LIABILITY & LEGAL ASPECTS (Lesson 3 of 28)
Our jury system is what makes our form of justice superior to any other form of law in the world. It is typically comprised of twelve of our “peers”, is presumably unbiased, and as its goal it seeks to determine the truth. Clearly, exceptions exist, but for the most part our system works well.
The jury listens to all of the testimony of witnesses, reviews all of the documents and other evidence, and determines what actually happened. The jury is the “finder of fact.” Whatever the jury determines actually happened will ultimately determine the outcome of the case.
In criminal matters, all twelve jurors must unanimously agree if they want to find a criminal defendant guilty or not guilty. Anything other than a unanimous verdict (e.g., 11-1) is what we call a “hung jury,” which often results in a re-trial.
In civil matters (which will be explained below), eight out of twelve jurors must agree on the verdict. [The reason that a unanimous verdict is not required is because we tend to believe that if a mistake is made, the wronged person will not be in custody since the civil system does not incarcerate people. Since no loss of liberty is at stake, we give a bit more leeway to the jury in their decision- making process.]
At the trial court level, the defendant in a criminal matter has the right to a jury in all misdemeanors and felonies. A judge may preside over a criminal infraction (which is less than a misdemeanor), where there is no right to a jury.
In a civil action, if a jury is not demanded (or requested) in a timely manner, the parties’ right to a trial before a jury may be waived and a judge will preside over the trial.
In the trial court, the jury (or judge if there is no jury), decides the facts that are in dispute based on the evidence presented in the case. The trial court judge tells the jury the law that applies to the case.
Criminal defendants, and in civil matters any party, may choose to file an appeal following a trial. An appeal asks a higher court to determine whether the trial court committed prejudicial error – for example by applying the wrong laws, or whether the verdict supported the evidence. Generally, an appeal is made to the California Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal is made up of many justices. However, on any given case, a three-justice panel is assigned to resolve the appeal. These justices typically started as trial court judges and were elevated based upon their merit. The Court of Appeal reviews what happened at trial and determines whether the trial judge properly interpreted the law, whether the jury’s verdict was properly supported by admissible evidence, or whether any other serious irregularity occurred. The Court of Appeal can reverse or affirm the trial court result.
Finally, if a party is not satisfied with the ruling by the Court of Appeal, an appeal to the California Supreme Court may be filed. The California Supreme Court is the supreme governing body for the State of California. Seven justices preside over this court for the entire State of California.
In criminal death penalty cases, the Supreme Court has no choice but to hear an appeal brought by a person sentenced to death. In most other instances, however, they have the right to reject a request for hearing. (In fact, according to the Judicial Council of California, only about 3% of criminal petitions and 5% of civil petitions are “granted”, that is, accepted to be heard by the Supreme Court.)