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The Basics of Judicial Decisions

Many of our impressions about the American judicial system come from our exposure to television and the movies — from the defense of murder suspects on Perry Mason to the investigations leading to multimillion dollar settlements depicted in Erin Brockovich and Michael Clayton.

Courtroom Drama on the Big and Little Screen


Perry Mason 1957-1966 The Practice 1997-2004
Defenders 1961-1966 Judging Amy 2000-2005
L.A. Law 1986-1994 Boston Legal 2004-2008
Ally McBeal 1997-2002 Law and Order 1990-2010


Adam’s Rib 1949 The Verdict 1982
Twelve Angry Men 1957

Pelican Brief 1993

Witness for the Prosecution 1958

A Few Good Men 1992

Judgment at Nuremberg
Devil’s Advocate 1997
Absence of Malice 1981 Erin Brockovich 2000
Michael Clayton 2007 A Time to Kill 1996

The Similarities

Many procedural points remain the same in a bench or jury trial. For example:

  • The rules of evidence, which dictate what kinds of evidence can be introduced (for example, testimony, records, photos and recordings).
  • Calling witnesses on your behalf.
  • Cross-examining witnesses called by the opposing side.
  • Making or responding to motions to dismiss the case or ban certain evidence.
  • Appealing the verdict.

The burden of proof also remains the same:

  • “Beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal cases.
  • “By a preponderance of the evidence” in civil cases.

But courtroom activity is rarely as dramatic as it is on the screen. Judges are frequently overwhelmed by a packed docket of cases and the pressure is always on to move things along.

Mornings in court are often spent calling one case after another. If settlements aren’t in the air, the case is scheduled for trial.

The question then becomes: What kind of trial?

Let’s say a case involves the complications of construction law. It may be too complicated for a jury, so the plaintiff may be better off with a bench trial where a judge skilled in that area of law hands down the verdict.

On the other hand, if a plaintiff is paralyzed from an automobile accident, he or she might opt for a jury trial.

If you find yourself headed to court, here are the fundamental differences between these two types of judicial processes:

Bench Trial. This is the simpler of the two trials. A judge hears the case and rules on both the facts, the law, objections and motions. The judge or magistrate also decides if the plaintiff has met the burden of proof before rendering a decision. Because the outcome depends on this one person, attorneys pay close attention to a judge’s past record.

Generally, both parties present evidence and may in some cases make an opening statement. Closing arguments are rare. The judge may rule on the spot, but is more likely to take a few hours or even a few weeks before handing down a decision.

Bench trials are the only option in certain cases, including divorces, probate matters and minor offenses such as disorderly conduct.

Jury Trial. This type of trial gets more complicated. The judge decides the law while the jury decides the facts. There are several steps:

1. Jury Selection. Counsel for the plaintiff and defendant choose a jury before the trial starts. Everyone gets to question potential jurors in a process called “voir dire”:

The judge normally asks basic questions, such as whether a potential juror has read about this case in the news. The lawyers get to probe deeper, trying to ascertain feelings and attitudes and hoping to find jurors who may be sympathetic. Each side gets a certain number of challenges to eliminate a potential juror. There are two kinds of challenges:

  • For Cause. This is a challenge based on a specific reason — for example, in a manslaughter trial, a potential juror’s father was killed in a liquor store robbery.
  • Peremptory. This allows an attorney to eliminate a potential juror without giving a reason.

2. The Case. After a jury is sworn in, both sides present their cases. The judge then “charges” the jury, meaning they are instructed how to apply the law to the evidence.

3. Deliberations. The jury then weighs the evidence, reviews the law, and comes up with a verdict. Whether a verdict must be unanimous or by a majority of jurors depends on the type of case involved, and sometimes on which state the matter is heard in.

What really matters: Regardless of the kind of trial you may be involved in, nothing helps more than a good case, competent counsel, and plenty of preparation.