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In the Courtroom: Who Does What?

The Parties

The people or entities who are directly involved in a lawsuit are called parties. They are plaintiffs (those who are suing in a civil case) or defendants (those being sued in a civil case or accused in criminal cases). The parties may be present at the counsel tables with their lawyers during the trial. Defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to be present at their trials. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides that"the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him." Parties in civil cases also have a right to attend their trials, but they often choose not to.

Witnesses

Witnesses give testimony about the facts or issues in the case that are in dispute. During their testimony, they sit on the witness stand, facing the courtroom. Because the witnesses are asked to testify by one party or the other, they are often referred to as plaintiff's witnesses, government witnesses, or defense witnesses.

Lawyers

In the courtroom, the lawyers for each party will either be sitting at the counsel tables near the bench or be speaking to the judge, a witness, or the jury. Each lawyer's task is to bring out the facts that put his or her client's case in the most favorable light, but to do so using approved legal procedures. In a criminal case, the government's lawyer is called the prosecutor -- usually an assistant district attorney (state court cases) or assistant U.S. attorney (federal court cases). Criminal defendants may be represented by a public defender, a lawyer appointed by the court, or a private attorney hired by the defendant. In a civil case, parties wanting a lawyer to represent them must hire their own lawyer.

The Judge

The judge presides over court proceedings from the "bench," which is usually an elevated platform. The judge has five basic tasks:

  • to preside over the proceedings and see that order is maintained;
  • to determine whether any of the evidence that the parties want to use is illegal or improper;
  • in jury trials, to give the jury instructions about the law that applies to the case and the standards it must use in deciding the case before it begins its deliberations about the facts in the case;
  • in "bench" trials (cases tried before the judge, without a jury), to determine the facts and decide the case; and
  • to sentence convicted criminal defendants.

The Jury

The group of people seated in the boxed-in area on one side of the courtroom is the jury. The judge decides the law in the case and instructs the jury on the law. It's the jury's role to decide the facts in the case, and to apply the law on which the judge has instructed it in order to reach a verdict. In cases where the evidence conflicts, it's the jury's job to resolve the conflict and decide what really happened. For example, in a criminal case, the jury might listen to the testimony of a witness who claims she saw the defendant commit the crime and then listen to the testimony of the defendant's friend, who claims the defendant was with him in another part of town when the crime was committed. It's the jurors' job to decide who is telling the truth.

Court Reporter

The court reporter sits near the witness stand in the courtroom and records everything that is said during the trial (or introduced into evidence) by typing it on a stenographic machine or by making an electronic sound recording. This becomes the official record of the trial. The court reporter also produces a written transcript of the proceedings if either party appeals the case or requests a transcript. Court reporters don't work only in the courtroom. They also record depositions in attorneys' offices and some conferences in judges' chambers.

The great majority of court reporters use a stenotype, a machine that translates keystrokes into symbols that correspond to the spoken word. Some use shorthand and a few use a steno mask, repeating everything that is said in the courtroom into a mask connected to a tape recorder, and transcribing it later. Finally, electronic sound recording uses microphones placed in the courtroom to record proceedings on a multi-track tape, which is monitored by a clerk's office employee (who need not be trained as a court reporter).

Court Interpreter

In cases in which a party or witness does not speak or understand English, his or her testimony may be interpreted by a court interpreter, whose job is to present a verbatim rendition of the testimony. It is the English rendition by the interpreter that becomes part of the official court record. The court interpreter's job is to interpret exactly what the witness or defendant says, without commenting on it, even if the interpreter believes the person is lying. If a witness doesn't understand a question, the interpreter may not use his or her own words to explain. Rather, the interpreter translates the witness's request for explanation to the attorney (or whoever asked the question), and that person must explain or rephrase what he or she said. The interpreter then translates that explanation or rephrasing for the witness.

Courtroom Clerk

The courtroom clerk (sometimes called the courtroom deputy) is usually seated in the courtroom near the judge. The courtroom clerk administers oaths to witnesses and interpreters, takes care of records and exhibits, keeps minutes of proceedings, prepares judgment and verdict forms, and generally helps the judge keep the trial running smoothly. The courtroom deputy is usually employed by the office of the clerk of court.

Next Steps
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