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Legal Grind® presents

The Little Law Book

by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, J.D
Illustrations by Daphne San Jose

CHAPTER 05

Jursdiction

Facts

Facts include the following types of issues:

  • Did the ∆ drive through a red light?
  • Was he under the influence of alcohol at the time?
  • Did the ∆ intend to harm the victim?
  • What did the parties mean in their CONTRACT?
Law

Law includes the following types of issues:

  • What does driving under the influence signify legally?
  • If the Δ intended to harm the Π, does that mean he is guilty?
  • Did the police use illegal procedures?

Once a verdict or decision is reached at the trial court, the parties may, in some cases, appeal to an appellate court.

Appellate jurisdiction

Appellate jurisdiction involves the court's power to review questions of law as they occurred at the trial court. If there were errors more than de minimis (insignificant), the verdict may be reversed, a new trial ordered, et cetera.

The defendant (∆) is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. It's the government's burden to prove him guilty. The ∆ has to neither prove nor disprove anything.

In civil suits the plaintiff (Π) has generally the first burden to present a prima facie case, which includes enough evidence that could prevail if not rebutted by the ∆.

What does a side need to prove its case to win? As you may have guessed by now - it depends on the case!

Beyond ALL doubt is not required in any trial.

Standard of proof

In order to prevail (win) in court, a party has to prove its case. PROOF IS THE NAME OF THE GAME - THE ONLY GAME IN COURT.

The party that brings the case to court usually has the burden of proof at first. In criminal cases this burden is always on the government. The defendant (Δ) is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. It’s the government's burden to prove him guilty. The Δ has to neither prove nor disprove anything.

In civil suits the plaintiff (Π) has generally the first burden to present a prima facie case, which includes enough evidence that could prevail if not rebutted by the Δ.

What does a side need to prove its case to win? As you may have guessed by now - it depends on the case!

Beyond ALL doubt is not required in any trial.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is the degree to which the prosecution/government must prove its case to get a guilty verdict in a criminal case. The jury or judge (the trier of facts) must be fully satisfied with the evidence.

In a jury trial there must be a unanimous verdict; all jurors must vote to convict.

Motion to dismiss may be granted by a judge when he rules (decides) that the Π or prosecution has failed to meet its burden of presenting a prima facie case. This means that, even if everything it sought to prove is proven, it would still lose. The facts may not be determinative. The law is against the Π or prosecution.

By a preponderance of the evidence is the degree to which either party must prove its case to win a civil suit. It means that one side's evidence has greater weight than the other does. A unanimous jury vote is generally not required. Each jurisdiction has its own standards for a necessary majority.

Note: There are cases when the government cannot convict a Δ but a Π in the civil suit on the same matter may win - because of the lower civil standard. Remember the OJ Simpson trials.

In a criminal case, remember that the Δ may have an affirmative defense. This shifts the burden to the Δ to prove that even if he committed a criminal act, he had a valid defense, a reason, a "license, to do the act.”

Beyond a reasonable doubt

Beyond a reasonable doubt is the degree to which the prosecution government must prove its case to get a guilty verdict in a criminal case. The jury or judge (the trier of facts) must be fully satisfied with the evidence. In a jury trial there must be a unanimous verdict; all jurors must vote to convict.

Motion to dismiss may be granted by a judge when he rules (decides) that the Π or prosecution has failed to meet its burden of presenting a prima facie case. This means that, even if everything it sought to prove is proven, it would still lose. The facts may not be determinative. The law is against the Π or prosecution.

By a preponderance of the evidence is the degree to which either party must prove its case to win a civil suit. It means jurisdiction has its own standards for a necessary majority.

Note: There are cases when the government cannot convict a ∆ but a Π in the civil suit on the same matter may win - because of the lower civil standard. Remember the OJ Simpson trials.

In a criminal case, remember that the ∆ may have an affirmative defense. This shifts the burden to the ∆ to prove that even if he committed a criminal act, he had a valid defense, a reason, a ìlicense, to do the act.î

Time and its legal consequences

Time is money. You canít sit on your rights forever. He who hesitates is lost. These truisms are also very important legal concepts.

Sometimes the mere passages of time will win-or-lose your case!

Two important legal concepts are based on time: The statute of limitations and retroactivity.

Statute of limitations

This time concept marches forward into the future from an event. It is a time limit on how long a person has for bringing a lawsuit or being prosecuted for a crime. Purpose: to eliminate ìstaleî cases. A plaintiff (Π) shouldnít be rewarded for laziness or procrastination and ìsitting on his rights.î A defendant (∆) shouldnít have to worry forever about being sued or prosecuted. Thus, if the time has passed, a Π can lose before he ever begins his case! And, of course, a ∆ can use the statute of limitations defense to move for a dismissal of the case. A motion to dismiss asks the court to, throw the Πís case out because it is too late; it is time barred.

Statute of Limitations drawing

Specific statutes of limitations exist in various areas of the law. Each state/case/situation is different and must be checked carefully in current statutes.

Tolling:

The start of the time period; the event that triggers the beginning of counting days/weeks/months/ years for the specific statute of limitations.

Note: If the Π is a minor, the time does not begin to toll until he reaches the age of majority in the state in which he lives. Of course, if a guardian ad litem brings a lawsuit on his behalf, that may be done before he reaches the age of majority. Examples of specific statutes of limitations include:

Torts:

Statutes of limitations generally range from one to six years. The interesting and unsettled issue is whether the starting time (beginning of tolling) is the time of injury or the time Π first becomes aware of the injury (which could be far later). For example, in a products liability case, does the time begin to toll from the time the product was sold, the Π used it first, or when a latent disease or condition (caused, Π believes, by the product) was first discovered?

You can be sure that lawyers, judges, Πís, and ∆ís (often large companies) have debated these issues long and hard.

Very little time is given for tort claims due to government negligence (where the government is the ∆). For example, a mail truck hits you. These have a very short statute of limitations period. Itís a matter of weeks or months!

Why is this so? Because, historically, the government had immunity from being sued. It did not permit itself to be sued. This immunity is being eroded by new laws and court decisions, but the government still sets a very short period of time in which it can be sued.

Contracts:

Varies from state to state. Time generally starts tolling when the K is executed.

Criminal cases:

Varies from state to state, crime to crime. There are no statute of limitations for homicides (murders, manslaughter, et cetera). Thatís why you read of cases prosecuted many, many years after the homicide!

Federal (not state) law, according to the Constitution governs the following areas. Thus these periods are definite and uniform throughout the U.S.

Patents:

Six years to sue for unauthorized use (infringement) of your patent.

Copyright:

Three years to sue for copyright infringement.

Federal income tax:

Three years for the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to come after you for more taxes after the filing date or after you filed if you filed late. Thus, if you donít file your tax return, the time does not begin to toll, and the IRS can come after you without any statute of limitations! There are longer statutes of limitations for specific tax matters, omissions, et cetera. You have to check the IRC (Internal Revenue Code). Remember though, if there is fraud, no statute of limitation applies. The government's time to find you is limitless.

Finally, here is a concept from equity:

Laches:

While no specific laws are involved, this concept prevents stale claims. Thus, even if there is no specific statute of limitations, one could use the laches defense to prevent the suit from going forward. This concept is used especially in property cases, where itís called the ìDoctrine of Stale Demands.î So, in law as in the kitchen, donít let things get stale!

Retroactivity:

Retroactivity, unlike statute of limitations, goes backward in time. Yes, a legal time machine!

In civil cases this concept is properly called ìretrospectivelyî. In criminal cases itís ex post facto laws. These are banned in our Constitution. In both cases it concerns a law that relates to events or decisions in the past. In doing that, it gives the earlier event a different legal effect than it had at the time it occurred.

For example, let's say a new state law requires couples applying for marriage licenses to take a blood test for HIV/AIDS. Such a law probably may not be appliepectively (retroactively) to married couples, as they have no expectation of such a requirement when they applied for license and have a vested interest in not taking it now and jeopardizing their valid license. Generally, retroactive/retrospective laws are unconstitutional if they interfe e with rights, which were vested under earlier laws. That would be a ìtaki gî without due process. Ex po facto laws are unconstitutional. (See the Constitution, Article 1, Section 9.) Ex post facto means ìafe of theter the fact.î Such a law would make an act criminal (or more severe) that was innocent (or less severe) when it occurred earlier.

Why are these laws unconstitutional (not allowed)? Simply stated, because they would be unfair. People can be prosecuted only for laws that are knowable to them. The government cannot change the rules in midstream and hold people who relied on earlier laws responsible for later ones. A ∆ must be tried under the laws which existed when the crime was committed.

However, if a later law gives new or different rights, it may be given full retroactive effect.

Nunc pro tunc is another concept that goes backward in time. It means ìnow for then.î Itís a way to correct the record or a document in the past to make it be as it was supposed to be . . . and not as it actually was. Confusing? For example, if your marriage license was defective for some reason, you can by a nunc pro tunc order, alter the license to reflect the way it was supposed to be. No, a defect in the license is not a quick and easy way to get a divorce or annulment!

Jurisdiction

Being in the right place (jurisdiction) at the right time (statute of limitations) with the right stuff. (A good cause of action. In plain English, a good case!)

When your lawyer tells you heís thinking about which court to use, you know itís a question of jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction is one of the most basic and important terms of American law. It is also VERY complex! This summary will introduce you to some of the main concepts. The way they work themselves out, however, is far beyond the scope of this book.

Jurisdiction is the COURTís authority to hear and decide a case. Without it you may be in the wrong place. You lose before you begin: 'Case dismissed for lack of JURISDICTION.'

Federal jurisdiction

Generally, a federal court has jurisdiction if there is a federal question, or diversity of citizenship of parties from different states with an amount in damages over fifty thousand dollars. Letís see what these terms mean.

If the plaintiff (Π) is in State A and tries to sue a defendant (∆) in State B for less than $50,000, he probably canít get Federal JURISDICTION

of the ∆. He does not have Federal in personam jurisdiction. (Personam = person.)

There is no way he can summons him, notify him of the suit, compel him to appear, et cetera.

If Π is in State A and trying to sue ∆ in State B for more than $50,000, he can get diversity jurisdiction over the ∆ and bring him to federal court. This jurisdiction is based on a jurisdictional amount. $50,000 brings you into federal court.

State jurisdiction

If Π is in State A and trying to sue ∆ who lives (is domiciled) in State B, but who has property in State A, he may be able to gain jurisdiction over ∆ís property. This is called in rem jurisdiction. (Rem = thing.)

If Π is in State A and trying to sue ∆, who is in State B, he may be able to get jurisdiction through the long-arm statutes. These statutes are used often against national corporations as ∆ís if they do business in a state, even if they are not headquartered there. This form of jurisdiction is statutory. (That is, itís based on a law, a long-arm statute.)

Federal jurisdiction

Subject matter:

In general, federal courts deal with federal matters, as set out in the Constitution and later federal laws. These are called federal questions: Federal questions found in the Constitution include:

  • patents and trademarks and copyright
  • naturalization
  • admiralty
  • constitutional issues
  • Indian treaties
  • international issues, trade, et cetera
  • a citizenís suit against the federal government
  • cases with diversity jurisdiction

If an U.S. mail truck hits you, youíre in federal court.

And other federal questions developed since the days of the Constitution:

  • federal taxes
  • antitrust
  • crimes across state borders, such as kidnapping
  • and many more...

There are special courts for many of these cases, such as Tax Court, Bank- ruptcy Court, Admiralty Court, Patent Court, to name just a few. The general jurisdiction courts are the District Courts. You must be in the right one!

State jurisdiction

State courts have jurisdiction over everything else!

  • marriage and divorce
  • most crimes
  • most contracts
  • most torts
  • most property cases
  • most wills and trusts cases

If you get hit by any other truck, youíre probably in state court, unless there is diversity jurisdiction. It gets complex!

Within both the federal and state court systems there are different courts for different cases. You have to be in the right one to be heard.

For example, marriage and divorce situations are probably held in Family or Probate Court. (Different names in different states.) Torts and contract cases are probably held in courts of general jurisdiction, often called District Courts, Superior Courts, or other names. Juvenile Courts deal with children, Housing Courts with houses, landlord and tenant issues, and apartments, Traffic Courts with minor traffic violations and fines, et cetera. Each state has its own system.

Concurrent jurisdiction

Sometimes someone can bring an action in either state or federal court, if there are concurrent laws - for example, in the labor/employment law area.

This is called concurrent jurisdiction. You choose the court where you think you have the strongest case!

Then, to really get complicated, there is also:

  • ancillary jurisdiction
  • pendent jurisdiction
  • original jurisdiction
  • appellate jurisdiction, among others

Ancillary jurisdiction allows you to go to federal court with an entire complex case if that court has jurisdiction over any part of the action (even if not over all of it). This form of jurisdiction is designed to promote judicial efficiency.

Pendent jurisdiction allows you to go to federal court if there is both a federal and state question dealing with the same event.

Original jurisdiction lies in the TRIAL COURTS. These are the first courts to which you go, where the cases are tried. The facts are decided and the law is applied.


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