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Visiting a Federal Courthouse

  • Questions

1. What is the difference between state and federal courts?
The most notable difference between the state and federal court systems concerns the types of cases that each may handle. In general, federal courts may decide cases that involve the U.S. government, the U.S. Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments. Federal courts also decide disputes between citizens of different states when the case involves more than $75,000, or disputes between U.S. citizens and those of another country. Only federal courts—not state courts—have jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters.

Although federal courts are in every state, they are not the only forum available to potential litigants. In fact, the great majority of legal disputes in American courts are addressed in the separate state court systems. For example, state courts have jurisdiction over virtually all divorce and child custody matters, probate and inheritance issues, real estate questions, and juvenile matters; and they handle most criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations, and personal injury cases.

2. What is the difference between federal district and appellate courts?
The difference between the federal district and appellate courts is that the district courts are known as trial-level courts, or courts of original jurisdiction. Almost all legal matters begin in these courts, and it is here that both civil and criminal trials are held. It is during these trials that evidence is presented and witnesses called. If a jury is present, the jury decides the facts of the case while the judge decides issues of law. If there is no jury, then the judge decides both issues of fact and of law.

If a party—with the exception of the prosecution in a criminal case where the defendant has been found not guilty—is dissatisfied with the decision rendered by the U.S. District Court, he/she may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. No new evidence is collected during the appeals process. Parties to an appeal usually file briefs with the court outlining their case. Although some cases are decided on the basis of written briefs alone, many cases are selected by the court for oral argument. Oral arguments in the court of appeals, which typically are heard by a three-judge panel, are a structured discussion between the appellate lawyers and the judges focusing on the legal principles of the dispute. Because the judges have read the briefs, each side is given a short time—usually about 15 minutes—to present arguments in court.

During the presentation of their argument in court, lawyers have the opportunity to answer any questions that the judges may have. After hearing the case, the judges vote on how to decide it and then render their opinion, known as a majority opinion. Any judge who does not agree with the majority opinion may write a dissenting opinion.

The court of appeals usually is the final word in the case, unless it sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings, or parties ask the U.S. Supreme court to review the case. In some cases the court of appeals may decide to review the case en banc, that is, by a larger group of judges (usually all) of the court of appeals for the circuit.

A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of the state court system, may file a petition for a writ of certiorari, which is a document asking the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to grant review. The Court, typically, agrees to hear a case only when it involves an unusually important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted the law differently. The Supreme Court hears about 100-150 of the 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year. When the Supreme Court hears a case, the parties are required to file written briefs. The Court may decide to hear oral argument.

3. What is an Article III judge?
Justices of the Supreme Court, and judges of the courts of appeals, district courts, and the Court of International Trade are appointed under Article III of the Constitution by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. Article III judges are appointed for life, and they can be removed only through the impeachment process. Although there are no specific qualifications to become a judge of these courts, those who are nominated are typically very accomplished private or government attorneys, judges in state courts, magistrate judges or bankruptcy judges in the federal courts, or law professors. The Judiciary plays no role in the nomination or confirmation process.

4. How was the federal court system established?
Article III of the U.S. Constitution established the federal court system, but it left it largely up to Congress to decide what form the court system should take. The basic form of the federal court system can be traced back to the Judiciary Act of 1789. Over the next 200 years, other various Acts of Congress were enacted to give more definite shape to the federal court system--such as the Evarts Act of 1891, which established the U.S. Courts of Appeal. Today, the federal court system has three levels: (1) the 94 U.S. District Courts and bankruptcy courts, (2) the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal, and (3) the Supreme Court of the United States. Furthermore, the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Claims are special courts that were created under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

5. Who are some of the people involved in the courtroom?
Perhaps the most notable person in the courtroom of a U.S. District Court is the judge. The judge presides over any legal cases that come before him/her. In all cases, the judge decides issues of law. If a jury is present in a civil or criminal trial, it decides the issues of fact in the case. If it is not present, the judge also determines the facts. Besides the judge and jury, lawyers also are usually present in the courtroom. In civil cases, both the plaintiff (the person initiating the suit) and the defendant (the person being sued) are usually represented by lawyers. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor represents the government, while the defendant is represented by either a lawyer of his/her choosing or a court-appointed lawyer (if he/she cannot afford to pay for one). Court reporters are present to provide a transcript of the court's proceedings. When needed, language interpreters and the judge's law clerks may also be present.

  • Rooms to View

Ceremonial Courtroom
This is the ceremonial courtroom. Most federal courthouses have a ceremonial courtroom. In addition to hearing trials, these rooms serve a variety of functions. It is usually in the ceremonial courtroom, for example, that the swearing in of new judges takes place. It is also in the ceremonial courtroom where members of the court usually meet to have their official photograph taken and where photographs of some judges are hung.

Perhaps one of the most interesting uses of the ceremonial courtroom is its use in naturalization ceremonies. Because these ceremonies can draw large crowds, and because the ceremonial courtrooms often are the largest courtrooms in the building, they tend to be selected for these occasions. Usually once a month, people who have completed the legal requirements for citizenship—that is, residency in the United States for a certain number of years, passing the U.S. Citizenship test, being approved for naturalization by the INS, and so on—meet, with their families and friends in attendance, in this room to be sworn in as new citizens. These naturalization ceremonies take a variety of forms and often involve the participation of various civic groups. By law, however, all new citizens must take the oath of citizenship. This oath is administered by the presiding federal judge.

A Courtroom
This is the courtroom of Judge [name]. Each federal district court judge is usually assigned a courtroom. Courtrooms vary from courthouse to courthouse (and sometimes even within courthouses), but they usually all have some form of the following organization. Most prominent in the courtroom is the judge's bench. It is from here that judges preside over the various legal disputes that are brought before them. Usually off to one side of the bench is the witness stand. It is from here that witnesses give testimony during hearings and trials. They are sworn in by one of the U.S. Marshals assigned to keep order in the courtroom. In front of the judge is usually the court stenographer, who keeps a written record of the proceedings, and other people that serve in administrative capacities during legal proceedings.

There are usually two tables in the courtroom, one for the plaintiffs/prosecutors and one for the defendants. During a trial, the plaintiff usually sits at the table that is nearest to the jury while the defendant sits at the remaining table. Normally, all parties to a legal dispute are represented by legal counsel who are also present. Near the plaintiff's table is the jury box. During both civil and criminal trials, members of the jury listen as the lawyers for both sides present their cases and then decide the facts of the case--that is, which party is telling the truth. Behind the tables where the lawyers sit is seating for members of the public who wish to watch a case. Almost all judicial proceedings are open to the public as long as there is room in the courtroom.

In addition to the judge, lawyers, jury, stenographer, and marshals, many other people work behind the scenes to ensure that the courts function properly. Interpreters, for example, may be called on in cases where a party to a suit does not speak English. Likewise, people who rarely step foot inside the courtroom itself, like those in the clerk's office or court administrators, are responsible for seeing to it that cases, and all relevant documents relating to them, are properly filed and delivered to the appropriate judge. To run efficiently, our judicial system relies on many people who have chosen careers in the courts.

A Judge's Chambers
This is the chambers of judge [name]. The chambers is the judge's office and it is where the judge works when he/she is not in the courtroom. Judges have a supporting staff, which they are allowed to hire once they are installed in office. Usually, this staff consists of a secretary and, at the district court level, two law clerks. Depending on the judge, law clerks may be hired as frequently as every year, and some may be hired as career clerks. Clerks hired from term to term often are recent law school graduates and usually assist the judge with legal research.

Each judge sets up his/her chambers differently. Normally, each chambers has an area for the law clerks and another room for the judge. Although each judge has access to the court law library, many judges opt to have a set of law books for their chambers.

While most people associate judges with the courtroom, when they are not there, they usually are very busy with legal work. Tasks that occur in chambers, outside of the public's view, include, among other things, signing warrants, performing legal research, and writing opinions in particular cases.

The judge's chambers also serves to remind us that the judicial system in the United States is very unique, because judges are independent of the other branches of the federal government. They are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Furthermore, their salaries cannot be diminished once they are in office. These provisions are established by Article III of the Constitution to ensure that the Judiciary is not improperly influenced by any of the other branches of government (especially because judges may rule on issues concerning those branches). In essence, once they take the bench, judges are answerable only to the rule of law.

A Jury Deliberation Room
This is the jury deliberation room. It is the room in which the jurors hearing a particular legal case meet to determine which party is telling the truth. No one except the members of the jury are allowed in this room during deliberations. A jury's decision can have a very dramatic impact on the lives of those involved in a particular case. For example, in a civil case, the jury may find that someone owes another person money and must pay it. In a criminal case, the jury may find a defendant guilty, and the defendant may then be sentenced to prison. In the federal court system, a criminal jury comprises 12 jurors; a civil jury may comprise as few as 6.

The jury plays an important role in our judicial system. The jury is the one institution that allows citizens to participate directly in the judicial process. While the judge determines the law and oversees the judicial process, it is the jury that determines the facts of a particular case. Ultimately, the jury helps to ensure citizens' participation in the judicial process and serves as another check on the government. The qualifications for jury service are as follows:

  • U.S. citizen.
  • At least 18 years of age.
  • Reside in the judicial jurisdiction for one year.
  • Adequate proficiency in English.
  • No disqualifying mental or physical condition.
  • Not currently subject to felony charges.
  • Never convicted of a felony (unless civil rights have been legally restored).

Potential jurors are selected randomly, primarily, from voter registration and driver license lists. The potential jurors complete questionnaires to help determine whether they are qualified to serve on a jury. After reviewing the questionnaires, the court randomly selects individuals to be summoned to appear for jury duty. The selection methods help ensure that jurors represent a cross-section of the community without regard to race, gender, national origin, age, or political affiliation. Citizens selected for jury duty receive a summons to appear in court on a particular day. Failure to do so can result in their arrest. During a process known as voir dire, the judge and the attorneys for both sides of a case ask questions of the potential jurors. The judge makes the final decisions as to who sits on the jury.

The Law Library
This is the law library. It is here that judges, their law clerks, and members of the bar of this court (those attorneys who are authorized to practice before this court) perform legal research. There are a variety of legal texts in this library. They include statutes (Acts of Congress and state legislatures), court decisions, law reviews, and even scholarly treatises on various legal issues. While the law libraries of federal courts contain materials on federal laws and court decisions, they also contain materials on their district's state laws, and often the laws of other states as well.

The law library reminds us of the rule of law in this country. All of the laws that affect our lives, along with the interpretations that the courts have given to them, are recorded in the books contained in this library. The purpose of this is to ensure that, unlike in some other countries, our freedoms and liberties are not at the arbitrary mercy of the government.

  • Trial Proceedings to View

Voir Dire
Being summoned for jury service does not guarantee that an individual will actually serve on a jury. However, even jurors who wait in the jury assembly room and are never called into the courtroom make a contribution to the judicial process. Their presence often helps the parties get a perspective on the issues in conflict and facilitates the settlement of the case without having to go to trial.

When a jury is needed for a trial, the group of qualified jurors is taken to the courtroom where the trial will take place. The judge and the attorneys then ask the potential jurors questions to determine their suitability to serve on the jury. This process is called voir dire. The purpose of voir dire is to exclude people who may not be able to decide the case fairly. The judge, typically, excuses members of the panel who know any person involved in the case, have information about the case, or may have strong prejudices about the people or issues involved in the case.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that peremptory challenges may not be used to remove jurors solely on the basis of their race or gender. Once the jury is selected, the jurors are sworn in by the presiding judge. Jurors are expected to render their decision in the case before them solely on the evidence presented in court.

Not all legal disputes are entitled to be tried by a jury. For example, in many states, defendants accused of committing crimes that carry a sentence of less than six months imprisonment are not constitutionally entitled to a trial by jury. Likewise, many civil legal matters, by law, are not required to be tried by a jury. In these cases, a judge sitting without a jury determines both issues of fact and law.

Motion Hearings
Before a legal dispute proceeds to trial, each side may raise various legal issues on which they wish the judge to rule. These questions are known as motions. Motions to suppress evidence, which is alleged to have been illegally obtained, for example, are common motions in criminal cases. Usually, the attorney raising the motion first submits a written brief to both the judge and the opposing counsel. This gives both people time to consider it, as well as an opportunity for the opposing counsel to file his/her own brief in opposition.

While some judges rule on the motions simply on the merits of the briefs that were submitted to them, others hold hearings, known as motion hearings, in open court to allow both parties to put forth their best legal arguments for or against the granting of the motion. The judge renders his/her decision usually shortly thereafter. When all of these pretrial motions are disposed of, the case will proceed to trial.

Opening Arguments
Opening arguments occur in both civil and criminal trials. Although defendants do not have to make an opening argument, both sides often make use of them because they provide an opportunity for the lawyers to lay out the main points of their cases and to demonstrate how they will go about making them. The plaintiff/prosecutor goes first, followed by the defendant. No witnesses are called and evidence is given at this time. While most opening arguments are fairly brief, some go on for several days, even weeks. While lay people can argue their own cases before the court, most suits are handled by lawyers.

Case-in-Chief
After the defendant has finished making his/her closing argument, the plaintiff/prosecutor is ready to begin what is called the case-in-chief. This is the part of the trial in which the lawyers call witnesses and present any other evidence that can help support their case. In essence, they are now trying to prove what they asserted they could do in their opening arguments.

Each side is allowed to call witnesses. This is known as direct examination. When the plaintiff's lawyer is finished asking questions of one witness, the defendant's lawyer may cross-examine the same witness, usually in hopes of attacking either the witness' personal credibility or the credibility of his/her testimony. Leading questions (questions which suggest an answer, for example, you saw the defendant commit the crime, didn't you?) may be asked on cross, but not direct, examination. Hearsay evidence, or evidence taken outside of the courtroom, usually is not admissible either. After cross-examination, the plaintiff/prosecutor may try to reestablish the witness's credibility during redirect examination; however, if he/she does so, the defendant has the opportunity for re-cross-examination.

After the plaintiff/prosecutor has finished calling witnesses, he/she rests his/her case. The defendant now has the opportunity to call witnesses on his/her behalf (subject to the same rules concerning direct and cross examination). When the defendant is finished calling witnesses, the defense rests its case.

At this point, both sides may call rebuttal witnesses to refute some point that the other side has made. No "new" witnesses (witnesses that have information outside the scope of the rebuttal evidence) may be called during this phase of the trial. Again, the plaintiff's rebuttal witnesses proceed first, followed by the defendant's. After both sides have finished, the court is prepared to hear closing arguments.

Closing Arguments
Closing arguments provide an opportunity for both parties to sum up their cases and to urge the trier of fact (either the jury, or a judge without a jury) why they should rule in their favor. The prosecutor/plaintiff presents his/her closing argument first, followed by the defendant. When the defendant is finished presenting his/her closing argument, the plaintiff/prosecutor is given an additional closing argument (the defendant gets only one). The purpose of this is to allow the person who brought the case to have the last word. Like opening arguments, defendants do not have to make them.

Sentencing
If a defendant in a criminal case is found guilty (except in capital cases where the jury must decide between life and death), the judge determines the defendant's sentence according to special federal sentencing guidelines issued by the United States Sentencing Commission. The court's probation office prepares a report for the court that applies the guidelines to the individual defendant and the crimes for which he/she has been found guilty. During sentencing the court may consider not only the evidence produced at trial, but all relevant information that may be provided by the pretrial services officer, the U.S. attorney, and the defense attorney. In unusual circumstances, the court may depart from the sentence calculated according to the sentencing guidelines. A sentence may include time in prison, a fine to be paid to the government, and/or restitution to be paid to the crime victims. The court's probation officers assist the court in enforcing any conditions that are imposed as part of the criminal sentence. The supervision of offenders also may involve such services as substance abuse testing and treatment, job counseling, and alternative detention options.

  • Other Judicial Proceedings

Oral Arguments in an Appellate Case
When a party is not satisfied with the decision of a U.S. District Court, he/she may appeal it to the U.S. Court of Appeals for his/her geographic district. This is done by filing a notice of appeal with the district court and submitting written briefs outlining your legal position to the court of appeals. Although many cases are decided solely on the briefs, other cases are assigned for oral argument before a panel of appellate judges. Although three judges, typically, serve on this panel, in some cases the court may decide that all of the appeals court judges will hear it, particularly when the case affects a large number of people or involves an important constitutional principle. Because the judge has read the briefs submitted by the lawyers, each side is given a limited amount of time to make their case, usually 15 or 30 minutes. The judges usually use this time, known as oral arguments, to ask the lawyers questions that they have about the case.

At the U.S. Court of Appeals, if a party has more than one lawyer, usually only one is allowed to argue before the court. There are no witnesses and no new evidence presented. After oral arguments, the judges who heard the case vote on its outcome and one of them is selected to write the opinion of the court. Judges who do not agree with the majority opinion of the court may file a dissenting opinion. When the opinion is completed, the parties to the case are provided with a copy of it. Unless a party wishes to ask the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the case (which, in most instances, the court is under no obligation to do), the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals is final.

Naturalization Ceremony
Naturalization ceremonies usually are held at least once a month in U.S. District Courthouses throughout the nation. During these ceremonies, candidates for citizenship become new citizens when they take the Oath of Citizenship. This oath is required by law and is administered by the presiding judge. In addition to this oath, naturalization ceremonies often involve various civic organizations and participation in patriotic expressions--for example, singing of the national anthem, saying the pledge of allegiance, and so on.

Bankruptcy Proceedings
Each district includes a U.S. Bankruptcy Court as a unit of the district court. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases. This means that a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in a state court. The primary purposes of the law of bankruptcy are (1) to give an honest debtor a fresh start in life by relieving the debtor of most debts; (2) to repay creditors in a fair and orderly manner to the extent that the debtor has property available for payment; (3) to reorganize a failing business; (4) to deter and remedy dishonest actions by debtors or creditors that would have the effect of undermining the purpose of bankruptcy law.

Litigation in the bankruptcy court is conducted in much the same way that civil cases are handled in the district court. There may be discovery, pretrial proceedings, settlement efforts, and a trial.

In a bankruptcy proceeding, debtors who can no longer pay their debts are discharged of their remaining debt by the court, once they have paid their creditors as much as is feasible without causing them an undue financial hardship.

Magistrate Cases
Magistrate cases are civil and criminal matters that are handled by U.S. magistrate judges. These judges are selected for a set term by the judges of a particular U.S. District Court (Article III judges). They usually hear minor civil matters and misdemeanor criminal cases. When both parties consent, they may hear more substantial civil and criminal matters.

  • People to Meet

U.S. Circuit Court Judges
U.S. Circuit court judges sit on the U.S. Courts of Appeals. There are 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals in the United States. The United States is divided into 11 geographic circuits and each circuit contains one U.S. Court of Appeals. There also is a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit handles matters such as patent and trademark appeals, appeals concerning customs issues, and so on. U.S. Circuit Court judges, like U.S. District Court judges, are what is known as Article III judges. This means that their judgeship is one established pursuant Article III of the Constitution--that is, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, hold office during good behavior, typical for life. These judges usually sit in panels of three and decide cases that are being appealed from the U.S. District Courts as well as certain administrative agencies.

U.S. District Court Judges
U.S. District Court judges sit on the U.S. District Courts. Each state has at least one U.S. District Court, and some large states, such as Texas and California, have as many as four. These judges are Article III judges (their judgeships were created pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution). They preside over a wide variety of civil and criminal matters. It is before U.S. District Court judges that trials are held. When there is a jury, the judge determines issues of law while the jury determines issues of fact. When there is not a jury, the judge determines both issues of law and fact. With the exception of a criminal case in which the defendant has been found "not guilty," decisions of the U.S. District Court can be appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the geographical circuit in which the U.S. District Court is located.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judges
Judges of the bankruptcy courts are selected by the judges of their circuit's court of appeals, and they serve for renewable terms, usually 14 years.

U.S. Magistrate Judges
A U.S. magistrate judge is a judicial officer of the district court and is appointed by a majority vote of the active judges of the court. A full-time magistrate judge is appointed for a term of eight years; a part-time magistrate judge serves for a term of four years and hears certain civil and criminal matters as permitted by law. The authority of magistrate judges includes a wide range of pretrial and trial duties.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys
Assistant U.S. Attorneys represent the United States government in matters that come before the federal court system. In criminal matters, they are the prosecutors and initiate the case. In certain civil matters, they can represent the government's interests. Assistant U.S. Attorneys aid the U.S. Attorney of a given district. There is a U.S. Attorney assigned to each district where there is a U.S. District Court. The U.S. Attorney is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Defense Counsel/U.S. Public Defender's Office Attorneys
In criminal matters, defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. When defendants can afford to do so, they may hire any lawyer to be their defense counsel. When they cannot afford to do so, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that a lawyer be assigned to them at no cost to the defendant. In these circumstances, an attorney from a U.S. public defender's office may be assigned to represent the indigent (without funds) person. There is usually a U.S. public defender's office in each district where there is a U.S. District Court. Federal public defenders are full-time federal employees appointed by their court of appeals for renewable terms of four years. Federal public defenders are authorized to hire attorneys, investigators, and other support staff to the extent authorized by the Judiciary's approval and budget limitations.

Plaintiff and Defense Counsel
In civil suits, both parties are usually represented by lawyers. They are known, respectively, as plaintiff's and defense counsel. One is usually free to hire any lawyer that he/she can afford as long as the lawyer is willing to take the case. Lawyers may work on an individual basis, in a small partnership, or large law firm.

U.S. Marshals
The U.S. Marshals Service has primary responsibility and authority for providing security services for the federal Judiciary, transporting prisoners, executing orders of the U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. The marshals service is a bureau of the Department of Justice. The director of the marshals service is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. In addition, each judicial district has a U.S. Marshal who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a four-year term.

Courtroom Personnel
Legal matters could not proceed before the courts if it were not for the contributions of various courtroom personnel. These include, among others, courtroom deputy clerks who assist the judge with caseload management, court reporters who provide a written transcript of the proceedings before the court, and language interpreters.

Clerk and Clerk's Office Staff
The clerk of the court oversees the clerk's office of a U.S. District Court. This office is responsible for filing all documents that are deposited with the court and seeing that these documents get to the appropriate judges. The clerk is selected by the chief judge. Circuit executives serve the administrative needs of the circuit.

Other Administrative Personnel
[Tour Guide's Option: Please discuss any other relevant administrative personnel.]

Other People in the Judicial Process
[Tour Guide's Option: Please discuss any other relevant people in the judicial process.]

What can students and teachers do at the courts?

There are many learning opportunities for teachers and students at federal courts. Teachers should call the court they want to visit to find out what services are available there to help students learn about the court system. Many federal courts have websites. Teachers may want to visit the local court’s website using the Court Locator before arranging a trip to the court. Some suggestions for activities are listed here:

Observe a trial

Often there will be a court session when students are visiting. Most, but not all, of these sessions are open to the public, including groups of students. Teachers can find out what is on the docket for the day they are planning to visit and request to bring students into the courtroom. Students should be prepared for the visit so that they understand what they see. Proper rules of decorum, including dress codes, must be followed if a class comes to observe a court session.

Take a tour

Taking a tour of a federal court can help students better understand court procedure and the jobs of those who work in the courts. Students will learn what happens in the federal court behind the scenes, information they don’t see on television court dramas. While students usually cannot visit judges’ chambers, they can tour a courtroom and talk to court personnel about how trials and hearings are conducted. If time permits, students may even be able to role play certain aspects of court procedure, such as voir dire, in the courtroom.

Request an interactive program

Some federal courts offer true-to-life courtroom simulations during which a federal judge presides and attorneys coach the students through a modified trial. The federal courts’ website has everything needed for interactive programs along with the supporting resources that are ready for immediate use in courtrooms and classrooms.

Interview/converse with a judge or court personnel

Many judges are willing to talk to students about the federal courts and their role in them. They will often speak to students in an empty courtroom to help students visualize the procedures they describe. However, judges have ethical guidelines that prohibit them from discussing cases that are pending before them. Speaking personally to a judge can demystify the court experience for students, making them less fearful or suspicious of the legal process. Other participants in the legal process also may be willing to speak to students. Federal prosecutors and public defenders can help to illuminate the adversarial system. No matter who speaks to the students at the courts, it is important that students be prepared for the interaction. Help them draft questions before and during the visit to ensure a productive learning experience.

How does a teacher set up a visit to the court?

To set up a visit, teachers should contact their local U.S. District Clerk’s Office. Because the courts tend to be very busy, teachers should be prepared to allow several weeks of lead time when arranging a visit. The telephone number for the clerk is listed on the court’s website, found by using the Court Locator. The personnel in the clerk’s office can help teachers select an appropriate date for a class visit and can even find out what cases are on the docket if students wish to observe a court session. The clerk also will provide important logistical information, such as parking, for court visits. Some questions you may want to ask the clerk’s office:

  • How many students may I bring to the court at one time?
  • Which days and times are best to bring students to the court?
  • What can my students do at the court?
  • If we come to see a specific case and it settles, is there a back-up activity we might do?
  • What web resources should we review before the visit?
  • What are the rules of court decorum and dress the students must follow?
  • Are there any judges who would be willing to speak to students? Prosecutors? Public defenders? Other court personnel? How can I set up a meeting with them?

 

How should teachers prepare students before visiting the courts?

The best time to visit a court is during a unit on the judicial system or the rights that the system protects. In this context, students can put their new knowledge to use by observing and interpreting court sessions and finding out more information from judges and other court personnel. In particular, it may be helpful for students to learn about the structure, functions, and procedures of the court before attending.

During courtroom discussions, students will need to use civil discussion procedures and tools that help them differentiate between factual arguments and emotional arguments. If students participate in a planned trial simulation, teachers should review the specific resources on the web and the courtroom tools for that program. If students are interviewing or conversing with court personnel, it is often helpful for them to prepare questions before visiting the court. Students can write questions that relate to information they already have learned about the courts, or satisfy their curiosity about an issue they may have seen in the media or other source. Teachers may give students some guidance on their questions by providing models or steering them away from inappropriate questions. For instance, a judge will not be able to talk about a case that is currently before the court, but can answer questions about procedures that students may have seen while observing a session.

How should teachers follow up with students and court personnel?

Following up on a visit to the court is just as important as the preparation for the visit. Teachers should reinforce learning from the court experience through continued classroom activities on the judicial system. Whenever possible, they should refer to what students learned while at the courts to help them make connections between the court and their classroom experiences.

It is also important to follow up with a note of thanks, preferably signed by the students, addressed to those who helped make the experience meaningful.