Understanding the Trial Court Process

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If you are interested in researching court records from trial court, knowing how the court process works can be very useful.

In the US legal system, there are different levels of courts.  The trial court is the first level.  Although there are often different rules of procedure to be followed during trial depending on the type of case, there a few general principles that apply during a trial that will resonate through court records.

The trial will begin with jury selection.  Unless the parties involved choose a smaller number, most juries are made up of 12 individuals from the community.  To choose the 12 people who will sit on the jury, a judge first discusses the names of the parties, the names of the lawyers, and what the case is about.  Then, the lawyers from both sides and/or the judge ask the jurors questions to determine if they can be fair and impartial.  This process is also known as voir dire.  An attorney can challenge a selection of a jury member based on certain state rules, this is called “challenge for cause.”  One example could be if a juror is related to a party in the case.  There is no limit to the amount of times an attorney can challenge jurors’ selection if there is legal cause.  However, an attorney may also present a peremptory challenge.  This means that the attorney can ask the juror to be excused without providing a reason.  There are limited amount of peremptory challenges, and these cannot be based on discriminatory or other illegal reasons.

One the trial begins, there will be opening arguments from the attorneys.  Here each side will likely give a brief explanation and appeal to the jury for their side.  The party who initiated the lawsuit will begin opening arguments explaining what they will try to prove throughout the trial. The defense will speak next, although, they are not required to give opening arguments immediately.  The defense may choose to begin their argument after the plaintiffs present their evidence.

The presentation of evidence can include writing, witnesses, written testimony, photos, or other objects.  If there are witnesses, then both parties will have an opportunity to question the witness.  First, the party that called the witness will present their questions.  Next, the other side is given a chance to question the witness, this is called cross-examination. After the cross-examination, the party that first questioned the witness is given another opportunity, which is called re-direct.

After both sides have presented their cases through opening arguments and events, they will “rest” their case by way of closing arguments.  This is the lawyers last chance to their side to the jury.  Then the judge will provide instructions to the jury, including the laws that are applicable in the case.  The jury will be removed from the courtroom by the bailiff and taken to another room to deliberate and decide the outcome of the case. The final decision is called the verdict.  In a criminal case, all jurors must agree on a decision and in a civil case only ¾ of the jurors must agree on the final verdict.  However, before deliberations can begin, the jury must choose a foreman, who will be responsible for leading discussions, keeping order, and presenting their verdict to the judge.

Once the jury has reached verdict, they are brought back into the court by the bailiff.  Their verdict will be written on a piece of paper, and the foreperson will be asked to hand the verdict to the judge or the clerk, who will then read the verdict aloud to the court. In some case, a foreperson may actually be the one who reads the verdict aloud.

Once the verdict is read, the judge will make his final ruling, which will conclude the trial.  During the trial process, transcripts are taken of everything that occurs in the courtroom.  This information can often be found within the court record.  To find access to court records and other documents, visit CourtReference.com.  Here you will find links to trial court websites and other online resources by state and county.

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