Key figures in a courtroom trial are the judge, a court reporter (in superior court), a clerk, and a bailiff. Other central people are the attorneys, the plaintiff, the defendant, witnesses, court interpreters, and jurors.
The judge is the central figure in the courtroom and typically is seated higher than everyone else. The judge allows each side the opportunity to present its version of the facts.
A court reporter (in superior court), a clerk, and a bailiff each assists the judge with the trial. The court reporter records all proceedings in superior court. The clerk records selected activities for official case file records and is responsible for all case exhibits. The bailiff maintains order in the court and supervises the jury, if there is one.
Attorneys often represent the plaintiff and the defendant at a trial. As officers of the court, attorneys are expected to know and follow all court rules. Their role is to protect the rights of their client. Attorneys offer evidence and arguments to help the judge and the jury make a fair decision.
The judge oversees the trial and decides any legal questions that arise. Cases tried in court are decided by either a judge or a jury. In most criminal and civil cases, either party may request a jury trial.
To ensure fair and consistent proceedings, all trials are conducted according to established rules of procedure and evidence.
Court interpreters are provided for limited English-speaking participants in a case.
Serving as a Juror
Jurors are the heart of the judicial system in the United States. In all serious criminal cases, the defendant is entitled to a trial by a jury representative of the defendant’s community. This type of jury is a trial or petit jury, but there are also grand juries. Each serves a specific role in the judicial system.
Trial or Petit Jury
Since 1980, names of prospective jurors have been obtained by random selection from lists of registered voters and licensed drivers who are 18 years of age and older. The Supreme Court may also designate other lists of residents from which jurors may be selected.
All U.S. citizens who are at least 18 years old and residents of the jurisdiction in which they are summoned to serve are eligible for jury service. A person qualified to be a juror is exempt from service only if the person has been found to be mentally incompetent or insane or is a convicted felon whose civil rights have not been restored. There are no automatic excuses or exemptions from jury service.
Prospective jurors may be called for service by a justice of the peace, a municipal court, or by the jury commissioner of the superior court. Once selected, a prospective juror can be called to court for 120 days, although in some courts the period is shorter (for example, one day–one trial).
In superior court, a trial jury for a criminal case consists of 8 to 12 persons, depending on the severity of the possible sentence. A unanimous verdict is required.
For superior court civil cases, there are eight people on the jury; the agreement of six members is required to return a verdict.
In limited jurisdiction courts, there are six-member juries. Unanimous agreement is required for a verdict in criminal cases, and five of the six jurors must agree on a verdict in civil cases.
The law does accept verdicts when fewer jurors agree if prior consent has been given by both the plaintiff and the defendant in a civil case. In a criminal case, the plaintiff, the defendant, and the court can determine the number of jurors required to be in agreement to return a verdict.
County Grand Jury
A grand jury is 12 to 16 citizens who have qualified for jury service in the county. Usually, they are subject to being called into session for a period of not more than 120 days.
A county grand jury is responsible for investigating possible public offenses, including corrupt or willful misconduct in office by public officials. To begin a criminal case, the county attorney may present evidence to a grand jury and ask it to return a criminal indictment or true bill, formally accusing someone of a crime.
An indictment means that a quorum (nine members) of the grand jury believe a crime has been committed and that there is enough evidence against the person to hold a trial.
State Grand Jury
The powers and duties of the state grand jury are similar to those of the county grand jury, except they extend statewide. Up to three grand juries can be assembled (impaneled) simultaneously at the state level. The scope of the investigations of a state grand jury is specified by law. The Supreme Court makes rules that govern the procedures of grand juries.