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The objectives of this unit are:


to develop skills in:

to teach and practise these language items:







A. The US Court System

Working out the meaning of new words

Listening to peers



Legal vocabulary

Reading for detail

The Present Perfect

Group discussion of a case study

Uncountable nouns (evidence, information, advice, etc.)

B. The Two Separate Court Systems

Discussing various language items

Listening for specific information

Taking notes


C. How Does a Case Reach the Supreme Court?


Listening to peers

Writing a paragraph on the US court system

Reading for gist

Legal terminology


Views of a Justice

Discussing various language items

Listening to check predictions


Legal terminology

Unit 5


Section A

The US Court System

A.1 Below you have a presentation of the court structure in the US. Unfortunately, it has not been divided into sections and there are no sub-headings. Read the text and, in pairs, divide it into sections and suggest a relevant heading for each of them. There may be more than one paragraph in each section.

Compare your solutions with the pairs next to you. Be prepared to provide arguments in support of your solutions.

Court Structure in the US


Issues of crime and justice have always held Americans’ attention. Americans are accustomed to bringing their claims for justice to the courts. There are few countries where so many people treat the law as part of their everyday lives. Local, state, and federal courts handle approximately 12 million cases a year. The sheer number of Americans employed in the legal profession is overwhelming: there is one lawyer for every 440


Americans, whereas in Japan there is one lawyer for every 10,000 people.

Americans’ claims for justice rest on the provisions of the US Constitution. Most of the rights and freedoms that Americans enjoy are guaranteed in the first ten ammendments or “Bill of Rights” of the Constitution.

The Constitution, written in 1787, established a separate judicial branch of government which operates independently alongside the executive and legislative branches. Within the judicial branch, authority is di-


vided between state and federal (national) courts. At the head of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court, the final interpreter of the Constitution, which consists of nine justices and has jurisdiction over all other courts in the nation.

The Constitution recognizes that the states have certain rights and authorities beyond the power of the federal government. States have the power to establish their own systems of criminal and civil laws, with the result


that each state has its own laws, prisons, police forces and state courts.

The separate system of federal courts, which operate alongside the state courts, handles cases which arise under the US Constitution or under any law or treaty, as well as any controversy to which the federal govern- ment is itself a party. Federal courts also hear disputes involving governments or citizens of different states.

All federal judges are appointed for life. A case which falls within federal jurisdiction is heard before a


federal district judge. An appeal may be made to the Circuit Court of Appeals and, possibly, in the last resort, to the highest court in the land: the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court hears cases in which someone claims that a lower court ruling is unjust or in which someone claims that Constitutional law has been violated. Its decisions are final and become legally binding. Not all Americans are satisfied with all Supreme Court decisions. Many Americans believe that the court too


often “takes the side of the criminals” in declaring the proceedings invalid because an accused person’s rights have been violated. Others argue, however, that protecting the innocent is the real intent of these rulings, and that it is better to have a few criminals go free than to have one innocent person be jailed. Although the Supreme Court does not have the power to make laws, it does have the power to examine actions of the legislative, executive and administrative institutions of the government and decide whether they are


constitutional. It is in this function that the Supreme Court has the potential to influence decisively the political, social, and economic life of the country by giving new protection and freedom to the minorities, for example, or by nullifying certain laws of the Congress, or even declaring actions of American presidents unconstitutional.

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Presidents have often criticised the Supreme Court, although the criticism comes more frequently today from bar


associations, law schools and court observers in the press. The two judicial systems, federal and state, form layers of courts that check each other and are checked in turn by the law profession and the law schools that study the decisions and create an informed opinion. Congress also reviews the laws to be enforced and can change the laws and the number of Supreme Court judges. The president nominates the Supreme Court appointee, while the Senate examines to determine whether he or she is qualified. Similarly the governors, the state legislatures, and the people select the state judges. Once


approved, a justice remains on the Supreme Court for life. The Supreme Court justices have no obligation to follow the political policies of the president or Congress. Their sole obligation is to uphold the laws of the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court, by choosing the cases it wishes to review, sets the tone of the judicial system.

Despite official statements to the contrary, politics always play a role in a president’s selection of a Supreme Court justice. On average, a president can expect to appoint two new Supreme Court justices during one term of office.


Presidents are likely to appoint justices whose views are similar to their own, with the hope that they can extend some of their power through the judicial branch. For example, President Reagan’s appointments to the Supreme Court were judges with a decidedly conservative view of constitutional law. One should remember that the appropriate level of political awareness is difficult for the Court to achieve. Judges must be politically sensitive but not too advanced or too reactionary – a fine line to straddle.


The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices, and the responsibility and power of these people are extraordinary. Supreme Court decisions can affect the lives of all Americans and change society significantly. In the past, Supreme Court rulings have halted actions by American presidents, have declared unconstitutional, and therefore void, laws passed by the Congress, have freed people from prison and have given new protection and freedom to black Americans and other minorities.


There are many federal courts in the system which has the Supreme Court as its head. In addition, each state within the US has established a system of courts, including a state supreme court, to deal with civil, criminal and appellate proceedings. There are also county and city courts. There are separate military courts for members of the armed forces and other specialized courts to handle matters ranging from tax questions to immigration violations.

In the US, a person accused of a crime is considered to be innocent until he or she is proven guilty. The Constitution


requires that any accused person must have every opportunity to demonstrate his or her innocence in a speedy and public trial, and to be judged innocent or guilty on the basis of evidence presented to a group of unbiased citizens, called a jury. A person who has been judged guilty must still be treated justly and fairly, as prescribed by law. A person treated unjustly or cheated by another or by a government official must have a place where he or she can win justice. That place, to an American, is a court.


There are two types of courts in the US: trial and appeals. Trial courts listen to testimony, consider evidence, and decide the facts in disputed situations. In any trial there are two parties to each case. In a civil trial, the party initiating the legal action is called the plaintiff. In a criminal trial, the government (state or federal) initiates the case and serves as the prosecutor. In both civil and criminal trials, the party responding to the plaintiff or prosecution, as the case may be, is called the defendant. Once a trial court has made a decision, the losing party may be able to appeal the decision to an


appellate, or appeals, court.

In an appeals court, one party presents arguments asking the court to change the decision of the trial court. The other party presents arguments supporting the decision of the trial court. There are no juries or witnesses, and no evidence is presented. Only lawyers appear before the judges to make legal arguments.

Not everyone who loses a trial can appeal. Usually, an appeal is possible only when there is a claim that the trial court


has committed an error of law. An error of law occurs when the judge makes a mistake as to the laws applicable in the case.

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Language Focus

Work in groups of four. Try to explain the meaning of the words and phrases in the box below by referring to the reading text. Even if you are not familiar with the terminology in the box, the context will surely help you to guess the meaning and make sense of the paragraph. The number that follows each word or phrase that needs to be explained indicates the number of the line providing the necessary context for inferring the meaning. Each member of the group should be responsible for reporting to the class at least two of the explanations worked out by the group.

accustomed to (1) to handle cases (16) legally binding (23) term of office (44) speedy trial (60) testimony (65)

appeals/appelate court (70)

sheer number (3) to hear disputes (18) to nullify (32) to halt actions (52) unbiased (61) plaintiff (67)

to rest on smth (6) to fall (19) sole obligation (41) to declare void (52) trial court (65) prosecution (68)

to operate alongside (8, 16) in the last resort (20) a justice (44) appelate proceedings (56) evidence (65) defendant (69)


Language Awareness

Work in pairs to answer the questions on the left. The statements are taken from the reading text.


have often criticised the

What tense is the verb in this statement? How does it differ in meaning from

Presidents often criticised Presidents often criticise ?

Supreme Court, although the criticism comes more frequently today from bar associations, law schools and court observers in the press.


An appeal is possible only when there is a claim that the trial court has committed

Why is the Present Perfect used here?

What meaning does this tense convey?

an error of law.

In an appeals court, one party presents arguments asking the court to change the decision of the trial court. There are no juries or witnesses, and no evidence is presented.

Can you use this noun also in the plural form? What is its Romanian equivalent?

Only lawyers appear before the judges to make legal arguments.

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grammar box


Unlike their Romanian equivalents, English words like evidence, information, advice are uncountable nouns. Here are their main features:

they have no plural and are only used with the verb in the singular e.g. The information he gave me was very useful.

they cannot be preceded by the indefinite article a(n); instead, we use some as a quantifier e.g. Can you give me some advice?

they can be made countable, by using a piece of e.g. That was an important piece of evidence.

Other nouns which behave in the same way are news, luggage, equipment, furniture.

NOTE: As you know, the word money is uncountable in English, and is therefore used with the verb in the singular.

However, it also has the plural (countable) form moneys/monies. This is a formal use, as well as a legal term, referring to several separate sums of money that form part of a larger amount received or spent. e.g. The project received public monies/ community moneys. Have the moneys in this year’s budget been allocated?

A.4 Grammar Practice Decide which of the nouns used in the sentences below are preceded by a(n) and which by some:

1. We took

2. He’s got

3. Can I offer you

4. There was

heavy luggage /

strange furniture /

suggestion /

interesting news /

announcement on the radio this morning.

heavy suitcase on the trip. strange bed in his room. advice? interesting information /


5. They’ve installed laboratory.

very modern machine /

very modern equipment in the

6. You’ll need

accommodation /

room for the night.

7. Let’s put on

music /


8. There was

9. He’s doing

terrible thunderstorm /

terrible weather last night.

good job /

good work for the company.

Which of the nouns above can also be used with a piece of


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Unit 5: THE STRUCTURE OF THE COURTS TimeTimeTimeTimeTime forforforforfor fun!fun!fun!fun!fun! Prosecutor: Doctor, you have


TimeTimeTimeTimeTime forforforforfor fun!fun!fun!fun!fun!

Prosecutor: Doctor, you have been summoned to give evidence concerning the sus- picious death of your former colleague. I understand it was you who examined the body of the deceased. Witness: That’s right. Prosecutor: Now please tell the court: how many autopsies have you performed on dead bodies? Witness: !?!

A.5 Case Study

Work in groups of four. Imagine you are American lawyers. Consider Bob Carsten’s case described below and then advise him as to the action you recommend. Make sure you justify the recommended action and point out the error of law you can build an argument on. What court has jurisdiction of such a case?

One of the group members will present to the class the recommendation that was found acceptable by all the group members. Bob Carsten left the key in his 1999 silver mini van and went about his business. When he came back two hours later, he got into someone else’s silver mini van by mistake. This car also had the key in it. Carsten, who did not realize it was a different car, started it and went his way. A few hours later he was arrested for auto theft.

At the trial, the judge instructed the jury that, in order to find Carsten guilty of auto theft, they only had to decide whether he was driving a car that was not his when he was caught by the police. As a result, the jury found Bob Carsten guilty.

Section B

The Two Separate Court Systems

B.1 You will hear an American lawyer providing basic information on the court structure in the US. Listen carefully and list all the types of courts he mentions. Compare your list with a partner. You may need to listen to the tape again in order to check your lists.


Language Focus

The statements below are part of the taped presentation on the US court systems. Listen to the tape again and fill in the missing words or phrases. Read the incomplete statements below before listening to the tape.

1. As you may expect, they also hear cases involving parties from different states when

is more than $ 10,000. the federal courts in structure and

the amount

2. Most state court systems procedure.

3. Probate courts

cases involving wills and

the estates

of persons who die with or without a will.

4. If a decision of the state supreme court involves only state law, it can be appealed

5. The highest court in each state has the final laws and the state constitution.

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on interpretation of state






Section C

How Does a Case Reach the Supreme Court?

C.1 The text below points to the procedure through which a case reaches the Supreme Court. Some words are missing. In pairs try to come up with the missing terminology. The number in brackets indicates how many letters there are in each word.

While there are certain cases that can be brought directly to the Supreme Court,

(6). If either party in a case is court, it has the right to appeal that

decision to a higher court. An appeal is not a new trial but rather a re-

of the evidence, procedures and legal or constitutional

the majority of cases are brought on unhappy with the decision of a



principles on which the decision was based in the



Only a very small number of cases appealed are


by the Supreme

Court. Commonly the Court agrees to hear less than 5% of the cases for which it


a case if it involves a

federal law or a

constitutional principle, an important question of


Generally speaking, the Court will be inclined to



between state and federal law.


Now that you have filled the gaps in the text, go to File 4 then check your solutions with the key.


A Real Life Illustration

In what follows you have the jumbled sequence of the stages through which a real-life case reached the Supreme Court. Work in groups of four and decide on the correct steps through which the case came to be examined by the Supreme Court.


From the Federal District Court to the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education

Appeal to the US Supreme Court

While many cases must be appealed from district court to the court of appeals, this case was appealed directly to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the Brown case. 6 months later: Arguments were heard from lawyers for both sides. However, the Court was divided and unable to arrive at a decision.


“My rights have been violated”

An eight-year-old black student named Linda Brown was denied admission to an all-white elementary school in Kansas.


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Second Appeal

A year later, arguments were again heard for both sides. During that time a significant change occurred


on the Court and a new Chief Justice was appointed by President Eisenhower.

The Supreme Court decides

6 months later: By a 9 to 0 vote the Supreme Court overruled the district court’s decision. It stated that segregated schools were unconstitutional because segregation “deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities.” It nullified the “separate but equal education” provision.


Trial in Federal District Court

6 months later: Her father, Oliver Brown, and 12 other black parents sued the city’s Board of Education

in the US District Court. The case was officially titled Brown v. Board of education, Kansas. Brown

lost the case.




Revisiting the US Court System

In pairs write a paragraph about the US court system using as many of the words studied in the previous activity as you can. Use a detachable sheet of paper. Don’t take more than 15 minutes for the activity. Post the paragraphs on the board. Compare them and choose the piece of writing you like best.

Section D

Views of a Justice


An Interview with a Supreme Court Justice

You will listen to an interview which was conducted with Justice Clark in her chambers in the Supreme Court. She spent more than 20 years as a lawyer and a judge and served on the Supreme Court for almost 5 years before resigning because of a potential conflict of interest.

Before listening decide if the statements below are true or false.




1. It is the Supreme Court’s responsibility to decide if the Congress and the President exercise authority in keeping with the provisions in the Constitution.



2. The process of making decisions in court is affected by the public opinion.



3.In the US people write to judges expressing their opinions on the decisions made in court.



4.The legal procedure is changing in response to the necessities of the time.



Now listen and check your answers.

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Language Awareness

In pairs answer the questions on the left. Compare solutions with the pairs seated next to you.

Is there any difference in meaning between this statement and

“The Chief Justice before you said that ”?

What is the function of did in this statement?


Language Focus

The Chief Justice before you used to say that the Court’s function was nothing less than to be an arbiter among rival forces in our society.

I did get quite a few letters from all over the country about various things, but I don’t think any of those things influenced my thinking on the legal matters which were involved.

D.3.1 In pairs match the legal terminology in the left column with the definitions provided on the right. The legal vocabulary detailed below comes from the taped dialogue.

1. To uphold (a decision)

2. To lay down (rules)

3. To enforce (rules)

4. To reprimand

5. Felony

6. Ruling (court rulings)

7. Crime

a. to put or keep in force; to compel obedience to

b. an authoritative decision, as one by a judge, on a debated point of law

c. a criminal offence defined as less serious than a felony

d. to support or defend, as against opposition or criticism

e. any offence, especially one of grave character; an action or instance of negligence that is deemed harmful to the public welfare or morals,

or to the interests of the state and that is legally prohibited

f. in conformity with, in agreement with

g. to assert firmly; to state authoritatively

8. Misdemeanour

h. to deal conclusively with a question or a matter of uncertainty; to

9. To resolve

10.In keeping with


i. To reprove severely, especially in a formal way

j. any of various offences, as murder, burglary, etc., of graver character than those called misdemeanours, especially those commonly punished in the US by imprisonment for more than a year

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D.3.2 In pairs practise the terminology above by filling the missing words in the following statements.


This type of irresponsible behaviour will certainly be severely



It is against the court

to visit your children more than once a week.


The high court

the lower court’s judgement of the case.


Good laws and rules are no good if they are not



In this country it is a

to leave young children unattended.


There are charges of

against you. You need the best lawyer you can get!


In this company all staff is required to observe the rules no matter how rigid they may appear.

by the President,


are strictly punished in our community.


The board hasn’t

the question of how to attract funds for this ambitious project.

10. I’m sorry to inform you that the court ruled that your actions were not the responsibilities you had agreed to assume.

Build Your Own Legal Vocabulary

Use this space to record useful language related to the topic of this unit.

Build Your Own Legal Vocabulary Use this space to record useful language related to the topic

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