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THE COURTS

THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF LAW - CIVIL AND CRIMINAL. CRIMINAL OBVIOUSLY INVOLVES CRIMES. IN CRIMINAL CASES THE GOVERNMENT, IN THE FORM OF A DISTRICT ATTORNEY OR A FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, PROSECUTES AN INDIVIDUAL FOR A CRIME COMMITTED. 

CIVIL LAW INVOLVES MOSTLY LAWSUITS. THERE ARE TWO MAJOR DIVISIONS OF CIVIL LAW - ACTIONS AT LAW AND EQUITY PROCEEDINGS. ACTIONS AT LAW ARE SUITS BROUGHT FOR RECOVERY OF PROPERTY, DAMAGES FOR PERSONAL INJURY AND FOR BREACH OF CONTRACT. 

EQUITY PROCEEDINGS INVOLVE CASES IN WHICH THE COURTS COMPEL PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONS TO DO SOMETHING OR TO REFRAIN FROM DOING SOMETHING. THIS OFTEN INVOLVES THINGS LIKE RESTRAINING ORDERS AND INJUNCTIONS

THERE ARE ALSO TWO JUDICIAL SYSTEMS, STATE AND FEDERAL. THE STATE COURTS HAVE A VARIETY OF TITLES AND BRANCHES, DEPENDING ON THE STATE, INCLUDING DISTRICT COURTS, CIRCUIT COURTS, SUPERIOR AND EVEN STATE SUPREME COURTS. THERE ARE ALSO THE LOWER LEVEL COURTS OF ORIGINAL JURISDICTION AT THE CITY AND COUNTY LEVELS. THOSE CAN INCLUDE COUNTY COURTS, MAGISTRATE COURTS, AND JUSTICE OF THE PEACE COURTS. THESE USUALLY HANDLE MISDEMEANORS, TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS AND ARRAIGNMENTS

THERE ARE ALSO SPECIAL STATE COURTS, SUCH AS FAMILY COURT OR JUVENILE COURT; SMALL CLAIMS COURT; AND LANDLORD-TENANT COURT. 

THE FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM INCLUDES THE FEDERAL DISTRICT COURTS, THE CIRCUIT COURTS OF APPEALS, BANKRUPTCY COURTS AND THE SUPREME COURT. FEDERAL DISTRICT COURTS ARE LOCATED THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY, USUALLY IN MAJOR CITIES. FOR INSTANCE, THERE IS A FEDERAL COURTHOUSE IN PHILLY. FEDERAL DISTRICT COURTS ARE THE COURTS OR ORIGINAL JURISDICTION FOR FEDERAL CASES. CIRCUIT COURTS OF APPEAL REVIEW APPEALS FROM THE FEDERAL DISTRICT COURTS. AMD FINALLY, THE SUPREME COURT, THE HIGHEST COURT IN THE LAND, TAKES APPEALS ON A DISCRETIONARY BASIS FROM THE CIRCUIT COURTS. 

THE COUNTY COURT REPORTER WOULD COVER STATE AND LOCAL COURTS AND THE DA'S OFFICE. THE FEDERAL COURTHOUSE REPORTER COVERS THE U.S. ATTORNEY, THE FEDERAL MAGISTRATE AND THE FEDERAL COURTS. 

THE FEDERAL COURTS HAVE POWER ONLY OVER THOSE MATTERS ESTABLISHED BY THE CONSTITUTION, WHICH SAYS THEY SHALL HANDLE "CONTROVERSIES TO WHICH THE UNITED STATES SHALL BE A PARTY; CONTROVERSIES BETWEEN TWO OR MORE STATES; BETWEEN A STATE AND A CITIZEN OF ANOTHER STATE; BETWEEN CITIZENS OF DIFFERENT STATES." 

WHAT ARE SOME RECENT EXAMPLES OF HIGH PROFILE FEDERAL CASES? THE MICROSOFT TRIAL WOULD BE ONE EXAMPLE.

YOU SHOULD UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS THAT BOTH CIVIL AND CRIMINAL CASES GO THROUGH IN THE COURT SYSTEM. THE DIAGRAM ON PAGE 505 OUTLINES THE PROCESS FOR FELONIES. TYPICALLY THERE'S THE ARREST, THE ARRAIGNMENT AT WHICH THE PERSON IS FORMALLY CHARGED AND BAIL IS SET, A PRELIMINARY HEARING IN WHICH THE JUDGE DETERMINES WHETHER THERE ARE REASONABLE GROUNDS, OR PROBABLE CAUSE, TO BELIEVE THE ACCUSED COMMITTED THE OFFENSE AND WHETHER THERE IS SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE FOR THE CASE TO BE BOUND OVER TO A GRAND JURY. IF THE JUDGE FEELS THE EVIDENCE IS INSUFFICIENT HE OR SHE CAN DISMISS THE CHARGE. 

CRIMINAL DEFENDANTS CAN BE BROUGHT TO TRIAL IN THREE WAYS, DEPENDING ON THE STATE. IN HALF THE STATES, A GRAND JURY INDICTS. THIS IS A JURY OF CITIZENS, USUALLY 23 PEOPLE, THAT DECIDES WHETHER THE EVIDENCE IS SUFFICIENT FOR A TRIAL TO BE HELD ON THE CHARGES BROUGHT. IF 12 OF THE JURORS DECIDE THERE IS SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE, AN INDICTMENT, KNOWN AS A TRUE BILL, IS VOTED FOR. IF THEY DECIDE THERE ISN'T ENOUGH EVIDENCE, DISMISSAL, KNOWN AS A NO BILL, IS VOTED. IN THE GRAND JURY HEARINGS ONLY THE STATE'S EVIDENCE IS PRESENTED TO THE JURORS, NOT THE DEFENDANT'S EVIDENCE. ALSO, GRAND JURY PROCEEDINGS ARE CLOSED TO THE PRESS AND PUBLIC. 

IN 20 STATES, THE PROSECUTOR FILES A CHARGE CALLED AN INFORMATION AND A JUDGE DECIDES AT A PRELIMINARY HEARING AT WHICH WITNESSES TESTIFY WHETHER THERE IS CAUSE FOR A TRIAL. IN A FEW STATES, THE PROSECUTOR FILES AFFIDAVITS TO SUPPORT THE CHARGE AND THE JUDGE DECIDES WHETHER TO MOVE TO TRIAL.

PLEA BARGAINING IS A NECESSITY TO SPEED CASES THROUGH THE BACKLOGGED COURTS. IN LOS ANGELES, FOR INSTANCE, SO-CALLED "THREE STRIKES" LAWS THAT MANDATE LIFE SENTENCES FOR THOSE CONVICTED OF A THIRD FELONY HAVE SWAMPED COURTS AND JAILS. EVEN SERIOUS CRIMES ARE PLEA BARGAINED. IN NEW YORK CITY, THREE-FOURTHS OF ALL MURDER ARRESTS ARE PLEA BARGAINED, AND IN PHILADELPHIA, THREE-FIFTHS ARE PLEA BARGAINED. IN FACT, THE COURT BACKLOG IN PHILLY WAS CUT FROM 20,000 TO 13,000 CASES THROUGH PLEA BARGAINING.

BUT PLEA BARGAINING HAS MANY CRITICS WHO SAY THAT IT SHORTENS SENTENCES AND ALLOWS CRIMINALS TO GET OUT OF PRISON TOO EARLY. SOME FELONS GET PLEA BARGAIN DEALS IN EXCHANGE FOR RATTING OUT OTHER CRIMINALS, AS IN THE PHILLY CASE OF RICKIE WILLIAMS.

IN FACT, THE PHILLY DAILY NEWS STORY IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF THE KIND OF ENTERPRISE REPORTING THAT COURT REPORTERS ARE INCREASINGLY BEING ASKED TO DO. ONE AREA THAT'S OFTEN EXAMINED IS SENTENCING AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO RACE. DATA SHOW THAT 48 PERCENT OF ALL PRISON INMATES ARE BLACK. THE SENTENCING PROJECT REPORTS THAT ON ANY GIVEN DAY, ONE IN FOUR BLACK MEN AGES 20 TO 29 IS IN PRISON OR ON PROBATION OR PAROLE. THE QUESTION BECOMES, DOES THIS MEAN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IS BIASED?

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IS ALSO AN AREA INCREASINGLY EXPLORED BY ENTERPRISE REPORTING. AGAIN, RACE COMES INTO PLAY. ALTHOUGH BLACKS MAKE UP ABOUT 12 PERCENT OF THE POPULATION, THEY CONSTITUTE 42 PERCENT OF THOSE SENTENCED TO DEATH. ONE RECENT STUDY FOUND THAT PEOPLE CONVICTED OF KILLING WHITES WERE 11 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO BE GIVEN THE DEATH PENALTY THAN WERE THOSE CONVICTED OF KILLING BLACKS.

THE INCREASING NUMBER OF PRISONER EXECUTIONS HAS LED JOURNALISTS AND OTHERS TO TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE AGAINST DEATH ROW INMATES. DOZENS OF DEATH ROW INMATES HAVE BEEN FREED IN RECENT YEARS WHEN INVESTIGATIONS REVEALED THAT THE EVIDENCE THAT WAS USED TO CONVICT THEM DIDN'T STAND UP. A GROUP OF NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY JOURNALISM STUDENTS EVEN DID INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING THAT EXAMINED THE EVIDENCE AGAINST INMATE ANTHONY PORTER. THEIR WORK, WHICH FOUND THAT THE EVIDENCE AGAINST PORTER WAS SLIPSHOD AT BEST, LED TO PORTER BEING FREED.

GOOD SITES:
COURTS.NET USCOURTS.GOV FINDLAW.COM
GLOSSARY OF LEGAL TERMS LAWYERS.COM FRONTLINE'S "REAL JUSTICE"