Judicial System in the United States
There are several components of a legal system. One is an organized framework. An appreciation of the system’s structure is a necessary condition for understanding what each of the pieces contributes as well as how the system as a whole functions. Second, the system is affected by cultural influences of several kinds, including the attitudes and expectations we have of the law. These, in turn, substantially shape legal philosophy or jurisprudence. The third element is the substantive legal rules. These rules and principles reflect the policy preferences of the legal system as applied by the judicial institutions within it. The fourth element of the legal system is the human factor. All other components are affected by the human beings who serve as judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and in other capacities, and who interpret, guide, and operate the system.
The substance of a legal system can be found in law. Law is often simplistically perceived as a set of rules established and applied by officers of the government. While such a perception is not necessarily wrong, it is distorted. Law is not quite so comprehensively definitive or as mechanistically applied as we might imagine. While we know generally what the law requires, law contains ambiguity and is subject to varied interpretations by those exercising authority within the system.
One of the reasons for this is that law has a number of sources. There is the law that comes from constitutions, both federal and state. Under provisions of the U.S. Constitution, federal constitutional law is paramount or supreme. Law also emanates from legislatures. This is called statutory law. In addition, law may originate with the executive in the form of executive orders or rules fashioned by administrative agencies. Finally, there is law produced by judges as decisions are rendered in cases before the courts. One of the reasons “the law” cannot be mechanistically applied is because the sources of law are both numerous and, often, contradictory.
Other influences affect the judicial system. One such influence is legal philosophy or jurisprudence. Conceptualizations about law and courts are governed by the particular jurisprudence to which one subscribes. Several different ways of looking at the law are represented in this chapter through the discussion of the principal schools of jurisprudence.
The legal culture also has a direct impact on the operation of the judicial system. The legal culture refers to the particular values about such things as how courts should work and what law should do. Commitment to such principles as the primacy of law or the adversary system are among the elements comprising the legal culture. The beliefs and expectations of the legal culture define the unique character of the judicial system. It is partially because of legal culture influences that judges are expected to behave in ways dissimilar to other public officials.
The judicial system is also influenced by the political culture. The political culture consists of those values and institutions upon which the political system is founded. Included are such things as the other branches of the government, political party identification, and public opinion. It is through the political culture that accountability is attached to the judicial system. The principles of democracy are linked to the courts through the political culture. Manifestations of the political culture are reflected in the various judicial selection techniques. Similarly, legislative definition of court jurisdiction is a direct product of the political culture.
A final theme of this topic is the basic role of courts within the legal system. Several are particularly important. First, courts are institutions designed to resolve disputes. Under the auspices of courts, techniques of fact-finding may be undertaken through a judgment rendered on a question. Often courts resolve conflicts by presiding over settlements arrived at by the parties to the dispute. A second role is to provide redress for injury. In criminal cases, this may take the form of imposing sentence. The possibilities are more numerous for civil cases. Payment of money by one party to another may be involved or the awarding of child custody may occur, to mention only two. The assignment of remedies as a means of closing the dispute also sends messages to society at large about appropriate conduct and the consequences of failing to comply. Finally, courts establish public policy as an inevitable product of deciding cases. While substantive policy is established by each component of the judicial system, it is especially true of appellate courts because they focus exclusively on questions of legal principle rather than fact issues.
Notes and References
- Definition of Judicial System from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California