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Judicial History - Courts and trials

To enforce its laws, a society organizes a system of justice, which may be formal or informal. Informal systems may have unwritten laws, and procedures may vary with the individual case. Formalized procedures and written laws characterize more elaborate justice systems. Most justice systems have a procedure for arresting a suspected law-breaker, and for determining facts about the crime. Courts are forums where persons accused of breaking a law may stand trial. As shown in historical pictures of trials, witnesses are asked to testify about their knowledge of the crime, or about the character of the accused. At one period in ancient Athens, the accuser and the accused each gave a speech to a court of hundreds of citizens, who then voted to determine the verdict. Another Athenian institution, the areopagus, served as a court for serious crimes, as well as having other functions.

Historical pictures show that in earlier times in many societies, crimes were adjudicated by the ruler or chieftain who determined both verdict and sentence. One example of Biblical justice describes the Hebrew King Solomon as a wise judge determined to render just verdicts. On one occasion Solomon proposed cutting an infant in two, so that each woman claiming to be the mother could have half. When one woman screamed in agony and offered to drop her claim rather than see the baby killed, Solomon gave her the child because her compassion showed her to be the true mother of the child. In the Middle Ages a king or feudal lord presided as judge, and often there was no jury. Although known in the time of ancient Greece, juries have historically been available to defendants under common law. A jury usually decides on the facts of a case, whereas a judge usually rules on the law. In the absence of courts and professional law enforcement, mob justice often prevails, substituting hot-tempered action, often fueled by prejudice, for due process, as seen in historical pictures.

Throughout history, religious beliefs have been the basis of many laws. For example, people whose beliefs differ from the prevailing religion may be tried for heresy, a crime defined solely by religious authorities. Historical pictures show that some trials used torture, called trial by ordeal, as a way to elicit confession or testimony, rather than being a punishment resulting from conviction of a crime. Execution, often accompanied by torture, was a common sentence for those convicted of serious crimes, including heretics. Historical images show the Inquisition tried, convicted, and tortured many people for beliefs or actions not authorized by the Roman Catholic Church in the turbulent years of the Counter-Reformation in Europe. The Salem witch trials are but one example of similar Protestant intolerance, as shown in historical pictures. The Puritans in Massachusetts were among many religious groups who found witchcraft to be so threatening it was punishable by death.

In more recent times, courts are characterized by having professional attorneys to represent each side, as seen in vintage images. Courts usually have formal procedures and are presided over by a judge. Jury trials are common for serious crimes. Courthouses are designated buildings for trials and other court business. The highest American court is the US Supreme Court, in which the legal basis of a crime may be challenged. Two early Supreme Court Justices, shown in historical portraits, who were influential in establishing the court's conduct were John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and the fourth Chief Justice, John Marshall, who established judicial review by federal courts over lower-court decisions, a key to appealing a court decision.

The courts uphold the law, but they do not make the laws. In the US the judicial system is only one of three branches of the federal government created by the US Constitution. Law-making is granted to the other two branches. The executive branch, headed by the US President, may propose or veto legislation. The legislative branch, the US Senate and House of Representatives, was given primary lawmaking power. However, although a law may be passed by the US Congress and signed by the President, it may be struck down by the US Supreme Court if the law is found to violate principles of the Constitution. Once the Supreme Court rules a law unconstitutional, the only remedy is a constitutional amendment. A famous historical case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, in 1856 upheld slavery laws as constitutional. These laws were eventually revoked by the Fourteenth Amendment passed in 1868. It actually took three constitutional amendments--the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments--to grant former African-American slaves full US citizenship.


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