There are many rules that dictate how things will occur in the courtroom before and during a federal trial. These rules and procedures help to make sure every court proceeding is fair. This consistent, predictable system also helps us to have confidence in the rulings of the judge and jury. In federal court, the jury decides the verdict. It’s the judge’s job to act as referee, ruling on issues of law before and during the trial. Federal judges keep up to date on many laws and rules such as:
The U.S. Courts are courts of common law, meaning decisions are based on, and sometimes bound by, past court decisions.
Civil cases can be heard in federal court if the parties are from two different states, federal judges are often required to know state laws too.
It’s the judge’s job to interpret the rules and laws, and apply them to each individual situation. For example:
- During the pretrial phase, the defense attorney may ask the judge to suppress evidence that was collected without a valid search warrant.
- When giving instructions to the jury before they deliberate, the judge may need to define for them the standards of negligence in a personal injury case.
- During a criminal sentencing, it’s up to the judge to apply the sentencing guidelines to individual circumstances in determining the appropriate punishment.
History of The Jury
The U.S. Constitution provides for trial by jury in most situations. Therefore, even though the judge presides over the activities in the courtroom and rules on issues of law, the decisions about facts are made by ordinary, average citizens. The jury system is not an American invention. Trial by jury and the grand jury existed elsewhere before our states were even colonies.
- The original “people’s court” took place in ancient Greece, where a jury might consist of 500 adult male citizens.
- Juries were sometimes used to settle disputes in the Roman Republic.
- Trial by jury was guaranteed to English citizens by the Magna Carta in 1215, and again by the English Bill of Rights in 1689.
- The colonists brought the idea of jury trials with them to the new world. Being deprived of trial by jury was one of the complaints against England made in the Declaration of Independence. (and one of the reasons for fighting the Revolutionary War)
- Founding father Thomas Jefferson said, in 1789, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
The Grand Jury
The grand jury is different from the trial jury. The 5th Amendment states that no one can be indicted for serious crimes without first having a group of citizens, a grand jury, agree there is enough evidence to formally bring charges. Even though an accused person is considered innocent until found guilty at a trial, simply being accused of a crime (indicted) is enough to disrupt one’s life and reputation. The grand jury is used to ensure prosecuting attorneys do not make reckless decisions when charging someone with a serious crime.
All across the country, groups of citizens meet as grand juries in each of the federal districts. They meet in private, seeing evidence and hearing testimony that has not yet been made part of the public record. Grand jurors make the decision on a case-by-case basis as to whether or not there is sufficient evidence, or probable cause, to proceed to formal charges. If the grand jury decides there isn’t enough evidence to proceed, the charges are never filed. Like trial by jury, the grand jury was not invented by the United States. It also appeared in the Magna Carta.
Trial jurors are sometimes called petit jurors. Petit jurors are also average citizens who are called upon to participate in the trial process. Before someone accused of a crime can be put in prison, they need to be found guilty by a group of people from the community who, despite their varied background and experiences, can come to agreement on the facts in the case. Though trial by jury is an important right in America, a criminal defendant can waive this right and have the case decided by a Judge alone. If that happens, it is called a bench trial. In the 7th Amendment, the Bill of Rights also guarantees you the right to jury trial for civil matters.
←Click to Learn More About Jury Duty
Because a jury trial is an important right of American citizenship, serving on a jury is a required duty of all American citizens who have reached the age of 18. The district court will send out a jury summons to eligible citizens, requiring them to report to the courthouse for jury duty. Potential jurors are selected at random, to ensure there is a fair mix of all types of citizens in the courtroom.
When citizens are called for jury duty, they report to the federal courthouse in the district in which they live. When it’s time for the trial to begin, a large group of the jurors are taken to the courtroom to participate in voir dire, or jury selection. For a federal criminal trial, the final jury will have 12 members, plus one or more alternates. After the trial concludes, only 12 jurors get to participate in the decision making. For a federal civil trial, the final jury can have up to 12 members, but can’t be any smaller than 6.
←Click to Learn More About Selecting The Jury
The voir dire, or jury selection process, requires input from attorneys for both sides, as well as the judge. The judge and attorneys are given limited information about each potential juror. Then, the judge, and possibly the attorneys, ask questions of the jurors. The purpose of this process is to determine who will be most fair and impartial, by eliminating jurors who might have the potential to be biased to one side or the other.
When the questioning is complete, the attorneys for both sides meet with the judge to pick the jury for the trial. Some of the jurors are removed for cause. Challenging jurors for cause means they have something in their past experience that may not allow them to be fair and impartial to both parties. For example, jurors could be removed for cause because they know the plaintiff, defendant, one of the attorneys, or the judge. Jurors may also be removed because they have been a victim of a similar crime or injury in the past. There is no limit to the number of jurors who can be removed from the jury pool for cause.
Other potential jurors are removed by peremptory strike. Each side is allowed to remove a certain number of jurors from the pool without giving a reason. This process contributes to the overall goal of selecting a fair and unbiased group of citizens to hear the case. While no reason has to be stated for peremptory strikes, jurors cannot be eliminated based on race or gender. Attorneys may have to state a reason for removing a potential juror if there is reason to believe the strike is based upon one of these factors.
- At the federal level, each side in a civil trial is allowed 3 peremptory strikes.
- In a federal criminal trial, the prosecuting attorney for the government gets 6, and the defense attorney is allowed 10 strikes. (In the rare occurrence of a capital case, meaning the death penalty is being considered, both sides are allowed 20 peremptory strikes.)
- If the crime in question is only a federal misdemeanor, which is a minor crime punishable by a fine or less than a year in prison, each side gets 3 strikes.
Once all potential jurors have been removed in this manner, the jury is then selected and empaneled. The courtroom deputy clerk will swear them in as the jury, the judge gives the jury some initial instructions, and the trial can begin. Those who are not empaneled are usually free to go, though some courts may ask them to stay for other cases that day or week.
←Click to Learn More About Jury Instructions
At several times during the trial, the judge will give instructions to the jury on how to proceed. The first set of instructions usually gives the jurors an idea of the case is about. The judge will go over some important dos and don’ts for them. For example, jurors are not allowed to do any outside research about the case such as visiting the scene of the crime or accident. This is because there are many rules about what evidence can and can’t be included in determining the defendant’s guilt or liability. If evidence was collected in violation of someone’s rights, it isn’t fair to have it included as part of the case against them. Ultimately, it’s up to the judge to rule on these issues of law, and decide which evidence can be considered. Therefore, the jurors should only make their decision based on what is seen and heard in the courtroom, and nothing else.
Courts have other standard rules, to make sure the entire process is fair and impartial. These rules are in place to prevent any juror from being influenced by anything other than the evidence in the case. Violating one of these rules could cause charges to be brought against the juror.
- Don’t discuss the case with anyone.
- Don’t discuss the case with other jurors.
- Don’t have any communication with the parties, attorneys, or witnesses.
- Don’t post anything about the case on any social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
- Don’t research the case. For example, don’t visit the crime scene or look anything up on the internet.
- Don’t watch news reports or read articles about the case.
As the trial proceeds, the judge may give additional instructions to the jurors as issues of law arise. At the end of the trial, the judge will give the jury detailed instructions as they retire to the jury room to deliberate and come to their verdict. One of the most important parts of these final instructions include the specific listing of all of the things that must be true in order to reach a guilty verdict in a criminal case, or to find the defendant liable or at fault in a civil case. The final jury instructions will also include an explanation of the burden of proof to be used. In federal criminal cases, the jury must believe the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to return a guilty verdict. This means that no reasonable person would doubt that the defendant had committed the crime. The burden of proof in civil cases is different; it is by the greater weight of the evidence (sometimes called preponderance of the evidence). This means that, in order to find the defendant at fault, the jury must believe that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injury. This is a less difficult burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt. In federal court, all jury verdicts must be unanimous.
Why is the burden of proof higher in a criminal case? Criminal cases have harsher penalties; you might be fined, jailed, or even put to death after being found guilty. But in a civil case, you can only lose money. So the courts want to the jury to be sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant did in fact commit the crime as charged.