/kawrt, kohrt/, n.
1. Law.
a. a place where justice is administered.
b. a judicial tribunal duly constituted for the hearing and determination of cases.
c. a session of a judicial assembly.
2. an area open to the sky and mostly or entirely surrounded by buildings, walls, etc.
3. a high interior usually having a glass roof and surrounded by several stories of galleries or the like.
4. Chiefly Irish. a stately dwelling.
5. a short street.
6. a smooth, level quadrangle on which to play tennis, basketball, etc.
7. one of the divisions of such an area.
8. the residence of a sovereign or other high dignitary; palace.
9. a sovereign's or dignitary's retinue.
10. a sovereign and councilors as the political rulers of a state.
11. a formal assembly held by a sovereign.
12. homage paid, as to a king.
13. special or devoted attention in order to win favor, affection, etc.: to pay court to the king.
14. the body of qualified members of a corporation, council, board, etc.
15. a branch or lodge of a fraternal society.
16. Animal Behav.
a. an area where animals of a particular species gather to display.
b. the group of insects, as honeybees, surrounding the queen; retinue.
17. hold court,
a. to have a formal assembly of a judicial tribunal or one held by a sovereign.
b. to be surrounded by one's disciples or admirers, giving advice, exchanging gossip, receiving compliments, etc.
18. out of court,
a. without a legal hearing; privately: The case will be settled out of court.
b. out of the question; undeserving of discussion: This wild scheme is entirely out of court.
19. to try to win the favor, preference, or goodwill of: to court the rich.
20. to seek the affections of; woo.
21. (of animals) to attempt to attract (a mate) by engaging in certain species-specific behaviors.
22. to attempt to gain (applause, favor, a decision, etc.).
23. to hold out inducements to; invite.
24. to act in such a manner as to cause, lead to, or provoke: to court disaster by reckless driving.
25. to seek another's love; woo.
26. (of animals) to engage in certain species-specific behaviors in order to attract individuals of the opposite sex for mating.
[1125-75; ME co(u)rt < AF, OF < L cohort- (s. of cohors) farmyard; see COHORT]

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In architecture, an outdoor room surrounded by buildings or walls.

Courts have existed in all civilizations from the earliest recorded times. The small garden court (atrium) of a Roman house was the center of domestic activity. In medieval Europe the court was a feature of all major residential buildings, as the cloister of a monastery, ward of a castle, or quadrangle of a college. A courtyard is often a utilitarian court (as for stables).
Official assembly with judicial authority to hear and determine disputes in particular cases.

In early judicial tribunals, judges sat in enclosures (courts in an architectural sense), and lawyers and the general public remained outside a bar (hence the term bar in legal contexts). Modern British courts are divided into those trying criminal cases and those trying civil cases; a second distinction is made between inferior courts, or courts of first instance, and superior courts, or courts of appeal. In the U.S. each state has its own system of courts, usually consisting of a superior (appellate) court, trial courts of general jurisdiction, and specialized courts (e.g., probate courts). The U.S. also has a system of federal courts, established to adjudicate distinctively national questions and cases not appropriately tried in state courts. At the apex of the national system is the Supreme Court of the United States. The secondary level consists of the United States Courts of Appeals. United States District Courts form the tertiary level. Crimes committed by military figures may be tried in a court-martial. In the past, ecclesiastical courts had broad jurisdiction. See also International Court of Justice; judiciary.
(as used in expressions)
Common Pleas Court of
Court Margaret Smith
court martial
High Commission Court of
magistrates' court

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 in architecture, an open area surrounded by buildings or walls. There have been such courts from the earliest recorded times and in all civilizations. In medieval Europe the court was a characteristic adjunct of all major domestic buildings, as the cloister of a monastery, the ward of a castle, and the quadrangle of a college or hospital.

      Palaces often included a complex of courts. The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, built in the 13th and 14th centuries, has six, including the Court of the Lions and Court of the Myrtles, the most celebrated of all Muslim patios. In Tudor and Elizabethan England of the 16th century, the principal mansions frequently had a forecourt, with wings of the house projecting forward on either side. The larger houses in France were similarly planned; but by the late 17th century it became necessary to add a second courtyard at the rear for stables, coachhouses, and the like; and the forecourt became the court of honour (cour d'honneur). See also cortile.

also called  court of law 

      a person or body of persons having judicial authority to hear and resolve disputes in civil, criminal, ecclesiastical, or military cases. The word court, which originally meant simply an enclosed place, also denotes the chamber, hall, building, or other place where judicial (judiciary) proceedings are held. (See also military law; arbitration.)

      This article deals with the operations of the judicial branch of government. It explores some of the fundamental relationships of this branch with legislative and executive branches and analyzes the functions, structure and organization, and key personnel of courts, the judges. It also compares the systems of the two predominant legal traditions of the contemporary world: common law, represented by England, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries deriving their legal systems from the English model; and civil law, as represented by countries of western Europe and Latin America and certain Asian and African countries that have modeled their legal systems on western European patterns.

Judicial legitimacy
      Legal scholars are fond of quoting the maxim that courts have neither the “power of the purse nor of the sword,” meaning that they, unlike other institutions of government, rarely have the power to raise and spend money and do not command the institutions of coercion (the police and the military). Without force or monetary inducements, courts are weak institutions, because they are denied the most efficacious means of ensuring that their decisions are complied with and enforced.

      The lack of formal institutional powers has led some observers to conclude that courts are the least-effective agents of government. However, such arguments ignore what is surely the most significant powers of courts—their institutional legitimacy. An institution is legitimate when it is perceived as having the right or the authority to make decisions and when its decisions are viewed as worthy of respect or obedience. Judicial legitimacy derives from the belief that judges are impartial and that their decisions are grounded in law, not ideology and politics. Often in sharp contrast to other political institutions (such as legislatures), courts are respected—indeed often revered—because their decisions are viewed as being principled rather than motivated by self-interest or partisanship. To the extent that courts are perceived as legitimate by their constituents, their decisions—even their unpopular ones—are respected, acquiesced to, and accepted.

      The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, often make reference to legitimacy as one of the institution's most precious (and perhaps most volatile) resources. Justices have asserted that frequent reversals of existing precedents undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary. Others have argued that some issues are simply too politically sensitive for courts to intervene in (e.g., the president's war-making powers). If courts become embroiled in ordinary political disputes and are seen as just another political actor trying to advance its ideology, interests, and preferences, then the legitimacy of the institution can be gravely damaged. Some have argued that just this kind of damage was done when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the 2000 presidential election and, ultimately, determined the winner. In general, judges are mindful of threats to the legitimacy of the courts and are unwilling to put it at risk in order to prevail in any particular political or legal controversy.

      Courts are not naturally and universally endowed with legitimacy; rather, a sense of legitimacy is accrued and built over time. Throughout the world, the decisions of courts have often been ignored or violently opposed. In some countries, unpopular rulings have resulted in riots (Bulgaria); court buildings have been attacked and burned (Pakistan); judges have been intimidated and removed from office (Zimbabwe), assassinated (Uganda), or reassigned to courts in the hinterland (Japan); courts have been stripped of their jurisdiction (United States); and, in the most extreme cases, judicial institutions have been suspended (United States) or abolished (Russia).

Functions of courts

Keeping the peace
      The primary function of any court system—to help keep domestic peace—is so obvious that it is rarely considered or mentioned. If there were no institution that was accepted by the citizens of a society as an impartial and authoritative judge of whether a person had committed a crime and, if so, what type of punishment should be meted out, vigilantes offended by the person's conduct might well take the law into their own hands and proceed to punish the alleged miscreant according to their uncontrolled discretion. If no agency were empowered to decide private disputes impartially and authoritatively, people would have to settle their disputes by themselves, with power rather than legitimate authority likely being the basis of such decisions. Such a system might easily degenerate into anarchy. Not even a primitive society could survive under such conditions. Thus, in this most basic sense, courts constitute an essential element of society's machinery for keeping peace.

Deciding disputes
      In the course of helping to keep the peace, courts are called upon to decide controversies. If, in a criminal case, the defendant (one charged with a crime) denies committing the acts charged against him, the court must choose between his version of the facts and that presented by the prosecution. If the defendant asserts that his actions did not constitute criminal behaviour, the court (often aided by a jury) must decide whether his view of the law and facts or the prosecution's is correct. In a civil case, if the defendant disputes the plaintiff's account of what happened between them—for example, whether they entered into a certain contract or agreement—or if he disputes the plaintiff's view of the legal significance of whatever occurred—for example, whether the agreement was legally binding—the court again must choose between the contentions of the parties. The issues presented to, and decided by, the court may be either factual, legal, or both.

      Courts do not, however, spend all their time resolving disputes between opposing parties. Many cases brought before the courts are not contested (e.g., a “no-fault” divorce or a routine debt-collection case). As no dispute exists over the facts or the law, the court's role in such cases is more administrative than adjudicatory. Moreover, the mere existence of a court may render the frequent exercise of its powers unnecessary. The fact that courts operate by known rules and with reasonably predictable results leads many of those who might otherwise engage in legal action to reach a compromise, because people are typically unwilling to incur the expense of going to court if they believe that there is a good chance that they will lose.

      Most people arrested and charged with a crime plead guilty. If they do so with full understanding and without any coercion, the judge generally accepts their admission of guilt. The sole question for the court is to decide whether the defendant should go to jail, pay a fine, pay restitution to the victim, or be subjected to other corrective treatment (the judgment may entail more than one of these punishments). In civil-law countries, some judicial inquiry into the question of guilt or innocence is typically required even after a confession, but the inquiry is generally brief and tends to be perfunctory. The main problem to be resolved is the sentence that should be imposed.

      The vast majority of civil cases are also uncontested or, at least, are settled prior to trial. In some instances, serious negotiations begin only after a lawsuit has been filed. Many suits are settled by the parties themselves, without the intervention of the court. Because courts are usually under strong caseload pressures, they encourage such settlements. Consequently, in many Western systems, only a small fraction of civil cases are actually tried. Indeed, in many countries a notable trend of the late 20th and early 21st century has been the decreased reliance upon trials to settle disputes.

      The decline in court usage reflects several legal and social trends, most notably the increased desire of the parties to seek immediate relief and the increased options in the systems available to do just that. In the United States, for example, most divorce cases are uncontested, both parties usually being eager to terminate the marriage and often agreeing on related questions concerning support and the custody of children. All the court does in such cases is review what the parties have agreed upon and give the agreement official approval and the legitimacy of law. In other instances, disputes are settled through various methods of alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration, in which the parties agree that the decision of the arbitration (or arbitration panel or tribunal) will carry the full, binding force of law. Arbitration is commonly used in commercial and labour disputes.

      Many other uncontested matters come before courts, such as the adoption of children, the distribution of assets in trusts and estates, and the establishment of corporations. Occasionally questions of law or fact arise that have to be decided by the court, but normally all that is required is judicial supervision and approval. Thus, much of what courts do is administrative in nature.

Judicial lawmaking
      All courts apply preexisting rules (statutes) formulated by legislative bodies, though the procedures vary greatly between common-law and civil-law countries. In applying these rules, however, courts must also interpret them, typically transforming the rules from generalities to specifics and sometimes filling gaps to cover situations never addressed by lawmakers when the legislation was first drafted. As courts decide disputes in individual cases, they create an important by-product beyond peaceful settlements—that is, they develop rules for deciding future cases. The judicial decisions embodying these interpretations then become controlling for future cases, sometimes to the extent that they virtually supplant the legislative enactments themselves. In common-law systems, such decisions are called precedents, and they are rules and policies with just as much authority as a law passed by a legislature. Thus, law is made not only by legislatures but also by the courts.

      The common-law system of creating precedents is sometimes called stare decisis (literally, “to stand by decided matters”). Judges are generally expected to follow earlier decisions, not only to save themselves the effort of working out fresh solutions for the same problems each time they occur but also, and primarily, because the goal of the law is to render uniform and predictable justice. Fairness demands that if one individual is dealt with in a certain way today, then another individual engaging in substantially identical conduct under substantially identical conditions tomorrow or a month or year hence should be dealt with in the same way. Reduced to its essentials, precedent simply involves treating similar cases similarly. This system of stare decisis is sometimes referred to as “judge-made law,” as the law (the precedent) is created by the judge, not by a legislature.

      In civil-law (civil law) countries, all judicial decisions are, in theory, based upon legislative enactments, and the doctrine of judicial precedent does not apply. Judges merely “apply” the law created by the legislature. Practice, however, often departs from theory. Although the civil code adopted in these countries is quite comprehensive, attempting to cover nearly every aspect of human conduct and purporting to supply ready-made answers for all problems that can arise, many of the provisions are exceedingly vague (because they are abstract) and are sometimes almost meaningless until applied to concrete situations, when judicial interpretation gives them specific meaning. Furthermore, the legislative codes cannot anticipate all situations that may arise and come before the courts (e.g., the situation in which advances in medical technology enable doctors to keep a legally dead person alive). The gaps in legislation must be and are filled by judicial decisions, as a court is unlikely to refuse to decide a case merely on the grounds that it has not been told in advance the answers to the questions presented to it. Decisions dealing with circumstances unforeseen by the legal codes and giving specific meaning to vague legislative provisions are published in legal volumes in most civil-law countries and are frequently referred to by lawyers and relied upon by judges. They are not considered “binding” in the sense that judges are legally obliged to follow earlier decisions, but they are also not forgotten or disregarded. In actual practice, they have almost as much influence as statutory interpretations in countries that formally adhere to the doctrine of stare decisis.

      Judicial lawmaking is more pervasive and more frankly acknowledged in common-law (common law) countries than in civil-law ones. In addition to rendering decisions that authoritatively interpret statutes, the courts of common-law countries have created a vast body of law without any statutory foundation whatever. Whenever judges are confronted with a dispute for which there is no clear statutory answer—and this occurs with considerable regularity—they must render decisions in accordance with their own conceptions of justice. Later judges follow these rulings, deciding similar cases in the same manner but distinguishing earlier cases when dissimilar factors are discovered in the cases before them. The later cases also become precedents to be followed in still later cases presenting substantially similar patterns of fact (thus, several precedents may be relevant to a particular case, though they may conflict with each other). The total accumulation of all these judicial decisions is what constitutes “the common law”—the consequence of judges' deciding cases and setting forth their reasons. In common-law countries, legislation is accordingly more limited in scope than it is in civil-law countries. It does not purport to provide for all possibilities, because large areas of conduct are governed solely by judge-made law.

      To speak of precedent as “binding” even in common-law systems is somewhat misleading. As already noted, earlier decisions can be and are distinguished when judges conclude that they are based upon situations differing from those before the court in later cases. Even more significant, earlier decisions can be overruled by the courts that rendered them (though not by courts lower in the judicial hierarchy) when the judges conclude that the decisions have proved to be so erroneous or unwise as to be unsuited for current or future application. The Supreme Court of the United States, for example, has overruled many of its own earlier decisions, much to the consternation of those who are unable to accept the inevitability of judicial lawmaking. Many of these reversals have been in the field of constitutional law, in which simple legislative correction of an erroneous judicial interpretation of the Constitution is impossible and in which the only alternative is the exceedingly slow, cumbersome, costly, and difficult process of constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, the power to overrule decisions is not restricted to constitutional interpretations; it also extends to areas of purely statutory and purely judge-made law as well, areas in which legislative action would be equally capable of accomplishing needed changes. Even in the United Kingdom, which does not have a codified constitution and which has traditionally followed a far more rigid doctrine of stare decisis than the United States, the House of Lords (Lords, House of), in its role as the highest court, sometimes departs from precedent.

      The desirability of judicial lawmaking has long been the subject of lively debate in both civil- and common-law countries. It is universally accepted that courts in democracies should not arrogate to themselves unrestricted legislative power, because the judiciary is rarely subject to the same democratic accountability as legislatures. But when existing statutes and precedents are outmoded or manifestly unfair as applied to specific cases before the courts, should not judges be able to change the law in order to achieve what they conceive to be just results or to avoid what they consider unjust results? Few observers—especially among judges—believe that rigid adherence to the letter of the law is more important than achieving fair and just resolutions of disputes.

      The extent to which the judges should be bound by statutes and case precedents as against their own ethical ideas and concepts of social, political, and economic policy is an important question, as is the matter of which should prevail when justice and law appear to judges to conflict with each other. These are questions upon which reasonable persons disagree vigorously, even when they are in basic agreement on the proposition that some degree of judicial lawmaking is inevitable. The proper tempo and scope of judicial change are what is mainly at issue. How quickly should judges act to remedy injustice, and when should they consider an existing rule to be so established that its alteration calls for constitutional amendment or legislative enactment rather than judicial decision? As many dissenting opinions attest, judges themselves disagree on the answers to these questions, even when they are sitting on the same bench hearing the same case.

      Nor should it be assumed that so-called “literal” or “strict” interpretation of documents such as constitutions precludes judicial policy making. The inherent ambiguity of constitutional interpretation can be seen clearly by considering the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (Constitution of the United States of America), which states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” This prescription, upon first glance, seems entirely clear. Nevertheless, few people—not least the framers of the Constitution—have interpreted it as meaning that Congress cannot pass any law that abridges any form of speech. Nearly everyone accepts that treasonous or seditious speech, for example, can be proscribed. Most would also accept at least some legal restrictions on libelous speech, and many would accept restrictions on so-called hate speech. Indeed, once one begins to consider the wide variety of actions that might qualify as speech (including “nonverbal,” or symbolic, speech), it is easy to conclude that the U.S. Constitution itself has little literal meaning beyond what is given to it by the interpretations of judges.

Constitutional (constitutional law) decisions
      In some countries, courts not only interpret legislation but also determine its validity (constitutionality), and in so doing they sometimes nullify statutes passed by legislatures. A court empowered with such authority may declare that a piece of legislation is null and void because it is incompatible with constitutional principles (e.g., some restrictions on the right to have an abortion in the United States have been found by the U.S. Supreme Court (Supreme Court of the United States) to be incompatible with the right to personal privacy—itself a contested constitutional principle that was developed by the court beginning only in the 1960s). This happens only in countries that have written constitutions and that have developed a doctrine of “judicial supremacy” (in contrast to “parliamentary supremacy,” which is generally found in countries following the model of the United Kingdom). When scholars speak of “limited government,” they mean specifically that the policy options available to governments are constrained by constitutional principles that are enforced by an independent judiciary. The prime example is the United States, and the classic statement of the doctrine is the Supreme Court's decision in Madison (Marbury v. Madison) (1803), in which Chief Justice John Marshall (Marshall, John) said:

The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and [so] that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the Constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers, is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed, are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the Constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it.…It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.

      Armed with this powerful precedent from this very early date in the development of the U.S. legal system, the Supreme Court of the United States has held many statutes—federal as well as state—unconstitutional and has also invalidated executive actions that it believed violated the Constitution.

      Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that all lower courts in the United States also possess and exercise the same powers as the Supreme Court. Whenever a question arises in any U.S. court at any level as to the constitutionality of a statute or executive action, that court is obligated to determine its validity in the course of deciding the case before it. Indeed, the case may have been brought for the sole and express purpose of testing the constitutionality of the statute (e.g., a law requiring racial segregation (segregation, racial) or restricting freedom of speech), or it may be an ordinary civil or criminal case in which a constitutional question incidental to the main purpose of the proceeding is raised (e.g., the legality of a search and seizure by the authorities). Every judge in the United States is legally empowered to engage in constitutional interpretation. When a lower court decides a constitutional question, however, its decision is subject to appellate review, sometimes at more than one level. When a state statute is challenged as violating the state constitution, the final authority is the supreme court of that state; when a federal or state statute or a state constitutional provision is challenged as violating the Constitution of the United States, the ultimate arbiter is the U.S. Supreme Court.

      In a few U.S. states and in many countries, questions as to the constitutional validity of a statute may be referred in abstract form to a high court by the chief executive or the legislature for an advisory opinion. In most systems, however, this is unusual and, in any event, supplementary to the normal procedure of raising and deciding constitutional questions. The normal pattern is for a constitutional question to be raised at the trial-court level in the context of a genuine controversy and decided finally on appellate review of the trial-court decision.

      The U.S. pattern of constitutional adjudication is not followed in all countries that have written constitutions. In some countries (e.g., Germany), there is a special court at the highest level of government that handles only constitutional questions and to which all such questions are referred as soon as they arise and before any concrete controversy occurs. A constitutional question may be referred to the special court in abstract form for a declaratory opinion by a procedure similar to that prevailing in the minority of U.S. states that allow advisory opinions. In France, members of the parliament may demand (and increasingly have demanded) that the constitutionality of legislation be certified by the Constitutional Council prior to its becoming law.

      In other countries, written constitutions may be in effect but not accompanied by any conception that their authoritative interpretation is a judicial function. Legislative and executive bodies, rather than courts, act as the guardians and interpreters of the constitution, being guided by their provisions but not bound by them in any realistic sense. Modernization in the developing countries (as in Latin America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa) and the transformations from authoritarian to democratic governance (e.g., in Greece, Portugal, and Spain in the 1970s and '80s) have meant that there are fewer instances of wholly impotent courts. Still, in some countries, the courts remain captive to political elites or open to manipulation by the government, or the courts' authority to exercise the judicial review to which they are constitutionally entitled remains tenuous. In 1993, for example, the Russian constitutional court was dissolved by Pres. Boris Yeltsin and replaced with a system of appointments that ensured greater presidential control.

      Finally, some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have no formal written constitution. In such countries, parliamentary supremacy clearly prevails, though European law (i.e., the law of the European Union [EU]) now supersedes parliamentary supremacy in all EU countries, including the United Kingdom. The courts have no power to invalidate statutes, though they can and do interpret them, which is a very important judicial power.

Procedural (procedural law) rule making
      Distinct from the type of lawmaking just described is a more conscious and explicit type of judicial legislation that is somewhat less controversial. It is directed toward the rules of procedure by which the courts operate; in the United States and elsewhere, the rules of procedure are generally subsumed under the concept known as due process (known outside the United States as fair procedure). This is a technical area in which expert knowledge of the type possessed by judges and lawyers is needed, in which constant attention to detail is required, and in which major problems of social, economic, or political policy are seldom explicitly encountered. Some legislative bodies, able or willing to devote only sporadic attention to the day-to-day problems of the management of litigation, have delegated the power to regulate procedure to the courts themselves. This is not ad hoc judicial lawmaking as a by-product of deciding cases but openly acknowledged promulgation of general rules for the future, in legislative form, by courts rather than legislatures.

      An outstanding example of judicial rule making is found in the United States, where Congress has delegated to the Supreme Court (Supreme Court of the United States) broad power to formulate rules of civil, criminal, and appellate procedure for the federal courts. The Supreme Court also exercises the power to amend the rules from time to time as experience indicates that changes are desirable. Although Congress reserves the power to veto the rules promulgated by the Supreme Court, it has felt no need to do so. These rules of procedure often reflect highly significant biases toward one interest or another; examples include rules regarding the ways in which individual citizens can be aggregated into a “class” so that they can pursue their grievances collectively in the federal court system.

      Other legislative bodies, including those of some U.S. states and most of the countries of continental Europe, have been unwilling to place so much trust in the courts and have retained for themselves the power to regulate procedure. The results have been varied. Courts sometimes become so immersed in day-to-day decision making that they fail to pay adequate attention to the proper functioning of the judicial machinery and perpetuate rules that are unduly rigid, unrealistic, and unsuited to the needs of litigants, which was the case in England and the American colonies during the 18th and first part of the 19th century. When such a situation exists, reform through legislative action is necessary. Apart from the occasional necessity of major sweeping changes, however, experience in common-law countries indicates that procedural rule making is better vested in the courts than in legislative bodies.

Review of administrative (administrative law) decisions
      Administrative agencies of various kinds (e.g., the Food and Drug Administration in the United States) exist alongside the courts in nearly every country. Some do substantially the same kind of work as is done by courts and in substantially the same manner; others, however, have quite different functions (e.g., the issuing of licenses and the payment of social-welfare benefits).

      The relationship between such agencies and regular courts differs markedly between common-law and civil-law countries. In common-law countries the actions of administrative agencies are subject to review in the ordinary courts. If the agency decides controversies in substantially the same manner as a court but in a different and more limited area, judicial control takes much the same form of appellate review as is provided for the decisions of lower courts. The objective of reviewing the record of the proceedings is to determine whether the administrative agency acted within the scope of its jurisdiction, whether there was any evidence to support its conclusion, whether procedures were fair, and whether the governing law was correctly interpreted and applied. Administrative decisions are seldom upset by the courts, because most judges believe that administrative agencies have expertise in their area of specialization. However, the agencies can be and occasionally are overruled, which reflects the large degree of judicial control over other agencies of government that characterizes common-law systems. If the administrative agency does not engage in formal adjudication, it produces no record of its proceedings for judicial review. Nevertheless, the agency's decisions can be challenged in court by way of trial rather than appeal. The same problems are presented for judicial determination: did the agency act within its jurisdiction, did it correctly follow the law, and was there any rational or factual basis for its action? The United Kingdom has experienced a dramatic increase in the frequency of this type of litigation.

      In many civil-law countries, the ordinary courts have no control over administrative agencies. Their decisions are reviewed by a special tribunal that is engaged exclusively in that work and that has nothing to do with cases of the type that come into the courts. Its function is solely appellate and is limited to the specialized areas entrusted to the administrative agencies. The prototype of this type of tribunal is France's Conseil d'État, which decides and advises on issues put to it by the president, cabinet, or parliament. Such tribunals also have been established in other countries, including Belgium, Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Turkey.

Enforcement of judicial decisions
      The method of enforcing a judicial decision depends upon its nature. If it does nothing more than declare legal rights, as is true of a simple divorce decree (merely severing marital ties, not awarding alimony or the custody of children) or a declaratory judgment (e.g., interpreting a contract or a statute), no enforcement is needed. If a judgment orders a party to do or to refrain from doing a certain act, as happens when an injunction is issued, the court itself takes the first step in enforcing the judgment by holding in contempt anyone who refuses to obey its order and sentencing him to pay a fine or to go to jail. Thereafter, enforcement is in the hands of the executive branch of government, acting through its law-enforcement and correctional authorities.

      In routine criminal cases and in civil cases that result in the award of monetary damages, courts have little to do with the enforcement of their judgments. Instead, this is the function of the executive branch of government, acting through sheriffs, marshals, jailers, and similar officials. The courts themselves have no machinery for enforcement.

      Some judgments issued by courts are extremely controversial and encounter intense public opposition (e.g., the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States ordering racial desegregation of the public schools in 1954). When voluntary compliance with such a judgment is refused, forcible methods of enforcement are necessary, sometimes extending to the deployment of armed forces under the control of the executive branch. The withdrawal of executive support seldom occurs, even when decisions are directed against the executive branch itself; when such executive support is withheld, however, the courts are rendered impotent. Judges, being aware of their limited power, seldom render decisions that they know will have so little support that they will not be enforced.

Court structure and organization

Types of courts
      There are many different types of courts and many ways to classify and describe them. Basic distinctions must be made between criminal and civil courts, between courts of general jurisdiction and those of limited jurisdiction, and between appellate and trial courts. There are also constitutional, federal, and transnational courts.

Criminal courts
      Criminal courts deal with persons accused of committing a crime, deciding whether they are guilty and, if so, determining the consequences they shall suffer. The prosecution of alleged offenders is generally pursued in the name of the public (e.g., The People v. …), because crimes are considered offenses not just against individual victims but also against society at large. The public is represented by an official such as a district attorney (often called a prosecutor), procurator, or police officer. Although courts are also agencies of the state, they are neutral in criminal proceedings, favouring neither the prosecution nor the defense. The impartiality of the court is strongly reinforced where juries are used to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

      The role of the criminal court in civil-law systems is quite different from its role in common-law ones. Civil-law countries assign a more active role to the judge and a more passive role to counsel. Instead of being passive recipients of evidence produced by the prosecution and the defense, judges in civil-law systems often direct the presentation of evidence and even order that certain evidence be produced. Thus, procedure in civil-law systems is considered inquisitorial (inquisitorial procedure). Judges in this system have an independent responsibility to discover the facts. In the common-law (common law) courts, adversary procedures (adversary procedure) tend to prevail; the lawyers for both sides bear primary responsibility for producing evidence and do most of the questioning of witnesses. Advocates of the adversarial system hold that a just outcome is most likely to result when all possible relevant information—good (tending to exonerate) and bad (tending to incriminate)—is placed before an impartial adjudicator (the judge or the jury). Self-interest motivates both the defense and the prosecution to provide all possible evidence relevant to its side of the case. Where the jury system is used, the jury is supposed to constitute an unbiased sample of ordinary people predisposed to favouring neither the defense nor the prosecution, and the judge serves as a “legal referee” who ensures that proper legal procedures are followed (e.g., barring the introduction of illegally obtained evidence, such as coerced confessions, or other information deemed inadmissible). The adversarial system, and its associated conception of justice, is a pillar of the common-law tradition, as evidenced in the U.S., British, and Canadian systems of criminal justice.

      If a defendant is found guilty, he is sentenced, again according to law and within limits predetermined by legislation. The objective of most punishment is not so much to wreak vengeance upon the offender as to rehabilitate him and to deter others from committing similar acts. Hence, the most common sentences are fines, short terms of imprisonment, and probation (which allows the offender freedom under state supervision). In extremely serious cases, the goal may be to prevent the offender from committing further crimes, which may call for a long term of imprisonment (e.g., life in prison without the possibility of parole) or even capital punishment. During the last third of the 20th century, however, the death penalty began to disappear from many criminal codes throughout the world; nonetheless, it remains in effect and is imposed widely in several countries, including the United States, Iran, and China.

Civil courts
      Civil courts (not to be confused with the civil-law legal system) deal with “private” controversies, particularly disputes that arise between individuals or between private businesses or institutions (e.g., a disagreement over the terms of a contract or over who shall bear responsibility for an automobile accident). The public is not ordinarily a party to the litigation (as it is in criminal proceedings), for its interest is limited to providing just and acceptable rules for making decisions and a forum where the dispute can be impartially and peacefully resolved. These factors are important because the use of the civil courts is voluntary.

      The government may be involved in civil litigation if it stands in the same relation to a private party as another individual might stand. If a government postal truck hits a pedestrian, for example, the government might be sued civilly by the injured person; or if the government contracted to purchase supplies that turned out to be defective, it might sue the dealer for damages in a civil court. In such proceedings, however, the government acts as a private party.

      The objective of a civil action is not explicitly punishment or correction of the defendant or the setting of an example to others but rather restoration of the parties so far as possible to the positions they would have occupied had no legal wrong been committed. The most common civil remedy is a judgment for monetary damages, but there are others, such as an injunction ordering the defendant to do—or to refrain from doing—a certain act or a judgment restoring property to its rightful owner. For example, a celebrity might obtain an injunction against an alleged “stalker” requiring that the person not come within a certain distance of the celebrity at any time.

      Civil claims do not ordinarily arise out of criminal acts. A person who breaks his contract with another or who causes him a physical injury through negligence may have committed no crime (i.e., no offense against the public has been committed) but only a civil wrong for which he may not be prosecuted criminally by the public. There are, however, areas of overlap, for a single incident may give rise to both civil liability and criminal prosecution. In some countries (e.g., France), both types of responsibility can be determined in a single proceeding under a concept known as adhesion, by which the injured party is allowed to assert his civil claim in the criminal prosecution, agreeing to abide by its outcome. This removes the necessity of two separate trials. In common-law countries, there is no such procedure (even though civil and criminal jurisdiction may be merged in a single court). Two separate actions must be brought independent of each other. For example, in the United States in the mid-1990s, former football star O.J. Simpson (Simpson, O.J.) was tried in a California criminal court on a charge of having murdered his ex-wife and her friend; although he was acquitted in that litigation (in which a guilty verdict required proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”), in a subsequent civil suit (in which a guilty verdict required proof by a “preponderance of the evidence”), he was found liable and was ordered to pay restitution to the families of the victims. In the United States, such collateral civil lawsuits have become attractive to victims of alleged crimes, particularly because the standard of proof in civil courts is dramatically lower than it is in criminal courts.

Courts of general jurisdiction
      Although there are some courts that handle only criminal cases and others that deal with only civil cases, a more common pattern is for a single court to be vested with both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Examples of such courts include the High Court of Justice for England and Wales and many of the trial courts found in U.S. states. Canada is an instructive example, because the federal government has the exclusive authority to legislate criminal laws, while the provinces have the authority to legislate civil laws. Virtually all cases, criminal and civil, originate in the provincial courts. Often these tribunals are called courts of general jurisdiction, which signifies that they can handle almost any type of controversy, though in fact they may not have jurisdiction over certain types of cases assigned to specialized tribunals (e.g., immigration cases). Often such courts are also described as superior courts, because they are empowered to handle serious criminal cases and important civil cases involving large amounts of money. In addition, most high appellate courts (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court and the courts of last resort in the U.S. states) are courts of general jurisdiction, hearing both civil and criminal appeals.

      Even if a court possesses general or very broad jurisdiction, it may nevertheless be organized into specialized branches, one handling criminal cases, another handling civil cases, another handling juvenile cases, and so forth. The advantage of such an arrangement is that judges can be transferred from one type of work to another, and cases do not fail to be heard for having been instituted in the wrong branch, since they can be transferred administratively with relative ease.

Courts of limited jurisdiction
      There are many kinds of specialized tribunals, varying from country to country. Some deal only with the administration of the estates of deceased persons ( probate courts), some only with disputes between merchants (commercial courts), and some only with disputes between employers and employees (labour courts). Many of the constitutional courts of the democracies that emerged in the 1990s in central and eastern Europe also have limited jurisdiction, confined to disputes grounded in the constitution. Although all these courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, they may exercise substantial power.

       juvenile courts, empowered to deal with misconduct by children and sometimes also with the neglect or maltreatment of children, are a particularly notable court of limited jurisdiction. The procedures of juvenile courts are much more informal than those of adult criminal courts, and the facilities available to them for the pretrial detention of children and for their incarceration, if necessary, after trial are different. Because children are assumed not to be fully capable of rational thought, they are deemed less culpable for their actions, and the emphasis in juvenile courts is therefore usually on saving children, not punishing them. American attitudes are bifurcated on the subject of juvenile law; on the one hand, when minors are victims or can potentially be victimized, law and society typically agree that the purpose of the law is to protect the innocent. This is evident in laws designed to protect minors from exposure to obscene material and from sexual predators and in divorce and custody law. When, however, minors commit a violent act, public and political sentiments often change, and the minor is no longer seen as innocent and deserving of the protection of the law. While some may seek to rehabilitate the youth and desire lenient punishment, others consider a youth of any age who commits a crime as “mature enough to commit the crime, mature enough to be sentenced accordingly.”

      Traffic courts also deserve mention because they are so common and affect so many people. They process motor vehicle offenses such as speeding and improper parking. Their procedure is summary and their volume of cases heavy. Contested trials are quite infrequent.

      Finally, in most jurisdictions there are institutions called, unfortunately and for want of a better term, “inferior” courts. These are often staffed by part-time judges who are not necessarily trained in the law. They handle minor civil cases involving small sums of money, such as bill collections, and minor criminal cases carrying light penalties. In addition to finally disposing of minor criminal cases, such courts may handle the early phases of more serious criminal cases—including fixing bail, advising defendants of their rights, appointing counsel, and conducting preliminary hearings to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to justify holding defendants for trial in higher “superior” courts.

Appellate courts
      The tribunals described thus far are trial courts or “courts of first instance.” They see the parties to the dispute, hear the witnesses, receive the evidence, find the facts, apply the law, and determine the outcome.

      Appellate courts are positioned above the trial courts to review their work and to correct any errors that may have occurred. Appellate courts are usually collegiate bodies, consisting of several judges instead of the single judge who typically presides over a trial court. The jurisdiction of the appellate courts is often general; specialized appellate tribunals handling, for example, only criminal appeals or only civil appeals are rare though not unknown (e.g., the U.S. state of Texas has separate “supreme courts” for civil and criminal cases). The Conseil d'État of France and the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, mentioned above, are also specialized judicial tribunals.

      National judicial systems are organized hierarchically. At the lowest level, there are numerous trial courts scattered throughout the country; above them are a smaller number of first-level appellate courts, usually organized on a regional basis; and at the apex is a single court of last resort.

      Appellate review is rarely automatic. It usually must be sought by a party aggrieved by the judgment in the court below. For that reason, and because an appeal may be both expensive and useless, there are far fewer appeals than trials and, if successive appeals are available, as is often the case, far fewer second appeals than first appeals.

      Because the principle of due process generally creates a right to at least one review by a higher court, intermediate appeals courts are typically obliged to hear the cases appealed to them. High courts, like many state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, are not obliged to hear any particular case, and, in fact, they issue decisions in only a tiny fraction of the cases appealed to them.

      There are three basic types of appellate review. The first consists of the retrial of the case, with the appellate court hearing the evidence for the second time, making fresh findings of fact, and in general proceeding in much the same manner as the court that originally rendered the judgment under appeal. This “trial de novo” is used in common-law countries for the first stage of review, but only when the trial in the first instance was conducted by an “inferior” court—one typically staffed by a part-time judge empowered to try only minor cases and keeping no formal record of its proceedings.

      The second type of review is based in part on a “dossier,” which is a record compiled in the court below of the evidence received and the findings made. The reviewing court has the power to hear the same witnesses again or to supplement their testimony by taking additional evidence, but it need not and frequently does not do so, being content to rely on the record already made in reaching its own findings of fact and conclusions of law. This type of proceeding prevails generally in civil-law countries for the first stage of appellate review, even when the original trial was conducted in a superior court staffed by professional judges and empowered to try important or serious cases.

      The third type of review is based solely on a written record of proceedings in the court or courts below. The reviewing court does not itself receive evidence directly but concentrates its effort on discovering from the record whether any errors were committed of such a serious nature as to require reversal or modification of the judgment under review or a new trial in the court below. The emphasis is on questions of law (both procedural and substantive) rather than on questions of fact, and the court typically requests briefs by the litigants delineating their views on the legal issues (including the relevant precedents) at stake in the case. This type of review prevails both in civil-law and common-law countries at the highest appellate level. It is also used in common-law countries at lower levels when the appeal involves a judgment of a superior court. The purpose of this type of review is not merely to ensure that correct results are reached in individual cases but also to clarify and expound the law in the manner described earlier (i.e., the creation of precedents). Lower courts have little to do with the development of the law, because they ordinarily do not write or publish opinions. The highest appellate courts do, and it is their opinions that become the guidelines for future cases.

Constitutional courts
      The democratic transition that occurred in many parts of the world in the late 20th century resulted in the proliferation of courts charged with constitutional (constitutional law) adjudication, though the formal powers of these high courts vary considerably from one country to another. Some are specialized courts of constitutional review, usually called the constitutional court or constitutional tribunal (e.g., Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, and Greece); others blend the functions of judicial review of legislation and cassation, or the review of lower-court decisions (e.g., Ireland, the United States, Denmark); and still others exercise only the power of cassation (France [see Cour de Cassation], Belgium, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom). Some countries have multiple high courts with various functions and powers. Italy, for example, has a Constitutional Court with the sole power to exercise constitutional review and a Supreme Court of Cassation with the power to review the decisions of ordinary courts for consistency with the law. Egypt also maintains a Court of Cassation that monitors the uniformity of lower-court fidelity to the law, but only its Supreme Constitutional Court has the authority to declare laws unconstitutional and to determine and rule upon legislative intent. In Japan (Japanese law) the Supreme Court is the only court explicitly permitted to exercise judicial review. Its authority is limited to cases involving conflicting parties and therefore does not entertain questions brought by government officials. The role orientation of the Japanese judge and judicial system is conflict resolution; as such, the courts are reluctant to exercise judicial review or engage in judicial activism. In most systems, the power to strike down acts of the national legislature is centralized in a specialized tribunal; in a small number of countries, including Portugal and the United States, it is decentralized, or “diffused,” with every court empowered to exercise judicial review over legislation.

      The precise circumstances under which a national high court can exercise the power of judicial review also vary considerably. Some courts, exercising what is called “concrete” judicial review (incidenter, or a review incidental to deciding a case), can strike down legislation only in a particular case. Other courts are empowered to engage in “abstract” judicial review (the review of a law on constitutional grounds without application to a particular pending case). Of the courts with the power of abstract review, some can exercise it prior to a statute's taking effect (i.e., a priori review), while others exercise it only after the law has taken effect (a posteriori review). Many of the architects of the constitutions of the democracies that emerged in the 1990s in central and eastern Europe opted for a strong, centralized form of judicial power, with the power of judicial review residing in a constitutional tribunal, typically with the power to engage in both abstract and concrete review. Constitutional courts in France and Germany may exercise abstract judicial review. Arguably, Portugal's constitutional tribunal has the greatest jurisdiction, exercising both concrete review of lower-court decisions and abstract review of all laws and legal norms. The U.S. Supreme Court avoids advisory opinions and therefore does not engage in abstract judicial review.

Courts in federal (federalism) systems
      Many countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Japan, have unitary judicial systems in which all courts (i.e., regular courts as distinguished from administrative bodies) fit into a single national hierarchy of tribunals along the lines just described. Other countries, organized on a federal basis, tend to have more complicated court structures, reflecting the fragmentation of governmental powers between the central authority and local authorities. In the United States, for example, there are 51 separate judicial systems, one for each state and another for the federal government. To a limited extent, the jurisdiction of the federal courts is exclusive of that exercised by the state courts, but there are large areas of overlap and duplication. Unless state laws or state constitutions conflict with national laws or the national constitution, state courts are the final arbiters of the meaning of state law. At the top level is the Supreme Court of the United States, which hears appeals not only from the lower federal courts but also from state courts insofar as they present federal questions arising under the Constitution of the United States or under federal statutes or treaties. If a case in a state court involves only a question of state law—for example, the interpretation of a state statute—the ultimate authority is the state supreme court, and no appeal is possible to the U.S. Supreme Court.

      Court structure in a federal form of government need not be as complicated as that in the United States. It is possible to have only one set of courts for the country, operated by the central government and handling all cases that arise under state law as well as federal law. Germany is also a federal republic, dividing power between the federal and state systems. At the national level, there are five supreme courts and one constitutional court. The supreme courts represent separate jurisdictions (civil and criminal, general administrative, employment and trade-union disputes, social policy, and financial matters and taxation).

      Another possibility is for each state or province to have its own system of courts, handling all questions of federal as well as state law, and for the central government to maintain only a single supreme court to decide questions as to the relationship of the central authority and the local authorities or as to the relationship between the local authorities themselves. This pattern is found in Canada and Australia.

      Another complication resulting from a federal form of government is that questions involving conflict of laws arise with great frequency. Such questions concern the choice to be made between the law of one jurisdiction and that of another as the rule for a decision in a particular case. Even in a unitary system, such problems cannot be avoided; for example, a court in the United Kingdom may be called upon to try a case arising from a transaction that took place in France and to decide whether British or French law should govern. Such problems arise much more often, however, in federal systems, where laws differ from state to state and people move about very freely. Their activities in one state sometimes become the subject of a lawsuit in another, and the court is required to decide which law should apply.

Transnational courts
      Although courts with jurisdictions that traverse national boundaries have been in existence for quite some time (e.g., the International Court of Justice [ICJ] was established in 1945, replacing an international court that was created after World War I), generally they have been too weak to warrant much attention. More recently, however, transnational courts such as the European Court of Justice (the high court of the EU) and the European Court of Human Rights have become quite powerful, and the ICJ has garnered an enhanced reputation. These courts generally enforce treaty obligations and related interstate agreements.

      The European Court of Justice is sometimes credited with having created a variety of new individual rights for citizens of the EU, often superseding national laws (e.g., rights to gender equality). Indeed, the European Court of Justice has been successful in declaring the laws of the EU to be superior to national laws and thereby undermining the long-established principles of parliamentary sovereignty (as in the United Kingdom). Many observers believe that no single institution has been more instrumental in creating a united Europe than the European Court of Justice.

      The International Criminal Court (ICC), which began sittings in 2002, represents a specialized type of transnational court devoted to prosecuting criminal activity. Created in part in response to the war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s (separate international tribunals were established to prosecute allegations of war crimes in each conflict), the ICC was empowered to try individuals accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Because of the nonparticipation of several major countries (e.g., China, Russia, and the United States), however, many observers questioned whether the ICC could effectively prosecute and deter such crimes.

      A court is a complex institution that requires the participation of many people: judges, the parties, their lawyers, witnesses, clerks, bailiffs, probation officers, administrators, and many others, including, in certain types of cases, jurors. Nevertheless, the central figure in any court is the judge.

      The role and power of judges vary enormously, not only from country to country but often within a single country as well. For example, a rural justice of the peace in the United States—often untrained in the law, serving part-time, sitting alone in work clothes in a makeshift courtroom, collecting small fees or receiving a pittance for a salary, trying a succession of routine traffic cases and little else—obviously bears little resemblance to a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States—a full-time, well-paid, black-robed professional, assisted by law clerks and secretaries, sitting in a marble palace with eight colleagues and deciding at the highest appellate level only questions of profound national importance. Yet both persons are judges.

Lay judges
      In most civil-law countries, judges at all levels are professionally trained in the law, but in many other countries they are not. In England, part-time lay judges greatly outnumber full-time professional judges. Called magistrates or justices of the peace (justice of the peace), they dispose of more than 95 percent of all criminal cases and do so with general public satisfaction and the approbation of most lawyers (see magistrates' court). Professional judges handle only the relatively small number of very serious crimes; most of their time is devoted to civil cases. England places unusually heavy reliance on lay judges, but they are far from unknown in the courts of many other countries, particularly at the lowest trial level. This was also true in the former Soviet Union and remains so in the United States. In some countries of the Middle East (e.g., Israel and Iran), lay judges constitute religious courts and are selected for service on the basis of their knowledge of and fidelity to nonsecular rules and laws. In Finland, panels of lay judges sit with credentialed judges in district court criminal cases (and also may be used in some civil cases pertaining to domestic issues). The Japanese enacted legislation in the early 21st century to introduce lay judges into the country's legal system. There is considerable diversity in the way lay judges are chosen and used in judicial work. In the United States, for example, lay judges are popularly elected for limited terms, whereas in England they are appointed by the lord chancellor to serve until retirement or removal. In England, lay judges serve intermittently in panels on a rotating basis for short periods, whereas in the United States they sit alone and continuously. In South Africa, lay judges (called assessors) always sit with professional judges; in England, they sometimes do; and in the United States, they never do. In some developing countries, many judges at all levels have little formal legal training. Sometimes they are religious authorities rather than lawyers, since in many countries religion and secular government are not sharply differentiated and the law derives from religious doctrine. The vast majority of countries that use lay judges at the lowest trial level, however, insist upon professionally trained judges in trial courts of general jurisdiction and in appellate courts.

Professional judges in the civil-law (civil law) tradition
      Professional judges in civil-law countries are markedly different in background and outlook from professional judges in common-law countries. Both have legal training and both perform substantially the same functions, but there the similarities cease. In a typical civil-law country, a person graduating from law school makes a choice between a judicial career and a career as a private lawyer. If he chooses the former and is able to pass an examination, he is appointed to the judiciary by the minister of justice (a political officer) and enters service. His first assignment is to a low-level court; thereafter he works his way up the judicial ladder as far as he can until his retirement with a government pension. His promotions and assignments depend upon the way his performance is regarded by a council of senior judges, or sometimes upon the judgment of the minister of justice, who may or may not exercise his powers disinterestedly and on the basis of merit. The Japanese system epitomizes this process. The path to legal success is very narrow, providing little room for error in terms of formal education, legal practice, and judicial experience. In Japan, as in the vast majority of civil-law systems, the civil-law judge is a civil servant.

Professional judges in the common-law (common law) tradition
      In common-law countries, the path to judicial office is quite different. Upon completion of formal legal education, a person typically spends a significant amount of time in the private practice of law or, less commonly, in law teaching or governmental legal service before becoming a judge. Judges are appointed or elected to office; there is no competitive examination. In England the appointive system prevails for all levels of judges, including even lay magistrates. Appointments are primarily under the control of the lord chancellor, who, although a cabinet officer, is also the highest judge of the United Kingdom. Judges are kept surprisingly free from party politics. In the United States, the appointive method is used in federal courts and some state courts, but ideological and partisan considerations—particularly at the federal level—play a very significant role in appointments to the bench. In the United States, all appointments to the federal bench, and many appointments to the state judiciary, are made by the chief executive (president or governor), though these appointments are generally subject to legislative approval. In many states, however, judges are popularly elected, sometimes on nonpartisan ballots, sometimes on partisan ballots with all the trappings of traditional political contests. A third method of judicial selection, devised in an attempt to de-emphasize partisan considerations (and to give more power to the organized bar) while maintaining some measure of popular control over the selection of judges, has grown in popularity. Called the Missouri Plan, it involves the creation of a nominating commission that screens judicial candidates and submits to the appointing authority a limited number of names of persons considered qualified. The appointing authority must select from the list submitted. The person chosen as judge then assumes office for a limited time and, after the conclusion of this probationary period, stands for “election” for a much longer term. The judge does not run against any other candidate; rather, he is judged only against his own record. The ballot, called a retention ballot, often simply reads “Shall Judge X be retained?” In practice, few judges are removed from office through retention ballots. These different selection systems strike different balances between the principles of democratic accountability and judicial independence.

      In common-law countries, a person does not necessarily enter the judiciary at a low level; he may be appointed or elected to the country's highest court or to one of its intermediate courts without any prior judicial experience. Indeed, even courtroom experience is not a prerequisite for a judgeship in the United States. There is also no regular pattern of promotion, and judges are not assured of a long tenure with ultimate retirement on a pension. In some courts, life tenure is provided, sometimes subject to mandatory retirement at a fixed age. In others, tenure is limited to a stated term of years. At the conclusion of his term, if not mandatorily retired earlier, the judge must be reelected or reappointed if he is to continue.

      While in office, common-law judges enjoy greater power and prestige and more independence than their civil-law counterparts. A common-law judge, who occupies a position to which most members of the legal profession aspire, is not subject to outside supervision and inspection by any council of judges or by a minister of justice; nor is he liable to be transferred by such an official from court to court or from place to place. The only administrative control over common-law judges is exercised by judicial colleagues, whose powers of management are generally slight, being limited to matters such as requiring periodic reports of pending cases and arranging for temporary (and usually consensual) transfers of judges between courts when factors such as illness or congested calendars require them. Only judges who misbehave very badly (e.g., by abusing their office) are in danger of disciplinary sanctions, and then usually only by way of criminal prosecution for the alleged misdeeds or by legislative impeachment and trial, resulting in removal from office—a very cumbersome, slow, ill-defined, inflexible, ineffective, and seldom-used procedure. Some parts of the United States have developed more expeditious methods of judicial discipline, in which senior judges are vested with the power to impose sanctions on erring colleagues ranging from reprimand to removal from office. They are also vested with the power to retire judges who have become physically or mentally unfit to discharge their duties.

      The ultimate act of discipline is impeachment. In the United States, federal judges may be removed from office based upon an impeachment by the House of Representatives and a conviction by the Senate. Very few judges have been either impeached or convicted (one associate justice of the Supreme Court, Samuel Chase (Chase, Samuel), was impeached but was not convicted). In other parts of the world, including Latin America, impeachment has been institutionalized. In Argentina, for example, a magistrate council investigates judicial misconduct and may remove judges from office.

      Except at the very highest appellate level, common-law judges are no less subject than their civil-law counterparts to appellate reversals of their judgments. But appellate review cannot fairly be regarded as discipline. It is designed to protect the rights of litigants; to clarify, expound, and develop the law; and to help and guide lower-court judges, not to reprimand them.

Other judicial officials
      In most countries, there are other officials who serve the court. Court clerks, who are responsible for case records and documents, and bailiffs, who are in charge of keeping order, are found in most judicial systems. Also prevalent are officers who prosecute cases in the government's name: states attorneys and district attorneys in the United States, procurators-general in the former Soviet Union, and procureurs généraux in France.

      Probation officers are found in many countries, including the United States and Japan. Notaries (notary) in France and Italy have greater powers than their counterparts in the United States. In fact, they perform many services carried out by lawyers in the common-law system, such as drafting and verifying wills and contracts and preparing petitions for presentation in court.

      Certain countries have officials who are indigenous to their country or legal system. France, for example, has a juge d'instruction, who is responsible for the preliminary investigative proceedings prior to a criminal trial.

Global trends in judicial power
      Many who study courts from an international perspective believe that two important trends have affected the relationship between courts and the larger political systems in which they are embedded. First, beginning in the late 20th century, many national courts became more powerful, largely because political disputes and issues that had been traditionally contested in the political arena were increasingly contested in courtrooms—a trend referred to as the “politicization of the judiciary.” This trend emerged as the legal side of various political issues became increasingly apparent and salient and as societies themselves became more litigious. Specifically, courts historically have adopted a “hands-off” doctrine to fundamentally political questions, arguing that they are best resolved by the legislative and executive branches of government. However, many political questions involve legal issues (e.g., civil rights), and those legal issues were used to transform political questions into legitimate justiciable disputes. With a larger population of lawyers and judges sensitive to such claims, courts have become more receptive to controversial matters of social policy. In the United States, for example, the quintessential political issue of how the geographic boundaries of constituencies for legislative bodies are to be drawn (see gerrymandering) has been the subject of intense and widespread litigation as courts have validated or invalidated various districting plans. Another political issue that is now contested in many courts of the world is the right to abortion. Such issues are no longer considered “political questions” that must be left to the political process to resolve. Because they typically involve individual rights and presumably are capable of settlement by legal means, legal answers to precise legal questions are brought before the courts.

      Other manifestations of a politicized judiciary can be found in the appointment process and the increasingly large role of courts as policy-making institutions. In the United States the data on the ideological proximity of judges to their appointers is compelling. While not carbon copies of their appointing president, judges and justices overwhelmingly share the president's partisan identity, ideological intensity, and policy interests. In Russia courts have been dissolved and new ones installed according to sudden changes in process and authority. With regard to policy making, courts have become increasingly active agents of social, political, and legal change. Although courts cannot themselves “make law,” they can and do make policy by striking down laws, establishing procedures for complying with the law, and imposing a sense of what can and cannot lawfully be done by citizens and political officials.

      A second trend involves what has been termed the “judicialization of politics,” or the infusion of legal principles, procedures, and processes into areas of political or administrative policy making heretofore characterized by political, not legal, means of decision making. For example, people in the United States and the United Kingdom now have a legally recognized right to be treated fairly by government-run universities and state social-welfare agencies. Indigenous populations in several countries have also sought and secured legal protection on the basis of their group-based identity. This has come in the form of rulings and laws designed to protect tribal autonomy and religious practices and, as with the Maori of New Zealand, has compelled the federal government in general to respect tribal identities, cultural practices, property, and limited sovereignty. This due process revolution reflects, in part, the worldwide “rights explosion,” in which members of nearly every social group have come to view themselves as bearers of rights that cannot be unreasonably encroached upon or limited by the state. Because people are no longer willing to tolerate abuses of their rights, they have often turned to courts to seek a remedy and thereby have enhanced the power of the courts in many countries.

      In many countries, the courts are the only political institution that is accessible to those with less power—otherwise they would pursue their interests in arenas of majoritarian politics, such as parliaments. Courts are therefore often associated with the “minority rights” component of the democratic equation (majority rule, with respect for minority rights). Accordingly, great faith has been placed in courts to protect individual citizens from “unenlightened” majorities and “conspiratorial” minorities. This view was particularly apparent in the planning of the courts in the new democracies that emerged in central and eastern Europe after the fall of communism in 1989–90. Those who constructed the democratic constitutions for these countries quite consciously designed judicial institutions with enormous political and legal power but with limited accountability to the ordinary political process. Often modeled on Germany's Federal Constitutional Court (perhaps the most respected national court in Europe), these courts have been instrumental in shaping the political structures and processes of these nascent democracies. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal has been notable for its determined effort to assert its will on the political process, and, throughout the region, courts have attempted to force politicians to play by the constitutional rules (though with varying degrees of success). This trend is not limited to the United States and Europe. Latin American courts, once characterized as “captive courts” because of their absence of genuine autonomy, have begun to exercise their legal and political power, even against other institutions. This was evident in 2000, when the Chilean Supreme Court stripped former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet of legal immunity and opened the door for trials to commence on human rights violations. Additional evidence is found in how organized interests and governmental organizations have begun to view the courts—or to force the courts to serve—as agents of change. While countries that have democratized more recently still lag behind Western democracies in terms of both the usage and the independence of the judiciary, courts globally have become important agents of legal, political, and social change. Because courts are often viewed as the “guardians of democracy,” powerful and independent judiciaries throughout the world are increasingly seen as necessary components of a successful democratic system.

Delmar Karlen James L. Gibson Brian P. Smentkowski Ed.

Additional Reading
An insightful study of the “rights explosion” in the United States, India, Great Britain, and Canada is Charles R. Epp, The Rights Revolution: Lawyers, Activists, and Supreme Courts in Comparative Perspective (1998), which argues that “rights consciousness” has increased in many parts of the world. Herbert Jacob et al., Courts, Law, and Politics in Comparative Perspective (1996), is a collection of essays from some of the most informed observers of courts from a global perspective. A riveting account of the transformation of eastern Germany's legal system as a result of German reunification is Inga Markovits, Imperfect Justice: An East-West German Diary (1995).An analysis of the tensions between the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and democratic theory is Jesse H. Choper, Judicial Review and the National Political Process: A Functional Reconsideration of the Role of the Supreme Court (1980). A controversial and provocative study of the judiciary in the United States is Gerald N. Rosenberg, The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? (1991).James L. Gibson

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • court — / kōrt/ n [Old French, enclosed space, royal entourage, court of justice, from Latin cohort cohors farmyard, armed force, retinue] 1 a: an official assembly for the administration of justice: a unit of the judicial branch of government the… …   Law dictionary

  • court — court, courte (kour, kour t ; usage variable pour la liaison du t ; les uns disent : un kour espace de temps ; les autres : un kour t espace de temps ; au pluriel, même incertitude pour l s ; quelques uns disant : les kour espaces de temps ; plus …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • court — COURT, COURTE. adj. Qui a peu de longueur. Il est opposé à Long. Trop court. Bien court. Fort court. Un peu court. Extrêmement court. Cheveux courts. Queue courte. Cerises à courte queue. Cheval à courte queue. Il a le cou fort court, le cou… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • Court — (k[=o]rt), n. [OF. court, curt, cort, F. cour, LL. cortis, fr. L. cohors, cors, chors, gen. cohortis, cortis, chortis, an inclosure, court, thing inclosed, crowd, throng; co + a root akin to Gr. chorto s inclosure, feeding place, and to E. garden …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Court — 〈[kɔ:t] m. 6; Sp.; Tennis〉 Spielfeld (bei Tennisturnieren); →a. Centrecourt [engl.] * * * Court [kɔ:t ], der; s, s [engl. court, eigtl. = Hof < afrz. court, ↑ Cour] (Tennis) …   Universal-Lexikon

  • court — [kôrt] n. [OFr < VL curtis < L cohors (gen. cohortis), enclosed place: see COHORT] 1. a) an uncovered space wholly or partly surrounded by buildings or walls; courtyard b) a special section or area of a building, as a museum, somewhat like… …   English World dictionary

  • Court — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda Court Escudo …   Wikipedia Español

  • court — [n1] yard, garden of building cloister, close, compass, courtyard, curtilage, enclosure, forum, patio, piazza, plaza, quad, quadrangle, square, street; concepts 509,513 court [n2] ruler’s attendants castle, cortege, entourage, hall, lords and… …   New thesaurus

  • Court — bezeichnet als englischer Begriff den „Hof“ allgemein sowie den „Gerichtshof“ im Besonderen, siehe Gericht den Spielplatz für Ballsportarten wie Tennis und Squash, siehe Court (Sport) den Namen einer Gemeinde im Amtsbezirk Moutier, Kanton Bern,… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • court — court; court·li·ness; court·ling; court·man; court·ship; cross·court; court·ly; Court; …   English syllables

  • court — ► NOUN 1) (also court of law) a body of people before whom judicial cases are heard. 2) the place where such a body meets. 3) a quadrangular area marked out for ball games such as tennis. 4) a quadrangle surrounded by a building or group of… …   English terms dictionary

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