Term Paper: Court System Understanding

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Court System

Understanding the court system in the United States, or courts and court systems in general for that matter, is a far more complex task than might be perceived at first glance. Courts are often thought of by the general public, incorrectly according to many if not most scholars on the subject, as simple bodies that determine one party in the court to be correct in their interpretation and/or application of the law, and the other party incorrect (Shapiro 1986, pp. 1). This model is applied to many individuals' thinking about criminal and civil cases in the United States and probably abroad as well, leading to gross interpretations regarding the courts and their mechanism of operation. Other theories and models have been proposed and published as explanations for how the court system works, both specifically in the United States and generally in cultures around the world. This paper will examine three such theories, highlighting similarities and differences in the authors' approaches to an explanation for court behaviors and functions.

Martin Shapiro takes one of the broader perspectives in his book Courts: A Comparative and Political Analysis, attempting to explain the fundamental nature of courts and their development throughout human history. Charles Smith takes a more narrow view of the United States' court system and its hierarchical nature, revealing similar political considerations to those proposed by Shapiro. In an even more narrowed focus, Charles Smith pairs with Oleg Smirnov in a political examination of the Supreme Court itself, examining its workings and proclivities as independent from the larger court system.

Theoretical Overviews

Shapiro, through his examination of court systems and court-like activities in a variety of historical an contemporary cultures, asserts that courts are seen most simply as a means of conflict resolution through appeal to a third party. This requires the consent of the two parties to the conflict in terms of selecting the third party and the norms by which a judgment will be rendered, thus making each party to the conflict also a party in selecting the methods and means of judgment and making the judgment more binding through this process of mutual selection. As societies grew (or grow) more complex, Shapiro continues, laws and specifically designated public officials replaced consent, leading to fundamental instabilities in the modern courts that require meditative decisions in order to retain balance.

In his article "The U.S. Supreme Court as Agent: Rethinking Court Hierarchy," Charles Smith argues that viewing the Supreme Court as the principle actor of the federal court system and the lower courts as its agents is actually backwards. He takes the view that courts are indeed responsive, but that this responsiveness works from the bottom up, with the decisions of lower courts rarely being reviewed, let alone reconsidered and overturned. The power that the Supreme Court has to review and overturn is automatically considered by the lower courts, with no decision being rendered with the expectation that it will be reviewed, rendering the review process largely moot for the vast majority of cases. The cases are essentially "pre-reviewed" based on the perception of the Supreme Court's preferences and prior judicial interpretation, which Smith suggests is not the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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