. Jury service gives every day citizens first-hand experience with the legal system.