What To Expect In Court
“The court should be a place where anybody can come –
whatever they have in their pocket – and be able to file a complaint in simple fashion and at least have
give consideration to it and give them an opportunity to be
--- Thomas T.
Curtin, Judge, U.S. District
“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be
hasty and miss the way.”
This chapter will equip you to:
Understand the judicial branch of government
Learn what different legal terminology really means
Learn the proper way to proceed – there is an A to Z framework to
This chapter is a quick flyover
summary of the legal landscape and will acquaint you with our judicial system. Many of the elements touched
on in this section will be revisited in subsequent chapters in more detail, while others are included to
help give you a better hands-on grasp of the law and your place in it.
There are four main elements that together comprise the rule
of law and governance in our legal system: Constitutions, statutes, precedent or case law and rules or
regulations. These elements are constantly evolving as the legislative, executive and judicial branches
weigh in and add, change or take away the body of understanding that we know as the law. It is this change
and mutual interdependence that constitutes the system of checks and balances the founding framers
In the years following the end of the bloody American
Revolution delegates from the 13 states assembled in Philadelphia to create a new framework of governing to
keep the nascent union from sliding into rival factions and advance upon the hard won victories of the war.
The Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1787, defined the structural components of our system of government and
justice, assigning power to three separate but equal branches and establishing the limits of those powers.
Coming from a tradition of tyranny, the founders sought to ensure that no one branch could ever concentrate
such power that it could come to dominate the other branches. Instead, they established a dynamic tension
that requires mutual dependence on the one hand, while permitting each branch certain oversight provisions
affecting the other two.
Additionally, the states have constitutions reserving powers
to their governments or permitting them to delegate some powers to the cities, counties, townships and
municipalities under them. These are powers not expressly enumerated to the federal government by the United
Statutes and laws are those rules enacted by Congress or the state legislature, and signed into law by
the executive branch. These are then interpreted and applied by the judiciary, which is also tasked with
determining whether statutes are properly within the constitutional framework of rights and legal
Decisions and precedents form the body of case
law by which the judiciary interprets and applies the laws the
legislature has passed. Courts in similar jurisdictions are bound to follow these precedents to ensure
consistency under the law, which gives these decisions or opinions the rule of law in themselves.
The profound impact of this process is often overlooked and
underestimated. Indeed, as author Robert Shachner writes, “this process of interpreting statutes and
reviewing previous decisions, more than any other action by any branch of government, is responsible for the
evolution of our [system of] laws and statutes.”
Over time, as these judicial reviews stretch and test the
boundaries of these statutes with each new opinion, these precedents build into a volumes of case law and
become pathways of understanding for others searching for definitive answers to legal issues.
Regulations and rules are the means by which federal and state agencies carry out the mandates imposed on
them by the legislature. For example, if Congress was to pass a law requiring the EPA to reduce the amount
of trace arsenic in drinking water by two-thirds over the next ten years, the EPA might publish a new set of
regulations requiring townships to overhaul their drinking water filtration systems until the offending
compound is reduced to the statutory limits. These rules are subject to the same oversight by the courts
that statutes must endure and must often also undergo public scrutiny and comment before they can be
Additionally, the courts promulgate their own rules and
procedures effectively governing the access to and conduct of the local justice systems under their
authority. “Although many states use the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as guidelines for their own
state is unique, Schachner writes. It is wise for the pro se litigant to spend time becoming familiar with the
procedural differences in his or her locality, as the outcome of a given action can and often does, hinge on
obscure differences from one jurisdiction to another.