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WA Court Information
WA Court System
Supreme Court When Washington became a state in 1889, an elected convention of delegates assembled to draft a constitution. The constitution was adopted by the convention Aug. 22, 1889. It declared the judicial power of Washington should be vested in a Supreme Court, Superior Courts, justice of the peace courts and such inferior courts as the legislature might in time provide. The state constitution still provides for those same courts, But a 1968 constitutional amendment created the Court of Appeals. In addition to this newly-formed court, the appellate section of Washington's judicial system consists of a Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Trial Courts Making up the trial courts in the state are:
*Superior Courts,
*district justice courts,
*justice of the peace courts, and
*municipal courts.
Municipal Courts As the name implies, the municipal courts are tribunals established for hearing alleged violations of municipal ordinances. In towns, municipal courts are frequently referred to as police courts. Some times, in smaller communities, the police department will take bail for traffic and other violations. Public Records of these courts are open to investigators routinely. Usually, their files are regularly perused by newspaper reporters.
Justice of the Peace and District Justice Courts JP Courts were created in 1889; and four of 39 counties still have them. In 1962, the legislature created District Justice Courts; many of which replaced JP courts. The Justice Court Act authorized county commissioners to activate a districting committee. This committee "districts" the county, and at least one judge is to preside in each district. The new District Justice Courts may hear actions arising on contracts, damages or injuries to property or persons up to $1,000. DJCs also have jurisdiction concurrent with the Superior Court of all misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors committed within their district. In no event, however, may a district justice court impose a fine greater than $500 or imprisonment for more than six months in the county or city jail or both. A district court judge is elected to a four-year term. District court records are public.
Superior Courts Superior Courts are the only trial courts of record with original and unlimited jurisdiction. No claim is too large for a Superior Court to hear. It can separate a child from his mother pronounce the death sentence or create any other legal sentence necessary to resolve a dispute. Superior Courts also have exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving the title or possession of real property and all cases involving matters of probate, marriage and divorce. Superior Court records are public records; reporters peruse them daily.
Washington's 39 counties are divided into 27 judicial districts. There is at least one Superior Court judge elected in each district for a four-year term.
Juvenile Court In addition to its regular duties, the Superior Court also serves as the Juvenile Court and has exclusive and original jurisdiction for all cases having to do with delinquent or dependent children. In multiple judge courts, the judges decide among themselves who will hear the juvenile cases and then take turns serving in that capacity.
Appellate Courts Appeal from the Superior Court goes to either the Court of Appeals or to the Supreme Court. The appellate court decides if there have been errors made in the lower court and if the errors may have affected the outcome. If the appellate court so decides, the case is remanded back to the Superior Court for a new trial or dismissal, depending on the circumstances. (While not considered part of the appellate court system, decisions of justice and district courts may be appealed to the Superior Courts.)
Court of Appeals The Court of Appeals consists of 12 judges elected from three divisions of the state. Division I consists of King, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, San Juan and Island Counties. Division II consists of Pierce County and all counties south of it and on the Olympic Peninsula. Division III consists of all those counties east of the Cascades. Six judges sit in Division I, three in Division II and three in Division III.
The Court of Appeals sits in banks of three judges to hear appeals from the Superior Court. The judges are elected from the division in which they serve, although they can be authorized to sit in other divisions. Judges have original jurisdiction of all appeals except in (1) cases involving capital punishment, (2) cases of broad public import, (3) cases involving unconstitutional matters, (4) cases involving state officials and (5) cases where there are conflicts between courts in different appellate court districts.
Supreme Court The Supreme Court is the highest court in the State of Washington. It also has administrative responsibilities relating to all other courts. The Supreme Court hears direct appeals from the Superior Court in the five classes of cases listed previously, and it may also reach into the docket of the Court of Appeals to hear as many of those cases as time will permit.
The Supreme Court also hears petitions for review from the Court of Appeals. When a party believes the Court of Appeals has not rendered a just decision, he can petition the Supreme Court to review the work of the lower court. The Supreme Court has the option to grant or not grant such a petition.
The Supreme Court consists of nine justices, elected for terms of six years. The elections are statewide and are on a nonpartisan ballot. The terms for the Supreme Court judges are staggered to permit the election of three of the judges every two years.
Supreme Court Opinions Opinions of the Supreme Court are published and become state law, and set precedents for subsequent cases decided in Washington. They are, of course, public record.
The Supreme Court hears writs (a formal legal document ordering or prohibiting some action, e.g., release of public records by a state official) directed against state officials. It can review decisions of lower courts if the money of value of property involved exceeds $200. The $200 limitation is not in effect if the case involves a question of the legality of a tax, duty, assessment, toll, or municipal fine or validity of a statute. All written documents conveying court decisions are public record.
Direct appeal to the Supreme Court is permitted when the action involves a state official. The same is true if a trial court has ruled a statute or ordinance unconstitutional, conflicting statutes or rules of law are involved, or the issue is of broad public interest, and requires prompt, ultimate determination. In all cases, review of Court of Appeals decisions is left to the discretion of the Supreme Court.
Reviews Motions and petitions for review are heard by five-member departments of the court. A less-than-unanimous vote on a petition for review requires that the entire court consider the matter. All nine justices hear and dispose of cases argue on the appeal calendar. Each case is decided on the basis of the record and written and oral arguments. No live testimony is heard. The Supreme Court is the final rule-making authority for all of the state's courts. Though local courts make their own rules of procedure, these rules must conform to or not be in conflict with those established by the Supreme Court.
Administration/BAR In addition, the Supreme Court has administrative responsibility for operation of the state court system. It also has a supervisory responsibility over certain activities of the State BAR Association, including attorney disciplinary matters.
A handle Supreme Court officials and staff may be reached at The Supreme Court, Temple of justice, AV-11, Olympia, WA, 98504-0511, or phone (206) 753-5080. Each justice is elected to a six-year term, with elections staggered to maintain continuity of the court. The only office requirement is that the prospective justice be admitted to the practice of law in Washington State. Vacancies are filled by appointment of the Governor until the next general election. The Chief Justice is chosen by the court to preside over the court for a two-year term. The Chief Justice's duties include administrative matters involved in the operation of the judicial system and hearing of all oral arguments on writs. Washington's Judicial Council and annual Fall Judicial Conference are also presided over by the Chief Justice.
Supreme Court Staff The Bailiff attends the sessions of the court and performs duties as assistant to the Chief
Other Judicial Organizations
The Judicial Council The Judicial Council is made up of court and legislative officials. It conducts research and gives advice on problems such as any delays in hearing cases. It gives advice on provision of adequate counsel for defendants who can't afford a lawyer. It gives advice on the method of choosing judges.
Washington's Judicial Council continuously surveys and studies judicial business of state courts, and makes recommendations for needed changes. State statutes say the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court serves as chairman of the Council. Another justice is vice chairman. A professor from a state law school is executive secretary. The state law librarian serves as recording secretary. Other representatives on the Judicial Council include two Court of Appeals judges; two Superior Court judges; three members of the state senate (no more than two of the same party, and one who will be chairman of the senate judiciary committee); three members of the house of representatives (same provisions as the senate); the deans of all recognized law schools in the state; five members of the state BAR; the state attorney general; two judges of the Washington State Magistrates Assn., and a county clerk. All written conveyances of this council and its documented deliberations are public record.
Court Commissioners take care of routine duties for Superior Court judges. They may required to conduct hearings on petitions for child adoption, dissolving a corporation, changing a person's name, or for committing a person to a mental institution.
The court commissioner is appointed by the Superior Court judges. The term of office is at the pleasure of the judges. The commissioner generally is paid from fees he receives for papers he issues and for services rendered, unless the board of county commissioners authorizes a salary for the position.
Court Administrator The court administrator continuously studies the operation of Washington's judicial system. S/he makes recommendations to the chief justice, the Supreme Court and the Judicial Council for its improvement. Uniformity of the state courts in their interpretation of state laws also is the responsibility of the court administrator, who serves as a clearing house in behalf of better communications among all courts.
Visiting Judges The court administrator also coordinates the visiting judge program, which is the assignment of pro tem judges to counties and districts where the courts are in need of assistance. The direction of these assignments is determined by the chief justice, while the court administrator determines the need.
Other County Staff A number of County officials do jobs essential to courts which cannot be done by courts themselves. Included are the county clerk of courts, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, coroner, probation officer for the Superior Court and their staffs.
Lawsuit Begins: Court actions fall into two broad categories, according to a non-copyrighted publication by the American BAR Association for journalists and writers. The categories are Civil and Criminal actions.
Civil, Criminal Cases Civil cases are those in which an individual or business or agency of government seeks damages or relief from another individual or business or agency of government. These civil cases constitute the great bulk of cases in the courts. The most common example is the suit for damages arising from an automobile accident. In legal terms this is a tort action. A criminal action is one by the state or federal government against an individual charged with committing a crime.
Civil Cases Civil actions generally are brought either for breach of a contract (ex contractu), or for a wrong (ex delicto) or tort. In the early days of the law, it was found the courts and lawyers were inclined to restrict the scope of legal actions. Thus, if a set of facts did not fit into an established legal "pigeon hole," the client was without remedy even though he had suffered a wrong to his person or property.
Equity As a consequence, the new system--equity--evolved which provides a remedy where one might not be available at law. Equity covers such matters as preventing the continuance of a wrong (injunction) and compelling the performance of a contract to sell real estate or unique personal property (specific performance). Ordinarily, a jury trial cannot be obtained in proceedings in equity.
Case Determination A person who believes he has been injured or damaged by another person or business firm consults his lawyer and tells him the facts and circumstances which he believes constitutes a cause of legal action. The attorney takes the client's statement, interviews possible witnesses, examines applicable statutes and court decisions, and endeavors to determine whether the client has a case.
Cause of Action If the attorney concludes the client does have a cause of action, he prepares and files a complaint or petition in the proper court. His client is the plaintiff and the person or firm against whom the case is filed is the defendant (All such filings are of public record, and may be reported as such by investigative writers). This constitutes the caption of the case. The petition states the facts of the plaintiff's action against the defendant, and sets forth the damages, judgment or other relief sought.
Summons The attorney for the plaintiff also files with the clerk of the court a praecipe for a summons (public record). This is a request for the court clerk to issue a summons or notice, and to direct the sheriff of the county to serve a copy of it upon the defendant. In some states, a praecipe is not necessary and the summons is issued as a matter of course. In others the summons may be served in advance of the filing of the petition or complaint. In still others, any person over age 21 and not a party to the action, may serve the summons. When the sheriff has served the summons, he returns the original of the summons to the court, with a notation thereon as to whether and, if so, how the defendant was served with the summons. Serving of the summons is the defendant's formal notification of suit. This commences the case.
Pleading After service of the summons, the defendant is entitled to a certain amount of time within which to file his pleading, or answer, to the plaintiff's petition.
Jurisdiction and Venue The attorney must select the proper county or district in which to file the case. A court has no authority to render a judgment in any case unless it has jurisdiction over the person or property involved. This means that the court must be able to exercise control (obtain service of summons) over the defendant, or that the property involved must be located in the county or district under the court's control.
Local Actions Certain actions are said to be local--that is, they may be brought only in the county where the subject matter of the litigation is located. An example of a local action would be foreclosure of a mortgage or real estate.
Transitory Actions Other actions are said to be transitory--the may be brought in any county in any state where the defendant may be found and served with a summons. An action for personal injuries is an example of a transitory action.
Venue Venue means the county or district where the action is to be tried. Venue may be changed to another county or district upon application or by agreement. Where wide publicity has been given to a case before trial, a change of venue from the county is sometimes sought in an effort to secure jurors who have not formed an opinion as to the facts. Venue also may be changed to serve the convenience of witnesses. A change of venue from the judge usually is granted on application wherein it is claimed that the judge stands in some relation to the parties, attorneys or facts of the case, such as to prevent his being completely unbiased during the trial.
Civil Trial Preparation The Plaintiff and Defendant, through their respective attorneys, attempt to marshal all of the pertinent facts bearing upon the case. The defendant may begin his defense by filing certain pleadings, among which may be one or more of the following:
Motion to Quash Service of Summons: This places before the court the question of whether or not the defendant has been served with summons as provided by law.
Motion to Strike: This calls upon the court to rule whether or not the plaintiff's petition contains irrelevant, prejudicial, or other improper mater; if so, the court may order such matter deleted.
Motion to Make More Definite and Certain: Such a motion requires the plaintiff to set out the facts of his complaint more specifically, or to describe his injury to damages in grater detail, so that the defendant can answer more precisely.
Demurrer: Such a pleading raises the question of whether the plaintiff's petition states a legally sound cause of action against the defendant, even admitting for the purpose of the pleading that all of the facts set out by the plaintiff in his petition are true.
Answer: This statement by the defendant denies the allegations in the plaintiff's petition, or admits some and denies others, or admits all and pleads and excuse.
Cross-petition or Cross-complaint: This pleading may be filed by the defendant either separately, or as part of his answer. The cross-petition asks for relief or damages on the part of the defendant against the original plaintiff. When such a step is taken, the plaintiff may then file any of the foregoing motions to the cross-petition, except a motion to quash service of summons.
Reply: Either party in the case may file a reply,which constitutes an answer to any new allegations raised by the other party in prior pleadings. Note: A plea or pleading refers to an answer or other formal document filed in the action. The words should not be used to describe an argument made in court by a lawyer.
Taking of Depositions: A deposition is an out-of-court statement of a witness under oath, intended for use in court of in preparation for trial. Under prevailing statutes and rules in most jurisdictions, either of the parties in a civil action may take the deposition of the other party, or of any witness. Depositions frequently are necessary to preserve the testimony of important witnesses who cannot appear in court, or who reside in another state or jurisdiction. This might be the testimony of a friendly witness, one whose evidence is considered helpful to the plaintiff or defendant, as the case may be. Or, it might involve an adverse witness whose statements are taken, by one side or the other, to ascertain the nature of the evidence he would give if summoned as a witness in the trial.
A state may not compel the presence at a civil trial of a witness who is outside the state, or in some instances, who is in another county of the same state. The procedure when the testimony of such a witness is sought is for the party seeking the testimony to apply to the court in which the case is pending for the issuance of a commission--commonly called letters rogatory--directed to an official or attorney in the jurisdiction where the witness is, empowering him to take the witness' deposition and forward it to the court. The deposition may take form of either of answers to written questions, or of oral examination followed by cross-examination. In some states, it is not necessary to secure the issuance of a commission, but only to serve notice of the taking of the deposition upon opposing attorneys. If a witness is absent from the jurisdiction or is unable to attend the trial in person, his deposition may be read in evidence. If a person who has given a deposition also appears as a witness at the trial, his deposition may be used to attack his credibility, if his testimony at the trial is inconsistent with that contained in his deposition.
Discovery: In addition to the taking of depositions in an attempt to ascertain the facts upon which another party relies, either party may submit written questions, called interrogatories, to the other party and require that such be answered under oath. Other methods of discovery are: Requiring adverse parties to produce books, records and documents for inspection, to submit to a physical examination, or to admit or deny the genuineness of documents.
Pre-Trial Conference After all of the pleadings of both parties have been filed and the case is at issue, many courts then set the case for a pre-trial hearing. At this hearing, the attorneys appear, generally without the clients, and in the presence of the judge seek to agree on undisputed facts. These are called stipulations; they may include such matters as time and place in the case of an accident, the use of pictures, maps or sketches, and other matters, including points of law which the court believes might shorten the actual trial time without infringing on the rights of either party. Thereupon, the court assigns a specific trial date for the case. Pre-trial procedure, used extensively in federal district courts, frequently results in the settlement of the case without trial.
Bringing the Charge Criminal charges are instituted against an individual in one of two ways:
(1) Through an indictment, or true bill, voted by a grand jury, or
(2) Through the filing of an information in court by the prosecuting attorney (sometimes called the county, district or state's attorney), alleging the commission of a crime. In either case the charge must set forth the time, date and place of the alleged criminal act as well as the nature of the charge. In most states, crimes of a serious nature, such as murder or treason, may be charged by indictment only.
The Grand Jury The grand jury is a body of citizens (usually 16, but varying in number from state to state) summoned by the court to inquire into crimes committed in the county, or in the case of federal grand juries, in the federal court district. Its proceedings are not only private but secret.
However, a witness before a federal grand jury is perfectly free to describe his testimony to anyone he pleases, after he leaves the grand jury room. To this extent such proceedings are not secret.
Although provision for impaneling a grand jury is found in all states, in only about half of them does the grand jury function as a regular arm of law enforcement. In the other half, the prosecutor, on his own responsibility, is empowered to make formal accusation of all, or of all but the most serious crimes.
In states where the grand jury is utilized it is convened at regular intervals, or it may be impaneled at special times by the court to consider important cases. The grand jury has broad investigative powers; it may compel the attendance of witnesses, require the taking of oaths, and compel answers to questions and the production of records. Ordinarily, however, the grand jury hears such witnesses as the prosecutor calls before it and considers only the cases presented to it by the prosecutor.
Runaway Grand Jury Nevertheless, from time to time, a grand jury may undertake inquiries of its own, in effect taking the initiative away from the prosecutor. In common parlance this is known as a "runaway" grand jury.
Indictment The grand jury's traditional function is to determine whether information elicited by the prosecutor, or by its own inquiries, is adequate to warrant the return of an indictment or true bill charging a person with a particular crime. If it concludes that the evidence does not warrant a formal charge, it may return a "no bill."
One Man Grand Jury In several states, powers of investigation similar to those of the grand jury are conferred by law upon a single officer--in every case a judicial officer or a deputy appointed by him--a practice giving rise to the familiar but imprecise phrase "one-man grand jury."
Arrest When an indictment is returned by a grand jury, or an information filed by the prosecuting attorney,the Clerk of the Court issues a warrant for the arrest of the person charged, if he has not already been arrested and taken into custody. The law usually requires that in a felony case (generally a crime for which a person may be confined in the penitentiary--therefore more grave in nature than a misdemeanor) the defendant must promptly be brought before a magistrate or justice of the peace (in federal cases, the U.S. Commissioner) and be permitted to post bond in order to secure release from custody, and either request or waive a preliminary hearing. In most states, however, persons charged with murder are not eligible for release on a bail bond.
Court-Appointed Attorney Many jurisdictions permit law enforcement officials to hold a person without formal charge up to 24 hours for purposes of investigation. But he may not be held for an unreasonable length of time unless a criminal charge is filed. In addition, the defendant formally charged with a crime is entitled to an attorney at all times. If he is unable to procure an attorney and if he requests counsel, the court will appoint an attorney to represent him, without cost to him.
Preliminary Hearing If the individual charged with a crime requests a preliminary hearing before a magistrate, the court will set a hearing within a reasonably short time. At the hearing the state must present sufficient evidence to convince the magistrate there is reason to to believe the defendant has committed the crime with which he is charged. The defendant must be present at this hearing, but he may or may not present evidence on his own behalf.
If the magistrate believes the evidence justifies it, he will order the defendant bound over for trial in the proper court--that is, placed under bond for appearance at trial, or held in jail if the charge involved is not a bailable offense, or if the defendant is unable to post bail bond. On the other hand, the magistrate may dismiss the charge and order the defendant released if he concludes the state has failed to produce sufficient evidence in the preliminary hearing.
Arraignment In most instances, a criminal case is placed on the court's calendar for arraignment. On the date fixed, the accused appears, the indictment or information is read to him, his rights are explained by the judge, and he is asked whether he pleads guilty or not guilty to the charge. If he pleads not guilty, his case will be set later for trial. If he pleads guilty, it ordinarily will be set later for sentencing. In cases of minor offenses, sentences may be imposed immediately. But in some states, arraignment and plea are separate proceedings, held on different days.
Criminal Trial Preparation As in civil cases, very careful preparation on the part of the state and the defense precedes the trial. However, the defense may first enter a motion challenging the jurisdiction of the court over the particular offense involved, or over the particular defendant. The defense attorney also may file a demurrer, or motion for dismissal, as in a civil suit. In preparing for trial, attorneys for both sides will interview prospective witnesses, and if deemed necessary, secure expert evidence, and gather testimony concerning ballistics, chemical tests, casts, and other similar data.
While in detail there are minor differences in trial procedure between civil and criminal cases, the basic pattern in the courtroom is the same. So trial steps are treated collectively, here.
Officers of the Court The Judge is, of course, the officer who is either elected or appointed to preside over the court. If the case is to be tried before a jury, the judge rules upon points of law dealing with trial procedure, presentation of the evidence and the law of the case. If the case is tried before the judge alone, he will determine the facts in addition to performing the aforementioned duties.
Jury Selection: The court clerk is an officer of the court, also either elected or appointed, who at the beginning of the trial, upon the judge's instruction, gives the entire panel of prospective jurors (veniremen) an oath. By this oath the venireman promises that if called he will truly answer any question touching upon his qualifications to sit as a juror in the case. Any venireman who is disqualified by law, or has a valid reason to be excused under the law, ordinarily is excused by the judge at this time. A person may be disqualified from jury duty because he is not a resident voter or householder, because of age, hearing defects, or because he has served recently on a jury. Then the court clerk will draw the names of the additional veniremen from a box, and they will take seats in the jury box. After 12 veniremen are have been approved as jurors by the judge and the attorneys, the court clerk will administer an oath to the persons so chosen "to well and truly try the cause."
The bailiff is an officer of the court whose duties are to keep order in the courtroom, to call the witnesses, and to take charge of the jury, as instructed by the court, at such times as the jury may not be in the courtroom, and particularly when, having received the case, the jury is deliberating upon its decision. It is the duty of the bailiff to see that no one talks with or attempts to influence the jurors in any manner whatsoever.
The court reporter has the duty of recording all the proceedings in the courtroom, including testimony of the witnesses, objections made to evidence by the attorneys and the rulings of the court thereon, and listing and marking for identification any exhibits offered or introduced into evidence. In some states, the clerk of the court has charge of exhibits.
The attorneys are officers of the court whose duties are to represent their respective clients and present the evidence on their behalf, to the end that the jury or the judge may reach a just verdict or decision. The role of the attorney is sometimes misunderstood, particularly in criminal proceedings. Our system of criminal jurisprudence presumes every defendant to be innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Every defendant entitled to be represented by legal counsel, regardless of the unpopularity of his cause. This is a constitutional safeguard. It is entirely ethical for an attorney to represent a defendant whom the community may assume to be guilty. The defendant is entitled to every protection which the law affords him.
One of the Canons of Professional Ethics of the American Bar Association provides that: "It is the right of the lawyer to undertake the defense of persons accused of crime, regardless of his personal opinion of the guilt of the accused; otherwise innocent persons, victims only of suspicious circumstances, might be denied proper defense." The significance of the provision is clear: Every defendant is entitled to counsel in order that he be protected from conviction on insufficient evidence.
The Jury List The trial jury in either a civil or criminal case is called a petit jury. It is chosen by lot by the court clerk from a previously compiled list called a venire, or in some places the jury array. The methods of selecting names of persons for the venire vary among court jurisdictions. The lists in many states are made up from tax assessment rolls or voter registration lists. The law in many states requires that there be a preliminary screening by a court official to eliminate persons unqualified or ineligible under the provisions of applicable state laws. In the federal courts, the court clerk is assisted in compiling the list by a jury commissioner appointed by the presiding judge.
Many persons are exempted from jury duty by reason of the occupations. These exemptions differ from state to state, but in some jurisdictions those automatically exempted include lawyers, physicians, dentists, pharmacists, teachers and clergymen. In a number of others, nurses, journalists, printers, railroad, telephone and telegraph employees, governmental officials, firemen and policemen are among the exempt occupational groups.
On occasion, the qualification of all the jurors may be challenged. This is called a challenge to the array, and generally is based on the ground that the officers charged with the duty to select the jurors did so in an illegal manner.
Selecting the Jury In most cases, a jury of 12 is required in either a civil or criminal proceeding. In some courts, alternate jurors are selected to take the places of members of the regular panel who become disabled during the trial. These alternate jurors hear the evidence just as do the regular jurors, but do not participate in the deliberations unless a regular juror or jurors become disabled.
The jury selection begins with the calling, by the court clerk, of 12 veniremen whose names are selected at random from a box, to take their places in the jury enclosure. The attorneys for the parties, or sometimes the judge, may then make a brief statement of the facts involved, for the purpose of acquainting the jurors with sufficient facts so that they may intelligently answer the questions put to them by the judge and the attorneys. Questions elicit the name, the occupation, the place of business and residence of the prospective juror, and any personal knowledge he may have of the case. If the venireman expresses an opinion or prejudice which will affect his judgment in the case, the court will thereupon dismiss him for cause, and another will be called by the court clerk. This questioning of the jurors is known as the voir dire (vwah deer ).
No limit is set on the number of jurors who may be excused for cause. In addition to the challenges for cause, each party has the right to exercise a specific number of peremptory challenges. This challenge permits an attorney to excuse a particular juror without having to state a cause. If a peremptory challenge is exercised, another juror then is called, until attorneys on both sides have exercised all of the peremptory challenges permitted bylaw, or they have waived further challenges. The number of peremptory challenges is limited and varies with the type of case.
Thus the jury is selected and then is sworn in by the court clerk to try the case. The remaining members of the jury panel are excused and directed to report at a future date when another case will be called, or excused and directed to report to another court in session at the time.
Separating the Witnesses In certain cases, civil or criminal, the attorney on either side may advise the court that he is calling for the rule on witnesses, which means that except for the plaintiff or complaining witness and the defendant, all witnesses who may testify for either party will be excluded from the courtroom until they are called to testify. These witnesses are admonished by the judge not to discuss the case or their testimony with other witnesses or persons, except the attorneys. This is sometimes called a separation of witnesses. If the rule is not called for, the witnesses may remain in the courtroom if they so desire.
Opening Statements After selection of the jury, the plaintiff's attorney, or attorney for the state in a criminal case, may make an opening statement for the purpose of advising the jury what he intends to prove in the case. This statement must be confined to facts intended to be elicited in evidence and cannot be argumentative. The attorney for the defendant also may make an opening statement for the same purpose, or, in some states, may reserve the opening statement until the end of the plaintiff's or state's case. Either party may waive his opening statement if he desires.
Presentation of Evidence The plaintiff in a civil case, or the state in a criminal case, will begin the presentation of evidence with their witnesses. Among these usually will be included the plaintiff in a civil case or the complaining witness in a criminal case, although they are not required to testify.
A witness may testify to a matter of fact. He can tell what he saw, heard, (unless it is hearsay as explained below), felt, smelled or touched through use of his physical senses. Generally, he cannot state his opinion or give his conclusion unless he is an expert of otherwise especially qualified to do so. A witness who has been first qualified in a particular field as an expert may give his opinion based upon the facts in evidence, and may state the reasons for that opinion. The facts in evidence are put to the expert in a question called a hypothetical question. The question assumes the truth of the facts contained in it.
Generally, a witness cannot testify to hearsay, that is, what someone else has told him outside the presence of the parties to the action. A witness will not be permitted to testify about matters which are too remote to have any bearing on the decision in the case, or matters that are irrelevant and immaterial.
An attorney may not ask leading questions of his own witness, particularly about matters which are in dispute in the lawsuit, although routine, non controversial matters are sometimes asked with leading questions. A leading question is one which suggests the answer desired.
Objections will be made by the opposing counsel to leading questions, or may be made to a question that calls for an opinion or conclusion on the part of the witness, or which obviously will require an answer based on hearsay. There are many other possible reasons for objections under the rules of evidence. Objections are often made in the following form: "I object to that question on the ground that it is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial and for the further reason that it calls for an opinion and conclusion of the witness." However, many jurisdictions require that the objection specify wherein the question is not proper. The judge will thereupon sustain or deny the objection, and if sustained, another question must then be asked or the same question rephrased in proper form.
If an objection to a question is sustained, on either direct or cross-examination, the attorney asking the question may make an offer to prove. This offer is dictated to the court reporter out of the hearing of the jury. In it the attorney states the answer which the witness would have given if permitted. The offer forms part of the record on appeal.
If the objection is overruled, the witness may then answer. The attorney who made the objection may thereupon take an exception. That simply means he is preserving a record, so if the case is appealed he may argue that the court erred in overruling the objection. In some states, the rules permit an automatic exception to an adverse ruling without its being asked for in each instance. A witness may be used to identify documents, pictures, or other physical exhibits in the trial.
Cross Examination When plaintiffs' attorneys or the state's attorney has finished his direct examination of the witness, the defendant's attorney or opposing counsel may then cross-examine the witness upon any matter about which the witness has been questioned initially in direct examination. The cross-examining attorney may ask leading questions for the purpose of inducing the witness to testify about matters which he may otherwise have chosen to ignore. On cross-examination, the attorney may try to bring out any prejudice or bias of the witness, such as his relationship or friendship to the party, or other interest in the case. He is permitted to ask the witness if he has been convicted of a felony or crime involving moral turpitude, since this bears upon the credibility of the witness.
The plaintiff's attorney may object to certain questions asked on cross-examination on the ground that they are improper questions because they deal with facts no touched upon in the direct examination, and on grounds mentioned previously.
Re-Direct Examination After the opposing attorney is finished with his cross-examination, the attorney who called the witness has the right to ask questions on re-direct examination. The re-direct examination covers new matters brought out on cross-examination and generally is an effort to rehabilitate a witness whose testimony on direct examination has been weakened by cross-examination. Then the opposing attorney may re-cross-examine. At the conclusion of the plaintiff's or state's evidence, the attorney will announce that the plaintiff or state rests.
Demurrer to Plaintiffs' or State's Case,or Motion for Directed Verdict At the conclusion of the plaintiff's or state's case, out of the presence of the jury, the defendant's counsel may demur to the plaintiff's or state's case on the ground that a cause of action has not been proved, or that the commission of a crime has not been proved against the defendant. In many states, this is known as a motion for a directed verdict, or a verdict which the judge orders the jury to return. The judge will thereupon either sustain or overrule the demurrer or motion. If it is sustained, the case is concluded. If it is overruled, the defendant then is given the opportunity to present his evidence.
Presentation of Evidence by the Defendant The defense attorney may elect to present no evidence, and sometimes does so in a criminal case particularly; or he may present certain evidence but not place the defendant upon the stand. In a criminal case the defendant need not take the stand unless he wishes to do so. The reason for this is that the plaintiff or the state has the burden of proof.
In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove his case by a preponderance of the evidence. That merely means the greater weight of the evidence.
In a criminal case, the evidence of guilt must be beyond a reasonable doubt.
The defendant is presumed to be not negligent or liable in a civil case, and not guilty in a criminal case. The defense attorney may feel that the burden of proof has not been sustained, or that presentation of the defendant's witnesses might strengthen the plaintiff's case. If the defendant does present evidence, he does so in the same manner as the plaintiff or the state, as set out above, and the plaintiff or state will cross-examine the defendant's witnesses.
Rebuttal Evidence At the conclusion of the defendant's case, the plaintiff or state's attorney may then present rebuttal witnesses or evidence, designed to refute the testimony and evidence presented by the defendant. The matter covered is evidence on which the plaintiff or state did not present any evidence in its case in chief initially; or it may be the presentation of a new witness who can contradict the defendant's witness. If there is a so-called surprise witness, this is often where you will find him. At the conclusion of the rebuttal evidence, the defendant may present additional evidence to contradict it.
Final Motions At the conclusion of all the evidence, out of the presence of the jury, the defendant may again renew his demurrer or motion for directed verdict. If the demurrer or motion is sustained, the case is concluded. If overruled, the trial proceeds.
Thus, the case has now been concluded on the evidence and it is ready to be submitted to the jury.
Conferences During the Trial Occasionally during the trial the lawyers will ask permission to approach the bench and speak to the judge, or the judge may call them to the bench. A whispered conference ensues, having to do with the admissibility of certain evidence, irregularities in the trial or other matters. The reason the judge and lawyers speak in tones inaudible to the jury and courtroom is that the jurors might be prejudiced by what they hear. In any event, the question of admissibility of evidence is outside the province of the jury since this is a matter of law for the judge to decide. If the ruling cannot be made quickly, the judge will order the jury to retire, and then will hear the arguments of attorneys outside the presence of the jury.
Whenever the jury leaves the courtroom, the judge will admonish them not to form or express an opinion or discuss the case with anyone.
Closing Arguments The attorney for the plaintiff or state will present the first argument in closing the case. Generally, his purpose will be to summarize and comment on the evidence in the most favorable light for his side. He cannot argue issues outside of the case or talk about evidence that was not presented. He is not allowed to comment on the defendant's failure to take the stand as a witness in a criminal case.
He may talk about the facts and all inferences that could properly be drawn therefrom. If he does talk about improper matters, the opposing attorney may object and the judge will thereupon rule upon the objection. If the offending remarks are deemed seriously prejudicial, the opposing attorney will ask that the jury be instructed to disregard them, and in some instances may move for a mistrial, that is, that the present trial be terminated and the case be set for retrial at a later date.
Ordinarily, before closing arguments, the judge will have indicated to the attorneys the instructions which he will give to the jury, and it is proper for the attorneys, in closing argument, to comment on them and to relate them to the evidence.
The defendant's attorney will next present the argument on behalf of the defendant. He usually answers the statements made in the opening argument, points out defects in the plaintiff's case, and summarizes the facts favorable to his client. Thereafter, the plaintiff or state is entitled to the concluding argument in which the attorney answers the defendant's argument and makes a final appeal to the jury.
If the defendant chooses not to make a closing argument, which sometimes occurs, then the plaintiff or state loses the right to the last argument.
Instructions to the Jury While the giving of instructions to the jury is the function of the judge, in many states the attorneys for each side submit a number of suggested instructions designed to apply the law to the facts in evidence. The judge will indicate which instructions he will give and which he will refuse, and the attorneys may make objections to such rulings for the purpose of the record in any appeal.
The judge reads these instructions to the jury. This is commonly referred to as the judge's charge to the jury. The instructions cover the law as applicable to the case. Only the judge may determine what the law is, and not the jury. In some states, however, in criminal cases, the jurors are judges of both the facts and the law. (See FIJA)
In giving the instructions, the judge will state the issues in the case, define any terms or words necessary, and tell the jury what it must decide as to the issues if it is to find for the plaintiff or the state, or for the defendant. He will advise the jury that it is the sole judge of the facts and of the credibility of witnesses; and that upon leaving the courtroom to reach a verdict, it must elect a foreman of the jury and then reach a decision based upon the judgment of each individual juror. In some states, the first juror chosen automatically becomes the foreman.
In the Jury Room At the conclusion of arguments the jury is taken to the jury room by the bailiff to begin its deliberations. The bailiff will sit outside and not permit anyone to enter or leave the jury room. Ordinarily, the court has furnished the jury with written forms of all possible verdicts which it might reach, so that when a decision is reached the jury can choose the proper verdict form. If the decision is unanimous, it will be signed by the foreman of the jury, and returned to the courtroom.
Ordinarily, in a criminal case, the decision of the jury must be unanimous. In some jurisdictions, in civil cases, only 9 or 10 out of 12 jurors need agree to reach a verdict. However, all federal courts require a unanimous verdict. No one may attempt to tamper with the jury in any way while it is deliberating.
If the jurors cannot agree on a verdict, the jury is called a hung jury, and the case may be retried before a new jury at a later date.
If the jury is out overnight the members will often be housed in a hotel and secluded from all contacts with other persons. In some states, the jury may take the judge's instructions and the exhibits introduced in evidence to the jury room, and on rare occasions, the jury may return to the courtroom in the presence of counsel and parties for both sides to ask a question of the judge having to do with his instructions. In such instances the judge may reread all or certain of the instructions previously given, or supplement or clarify them by further instructions. In many cases, the jury will be excused to go home at night, especially if there is no objection by either party.
Verdict Upon reaching a verdict, the jury returns to the courtroom with the bailiff and, in the presence of the judge, the parties and their respective attorneys, the verdict is read or announced aloud in open court. The reading or announcement may be by the jury foreman or the court clerk. Attorneys for either party, but usually the losing party, may ask that the jury be polled, in which case each individual juror will be asked if the verdict is his verdict. It is rare for a juror to say that it is not his verdict. When the verdict is read and accepted by the court, the jury is dismissed, and the trial is concluded.
Motions After Verdict Motions permitted to be made after the verdict is rendered will vary from state to state. Motion in arrest of judgment attacks the sufficiency of the indictment or information in a criminal case. A motion for judgment non obstante veredicto may be made after verdict and before judgment. This motion requests the judge to enter a judgment for one party notwithstanding the verdict of the jury. Ordinarily this motion raises the same questions as could be raised by a motion for directed verdict. A motion for a new trial sets out alleged errors committed in the trial court and asks the trial judge to correct them. In some states the filing of a motion for a new trial is a condition precedent to an appeal.
Judgment The verdict of a jury is ineffective until the judge enters judgment upon the verdict. In a civil damage action this judgment might read: "It is therefore, ordered, adjudged and decreed that the plaintiff do have and recover the sum of $1,000 of and from the defendant."
At the request of the plaintiff's lawyer, the clerk of the court will deliver a paper called an execution to the sheriff, commanding him to take and sell the property of the defendant and apply the proceeds of the sale to the amount of the judgment.
Sentencing In a criminal case, if the defendant is convicted, the judge will set a date for sentencing. In the meantime, the judge may consider matters in mitigation of the sentence.
In a great majority of states, and in the federal courts, the function of imposing sentence is exclusively that of the judge. But in some states, the jury is called upon to fix the sentences for some, or all, crimes. In these states the judge merely imposes the sentence as determined by the jury.
Rights of Appeal In a civil case either party may appeal to a higher court. But in a criminal case this right is limited to the defendant. Appeals in either civil or criminal cases may be on such grounds as: Errors in trial procedure and errors in substantive law, that is, in interpretation of law by the trial judge. These are the most common grounds for appeals to higher courts although there are others.
The right of appeal does not extend to the prosecution in a criminal case even if the prosecutor should discover new evidence of the defendant's guilt after his acquittal. Moreover the State is powerless to bring the defendant to trial again on the same charge. The Constitution of the United States and those of most states prevent retrial under provisions known as double jeopardy clauses.
Criminal defendants have a further appellate safeguard. Those convicted in state courts may appeal to the federal courts on grounds of violation of constitutional rights, if such grounds exist. This privilege serves to impose the powerful check of the federal judicial system upon any abuses that may occur in state criminal procedures.
The record on appeal consists of the papers filed in the trial court and the court reporter's transcript of the evidence. The latter is called a bill of exceptions or transcript of appeal and must be certified by the trial judge to be true and correct. In most states only so much of the record need be included as will properly present the questions to be raised on appeal.
Appeal Statutes or rules of court provide for procedure on appeals. Ordinarily, the party appealing is called the appellant, and the other party the appellee.
The appeal is initiated by filing the transcript of the record of the trial court in the appellant court within the time prescribed. This filing initiates the running of the time within which the appellant must file his brief setting forth the reasons and the law upon which he relies in seeking a reversal of the trial court.
The appellee then has a specified time within which to file his answer brief. Following this, the appellant may file a second brief, or brief in reply to the appellee's brief.
When the appeal has been fully briefed, the case may be set for hearing on oral argument before the appellate court. Sometimes the court itself will ask for argument; otherwise, one of the parties may petition for it. Often appeals are submitted on the briefs without argument. Courts of appeal do not hear further evidence, and indeed it is unusual for any of the parties to the case to attend the hearing of the oral argument.
Generally the case has been assigned to one of the judges of the appellate court, although the full court will hear the argument. Thereafter, it is customary for all the judges to confer on the issues presented, and then the judge who has been assigned the case will write an opinion. If a judge or judges disagree with the result, they may dissent and file a dissenting opinion. In many states a written opinion is required.
An appellate court will not weigh evidence and generally will reverse a trial court for errors of law only. Not every error of law will warrant a reversal. Some are harmless errors, that is, the rights of a party to a fair trial were not prejudiced by them. However, an error of law, such as the admission of improper and persuasive evidence on a material issue, may, and often does constitute a prejudicial and reversible error.
After the opinion is handed down, and time for the filing of a petition for rehearing, or a petition for transfer, or petition for a writ of certiorari (if there is a higher appellate court) has expired, the appellate court will send its mandate to the trial court for further action in the case.
If the lower court was affirmed, the case is ended; if reversed, the appellate court may direct that a new trial be had, or that the judgment of the trial court be modified and corrected as prescribed in the opinion.
The taking of an appeal ordinarily does not suspend the operation of a judgment obtained in a civil action in a trial court. Thus, the party prevailing in the trial court may order an execution issued on the judgment unless the party appealing files an appeal or supersedeas bond which binds the party and his surety to pay or perform the judgment in the event it is affirmed on appeal. The filing of this bond will stay further action on the judgment until the appeal has been concluded.
Court Documents Open To Public Inspection, Copying All formal documents mentioned above are public record, unless the judge imposes a "gag" order. Since each case is assigned a number, all such documents normally will be found inside a file folder. The folder will contain all case documents in chronological order. The public may sign for the file folders, inspect their contents, and copy documents usually at 50 cents per page. Such documents provide most of the detailed factual background for newspaper, radio, and television stories. If you don't read in WA newspapers detailed accounts, it is the newspaper's policy to screen certain info and keep it away from readers. It is not law. It is newspaper policy, nothing more.