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What's Up Magazine

Case by Case

May 22, 2012 03:59PM ● By Anonymous

The liberty we enjoy arises from the “government of laws, and not of men” described by John Adams. Some of our laws are the statutes enacted by our legislatures, while other laws come from the reams of administrative regulations created to fill in the blanks and make enforcement easier.

Another source of law is the cumulative result of all court decisions handed down over the years, collectively called common law. This common law system had its beginnings in merry old England, and we are still bound by English common law in some matters.

Case law develops when judges decide cases and write judicial opinions describing their reasoning. A judge’s reasoning often includes citation of relevant case law from earlier decisions in the same jurisdiction or elsewhere.

Those past decisions are called precedent, and stare decisis is the policy of American courts to adhere to precedent. A modern-day judge is bound by past decisions, unless the legislature has subsequently stepped in to enact a statute superseding the judicial precedent.

Sometimes a court must depart from precedent to remedy continued injustice because societal purposes have changed. Cultural shifts and changing times can render a Supreme Court decision outdated and unpopular enough to cause the Court to revisit the decision.

In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case, the Court concluded that people of African descent held as slaves and their descendants were not protected by the Constitution and could never become United States citizens. The resulting popular furor was partially responsible for the Civil War, as well as the post-Civil War Constitutional amendments assuring freedom for former slaves and granting all people the equal protection of the law.

The judge applies the law to the facts in each particular case, and it is in the “gray areas” that new law may appear. In those gray areas, a judge looks to the legislature’s intent, past judicial opinions, and the underlying societal purposes as persuasive authority.

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission consists of nearly 190 pages of opinions and dissents citing prior case law and other persuasive material. The Justices concluded that the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits the Federal Election Commission from censoring a political broadcast simply because a corporation funded the broadcast. The Court made law by confirming that a corporation is a legal person with constitutional rights. Some commentators argue that this is just bad policy, while others contend that it is well-settled Constitutional law that corporations have the same rights that natural persons enjoy.

Sometimes courts choose to interpret the Constitution’s meaning. In the 2003 Chavez v. Martinez civil case, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Martinez did not have a right “to remain silent” under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. A bedside interview producing self-incriminating statements occurred in the hospital after Martinez was blinded and paralyzed by gunshot wounds inflicted by a police officer during the officer’s attempt to detain him for narcotics possession. In the taped confession, Martinez admitted to grabbing the police officer’s gun. But the Supreme Court’s decision affirmed that a person’s statements obtained through a coercive interview may not be admitted into evidence against the person at a criminal trial; however, there is no Constitutional right not to be coerced into making self-incriminating statements used for other purposes. This point has renewed importance as the war against terrorism progresses.

A trial is either a criminal case or a civil case, and either one may be a trial by judge or a trial by jury. In a criminal case, the government brings charges against an individual or business for violation of a specific defined crime, and, if a verdict is reached, it is either guilty or not guilty. In a civil case, an individual or business sues another party, and the result is often the payment of money by one party to the other.

A single event, such as an assault on another person, can result in both a criminal trial and a civil action, with separate proceedings for each. In the nine-month long 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial, a jury acquitted the popular football star of the brutal murders of his former wife and her male friend, despite the apparently incriminating evidence. Later, the estates of the two murder victims and the Simpson children pursued wrongful death actions in civil court and were awarded huge multimillion dollar sums.

Photo by Jarek Tuszynski

When any case is first heard by a trial court, the court considers the evidence presented, decides the facts, and then applies the law to the facts. If a jury is present, the jury decides questions of fact, and the judge decides questions of law. With no jury present, the judge decides both fact and law.

Sometimes jury nullification occurs when a jury’s verdict is contrary to the judge’s instructions about the law. Jury nullification almost certainly occurred in the 1987 New York City trial of “Subway Vigilante” Bernard Goetz for attempted murder and other counts stemming from his subway shooting of four youths who were attempting to mug him. Despite convincing evidence that Goetz committed the shooting, the jury returned a guilty verdict only for an illegal gun charge, acquitting the defendant of the attempted murder charge on self-defense grounds. The case is somewhat credited with sparking a grassroots movement to reduce urban crime so prevalent in the ’80s (and inspired a 1989 video game).

Case law continually refines the body of law to fill in gaps and to reflect both the Constitution’s original intent and the modern-day political culture. This process began with the English common law, which has been polished by our State and Federal Constitutions and the ensuing statutes, regulations, and case law. The result is a system of laws that reflects as closely as possible the will of the citizenry.