Court Procedure

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The Courts of the United States, at both the state and federal level, with the exception of the State Courts of Louisiana and the Commonwealth Courts of Puerto Rico, have procedural rules substantially derived (with numerous reforms) from English procedure for courts in the 18th century. These courts are called part of the Common Law system. Indeed, many ideosyncracies of English procedure which have long since been removed from English practice (such as the tradition of having jury trials for ordinary civil caes), remain relevant in U.S. Courts.

The main dividing line in procedure is between Civil Procedure and Criminal Procedure. Criminal procedure applies to cases brought by government prosecutors generally seeking imprisonment, fines and probation. Civil procedure applies to all other cases. In both types of cases Appellate Procedure is fairly similar -- generally giving great deferrence to factual findings made by lower courts, but considering carefully any legal errors that may have been made in the trial court. Specialized rules often apply to special court proceedings such as Habeas Corpus petitions, administrative cases, evictions, foreclosures, probate cases, and bankruptcy cases.

The federal government and most states delegate ruling making authority to the court system itself, subject to legislative tinkering by statute. Typically, rule changes are proposed in blue ribbon commissions which then suggest them to the relevant Supreme Court which then adopts the rules as binding. Many courts also have their own local rules which apply only in that particular court.

Most, but not all, state court rules are closely modeled on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Criminal rules are also strongly influenced by the federal model, although less slavishly. The United State Constitution imposes significant limits on the nature of criminal procedure, however. For example, the state courts of Louisiana must have criminal jury trials, even though its French Civil Law tradition does not provide for jury trials.

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