Chapter 3: The Judiciary and Civil Litigation

What is the judiciary?

The judiciary is our system of courts that allow (1) individuals and business to solve disagreements; and (2) the government to prosecute individuals accused of commiting crimes.  The Missouri judiciary has three levels: trial courts (also called circuit courts), an appellate court, and the Supreme Court of Missouri.

There is also a federal judiciary that also has three levels: trial courts (also called district courts), appellate courts (also called circuit courts of appeals), and the U.S. Supreme Court. Within the judiciary, people and businesses can file what is called a “civil lawsuit.”

What is a civil lawsuit?

A civil lawsuit is a method of solving problems between people, businesses, or other entities. Generally speaking, in a civil lawsuit, one person is trying to prove that another person is responsible for committing some type of wrong.

The person who files the lawsuit is called “the plaintiff.” The person accused of having wronged the plaintiff is called “the defendant.” A civil lawsuit starts at the first level of judiciary: the trial court.

In Missouri, a trial court is called a “circuit court.” At the trial court, the lawsuit is resolved by holding a trial in front of a judge.  Usually, if the plaintiff wins at trial, the defendant will have to pay the plaintiff money for the harm that resulted from the defendant’s actions.

Examples of situations where someone might file a civil lawsuit are:

  • When there is a car accident and the drivers in the accident want to determine who was at fault;
  • When somebody borrows money and he or she does not pay the money back; or
  • When somebody damages someone else’s property.

What happens in a civil trial?

In a civil trial, the lawyers for the plaintiff and the lawyers for the defendant each present evidence and testimony supporting their positions.  The purpose of presenting evidence and testimony is to try to convince the “fact finder” which side should win.

The type of fact finder depends on the kind of trial. There are two kinds of trials: jury trials and bench trials. In a jury trial, jury is the fact finder. A jury is group of adults randomly picked to decide who wins the trial. The jury determines the facts based on the evidence presented, and decides who wins. In a bench trial, the judge determines the facts and decides who wins the trial.

To win in a trial, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant caused the harm the plaintiff suffered. Essentially, this means that the plaintiff must prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s loss.

The plaintiff gets to present his or her arguments first. The plaintiff may present evidence such as documents, pictures, or video in support of his or her case. The plaintiff may also call witnesses to offer testimony supporting his or her position.

After the plaintiff presents evidence and testimony, the defendant gets to respond and explain his or her side of the story. This usually involves presenting evidence and testimony from witnesses showing that the defendant is not responsible for the harm suffered by the plaintiff.

Once the plaintiff and the defendant have finished presenting their cases, the fact finder considers the evidence and testimony presented at trial and issues a verdict.  Usually, if the plaintiff wins, the defendant will have to pay the plaintiff money.  If the defendant wins, the plaintiff is not awarded anything.

Although filing a lawsuit gives the plaintiff a right to a trial, not every lawsuit ends in a trial.  In fact, most lawsuits end in the parties coming to an agreement that allows them to avoid having a trial. This agreement is called a “settlement.” Typically in a settlement, the defendant will pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money to resolve the lawsuit and avoid a trial.

Why would the plaintiff and the defendant settle instead of going to trial? A trial is expensive and risky.  It might be cheaper for the defendant to settle than go to trial and risk a large verdict. A settlement is also good for the plaintiff because it guarantees the plaintiff gets at least some. With a trial, there is always the possibility that the plaintiff might not get any money.

What happens when a party to a lawsuit is unhappy about the trial result?

After the trial court, the next level of the judiciary is the “appellate court.”  The losing side at the trial court can appeal the trial court’s decision to a higher court. An appeal is like an instant replay in sports. The party that appeals the trial court’s decision asks the appellate court to take an “instant replay” of the trial court’s decision. So the lawyer bringing an appeal to the appellate court is asking the appellate judges to review the decision made by the trial court.

The appellate court is designed to fix a mistake that the trial court made.  But there must be important errors that happened in the trial court for the appellate court to change the result from the trial court. The appellate court is not designed to change or fix the trial court result just because a lawyer wants a different result—there must have been an important error.

Who hears the appeal?

An appeal takes place at the second level of the judiciary and in a different court than a trial court. In Missouri, the Missouri Court of Appeals is the second level of the judiciary.  That court handles appeals from the local trial courts. In the Court of Appeals, there are no juries or witnesses. The lawyers only argue their case before three judges and the judges will decide if there was a mistake in the trial court.

After the Missouri Court of Appeals, a case could go to the third level of the Missouri judiciary: the Supreme Court of Missouri.  With a few exceptions, a case first has to go to the Missouri Court of Appeals before it goes to the Supreme Court of Missouri.

The Supreme Court of Missouri is the final court to review disagreements in the state’s constitution and the laws. For the most part, the Supreme Court judges get to pick and choose which cases the Supreme Court hears. Only the most important and complicated cases make it to the Court.

The Supreme Court also supervises all the lower courts in the state and makes rules for them to follow.  All Missouri courts, attorneys, and judges must follow those rules.

A decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri can only be reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States.

What happens when a party appeals?

When the party seeking appeal asks the appellate court to review the case, briefs are sent to the court. A brief is a paper filed with the court. The brief states each party’s arguments. The appealing party will argue in his or her brief why the trial court’s decision was wrong. The non-appealing party will argue why the trial court’s decision was correct.

After briefs have been filed, the appellate court sets the case for oral argument. Oral argument is where the lawyers on both sides appear before the court to argue their positions and answer questions from the judges. The public may watch the arguments before the judges.

After the parties have submitted their briefs and completed oral argument, the judges discuss the case. Once the judges make a decision, an opinion is issued by the court. If the judges conclude a mistake was made at the trial court, they reverse the decision of the trial court and send the case back to that trial court to fix the mistake. If the judges conclude that a mistake was not made at the trial court, they affirm the decision.

How do you become a judge?

In Missouri, most trial court judges are selected through elections. But all appellate judges are selected through Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan, also known as The Missouri Plan. The Missouri Plan was established in 1940. When a job as a judge becomes available, lawyers can apply for the position.

The lawyers who apply are called applicants. After the applicants apply, they are interviewed by a group of people who have different jobs and backgrounds. The group that interviews the applicants is called the Appellate Judicial Commission.

The Appellate Judicial Commission picks three people out of all of the applicants.  The Appellate Judicial Commission sends three names to the Governor of Missouri.

The Governor picks one person from those three names to get the job.  The Governor has 60 days to choose a person.

After the Governor chooses a person to be a judge, the judge will have the position for one year.  After that one year, there is an election, and Missouri voters get to decide if that judge should keep his or her position as the judge, or if he or she should lose the position.

By Nathan Dunville, David McCain, and Shatrasha Stone

Paid for by the Missouri Bar, Mischa Buford Epps, Executive Director PO Box 119, Jefferson City, MO 65102