Hi, I’m Craig and this is Crash Course Civics
and today we’re gonna look at the basics of a system that affects all our lives: the law.
And no, we’re not going to be talking about the laws of thermo-dynamics. That’s Hank’s
show. Though we will be bringing the heat, ha! The law affects you even if you never committed
a crime because there’s so much more to the legal system than just criminal justice, and even though we’re
going to focus mainly on courts, the law is everywhere. If you don’t believe me, read the user license
on your next new piece of software, or if you fly anywhere read the back of your plane
ticket. Hopefully won’t be more entertaining than what you’re watching now, but that’s
examples of the law. [Theme Music] In general, courts have three basic functions,
only one of which you probably learned about in your history class. The first thing that courts
do is settle disputes. In pre-modern history (which is way easier to understand than post-modern
history), kings performed this function, but as states got bigger and more powerful it
became much easier to have specialized officials decide important issues like who owned the
fox you caught on someone else’s land. Or what does the fox say, which was disputed
a lot back then. The second thing the courts do is probably
the one you heard about in school, or on television, or perhaps while studying for the standardized
test, and that’s interpret the laws. This becomes increasingly important when you actually
try to read laws, or when you realize that legislators are often not as they might be when
writing laws in the first place. Take a look at the Affordable Care Act. There are a few
famous careless errors in that. Finally courts create expectations for future
actions. This is very important if you want to do business with someone. If you know that
you’ll be punished for cheating a potential business client, you’re less likely to do
it. Still you might, ’cause there are a lot of jerks out there who would. Are you one
of them? Don’t be! At the same time if you know that people will be punished for cheating
you you’re more likely to do business. And it’s courts that create the expectation that
business will be conducted fairly. Interpreting the laws can help this too, since
the interpretations are public and they set expectations that everyone can understand
and know what the law means and how it applies and then world peace. No more law breaking
ever. The first thing to remember about courts in
the U.S. is that most legal action, if it occurs in court at all, occurs in state court.
And if it occurs at night, it occurs in Night Court. Because this is mainly a series about
federal government, and not Indiana government or sitcoms about court in New York, I’m going
to focus mainly on the federal court system which has four main characteristics. One, the federal court system is separate
from the other branches of government. The executive could do the job, just like kings
used to but we have separation of powers so we don’t have to be at the mercy of kings.
Have you seen Game of Thrones? Two, the federal courts are hierarchical,
with the Supreme Court at the top and turtles all the way down. Nope — not turtles — sorry
I meant lower courts. What this means is that when a lower court makes a decision it can
be appealed to a higher court that can either affirm or overturn the lower court’s decision. The third feature of federal courts is that
they are able to perform judicial review over laws passed by Congress and state legislatures,
and over executive actions. And the fourth aspect of federal court system
is that you should know that the federal judges are appointed for life, and their salaries
can’t be reduced. This is to preserve their independence from politics. Sounds like a
pretty sweet deal. Remember when I told you that the legislature
makes the laws? Well, that was true, but it’s also not the whole story. Legislatures both
state and national make laws and these written laws are called statutes. In continental Europe
those are pretty much all the laws they have. Statutes. Statutes everywhere! And statues. That place is
filled with art. They had the Renaissance there, y’know? But in the U.S. and England, which is where
we got the idea, we have something called common law, which consists of the past decisions
of courts that influence future legal decisions. The key to common law is the idea that a prior
court decision sets a precedent that constrains future courts. Basically if one court makes
a decision, all other courts in the same jurisdiction have to apply that decision, whether they
like it or not. The collection of those decisions by judges becomes the common law. I don’t have to have a reason to punch the
eagle. I should probably point out what courts actually
do and explain that there are two different types of courts that can make civil law. What
differentiates the two types of courts is their jurisdiction, which basically means the
set of cases that they’re authorized to decide. Trial courts are also called courts of original
jurisdiction. These are the ones you see on TV and they actually do two things. First,
they hear evidence and determine what actually happened when there’s a dispute. This is called
deciding the facts of the case. Not everything that happened or that may be important qualifies
as a fact in a court case. Those are determined by the rules of evidence, which are complicated and
would really slow down an episode of Law and Order. After the trial court hears the facts of a
case it decides the outcome by applying the relevant law. What law they apply will depend
on statutes and in some cases what other courts have said in similar situations. In other
words the common law. You might have noticed that I’ve been referring
to courts, not judges or juries, because not all trials have juries. Bench trials have
only a judge who determines the facts and the law. Besides, who decides what in a court
case isn’t really that important. More than 90% of cases never go to court by the way,
they just get settled by lawyers out of court. But say you actually go to court and you lose.
Naturally, you’d be upset. Especially if you’re a sore loser, like me.
Shut up. You have a choice. You can give up and go
back to your normal, loser life or you can appeal the trial court decision to a higher
court. An appeals court that has, you guessed it, appellate jurisdiction. Did you actually
guess that? That’d be amazing. Appeals courts don’t hear facts — who wants
those — they just decide questions of law so you don’t have to bring witnesses or present
evidence, just arguments. In most cases, if you want to bring a successful appeal, you
need to show that there was something wrong with the procedure of your trial. Maybe the
judge allowed the jury to hear evidence they shouldn’t have heard, maybe one of the jurors
was a cyborg. Here’s the way that these courts connect to
what I was saying before about common and statutory law. Most common law is made by
appeals courts. And because appeals courts have larger jurisdiction than trial courts, appeals decisions
are much more important than trial court decisions. So now I’m going to talk about the three types
of law, and it’s gonna get confusing. We should probably go to the Thought Bubble for some
nice, compelling, intriguing animations. The two main types of law are basically the
Bruce Banner of law. They’re the criminal law and civil law, but they can sometimes morph
into the Incredible Hulk of laws: public law. “Public law, smash abuse of government authority!” If you watch TV or movies, or read John Grisham
novels, you’re probably familiar with criminal law. Criminal laws are almost always statutes
written by legislatures, which means that there is an actual law for you to break. In
most states the criminal laws are called the penal codes. In a criminal dispute — and it’s
a dispute because the government says you broke the law and you will say you didn’t —
the government is called the prosecution and the person accused of committing the crime
is called the defendant. Almost all criminal cases happen at the state
level and for this reason it’s hard to know exactly what is or what is not a crime in
each state. Although murder is a crime everywhere. There are also some federal crimes like tax
evasion, mail fraud, and racketeering. If you’re suing someone or being sued, you’re
in the realm of civil law. Civil cases arise from disputes between individuals, or between
individuals and the government, when one party, the plaintiff, claims that the other party,
the defendant, has caused an injury that can be fixed or remedied. If the plaintiff proves
his or her case the defendant must pay damages. If you lose a civil case you don’t go to prison
or jail in most circumstances, but you may end up losing lots of money, and that sucks.
I love money. Cases about contracts, property, and personal
injuries, also called torts, are examples of civil law. So under certain circumstances
a civil or criminal case can become public law. This happens when either the defendant
or plaintiff can show that the powers of government or the rights of citizens under the Constitution
or federal law is involved in the case. Also if the law gets exposed to gamma rays.
“Law, smash!” For example, in a criminal case where the
defendant claims that the civil rights were violated by the police, the decision can become
public law. Thanks Thought Bubble. So those are the basics of the court system
in the U.S. And you can see that there’s a lot to keep straight. There are types of courts,
basically trial courts and appeals courts, on both the state and federal level. And there are
types of laws, basically statutory and common laws. The fact that we have both state and federal
statutory law is an example of federalism in action. The U.S. unlike most other nations has both
statutory and common law, but most of the time when we’re talking about federal laws we’re in
the realm of statutes, or maybe the Constitution. When you study American government, most of
the cases you read about are examples of appeals and of public law. How this all works in practice
is even more complicated. And the adaptability of the American legal fabric allows statutes to stretch
to fit the growing and changing American society. Much like Bruce Banner’s incredibly elastic pants.
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time. I’m getting angry! Oh no! Ahhhh! I’m not wearing
elastic pants! Oh no! Ahhhhh! Crash Course: Government and Politics is produced
in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support for Crash Course Government comes
from Voqal. Voqal supports non profits that use technology and media to advance social equity. Learn
more about their mission and initiatives at voqal.org. Crash Course is made with the help of these
Incredible Hulks. Thanks for watching. Rarrrr!