Understanding How the U.S. Court System Really Works

Title: “I’ll take that all the way to the Supreme Court!”: Understanding How the U.S. Court System Really Works
Date: March 22, 2016
Panelist: Ethel Hong Badawi, the Assistant Director and an Assistant Professor for the Paralegal Studies program at The George Washington University
Subject: This webinar will provide a broad overview of the U.S. Court system, including the differences between state court, federal court, and specialty courts.
This webinar will help participants:

  • Understand the federal court structure
  • Compare examples of state court systems
  • Analyze the relationship between civil and criminal law suits
  • Understand the appeals process

Ethel Hong Badawi:
Ethel is the Assistant Director and an Assistant Professor for the Paralegal Studies program at The George Washington University where she teaches American Jurisprudence and Advanced Legal Writing. She has developed and delivered legal and professional development training for government agencies and law firms, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor. Ethel began her legal career as law clerk to the Hon. Ronna Lee Beck at the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. She practiced as an attorney for several years Barnes & Thornburg LLP where her primary practice areas included insolvency, commercial bankruptcy, refinance, and restructuring. Ethel received her undergraduate degree in Spanish and Economics from Wellesley College, and earned her JD from The George Washington University Law School. When she’s not working, she writes for her personal food and travel blog and enjoys long distance running.

Transcript

[Start of recorded material 00:00:00]

Kira: Hi everyone and welcome to today’s webinar titled: I’ll take that all the way to the Supreme Court! Understanding How the U.S. Court System Really Works. Presented by Ethel Hong Badawi, the Assistant Director and an Assistant Professor of GW’s Masters Degree in Paralegal Studies Online Program. We will also be taking your questions throughout our webinar and Ethel will be answering them during our Q and A session. My name is Kira and I will be your moderator. I know everyone is excited to hear from our featured speaker, so let’s go over the logistics of today’s event. First, please note our participants’ conference lines are currently placed on mute or listen only mode to ensure a smoother line of communication as this presentation is being recorded.
To communicate with me, please type your messages to me via the chat box. It’s the roundish bubble icon that lights up when activated. It should be on the top right hand corner of your screen. We will be taking your questions throughout the webinar, so please don’t hesitate to send your questions over to me via the chat box and I will bring them up to our panelist. If we’re not able to get through all of your questions within the hour, we will be sure to get in touch with you after our event and our Enrollment Advisor, [Shiromi Prava], will be happy to follow up with you at a later time on any program related question. Now let’s introduce you to our speaker.
Ethel Hong Badawi is the Assistant Director and the Assistant Professor for the Paralegal Studies Program at the George Washington University, where she teaches American Jurisprudence and Advanced Legal Writing. She has developed and delivered legal and professional development training for government agencies and law firms, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor. Ethel began her legal career as a Law Clerk to the Honorable Ronna Lee Beck at the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. She practiced as an attorney for several years at Barnes and Thornburg LLP where her primary practice areas included insolvency, commercial bankruptcy, refinance and restructuring.
Ethel received her undergraduate degree in Spanish and Economics from the Wellesley College and earner her J.D. from the George Washington University Law School. When she’s not working she writes for personal food and travel blog and enjoys long distance running. Welcome Ethel.
Ethel: Thank you Kira. Thank you for that wonderful introduction and it’s wonderful to see so many of you online with us today. As the title of the webinar indicates, this presentation is really an overview of how our U.S. court system is structured and the content of today’s presentation is really something that I cover in depth in our course in American Jurisprudence for our Paralegal Studies Program and really I take two or three courses to really break a lot of this content down. So I’ve done my best to condense the material for a one hour webinar, but again, this will sort of be a really broad overview of our court system. In order to really understand what our court system does and how it’s structured, I think it’s important to think about what takes parties to court.
Many of us may hear of people who are going to court for different things and I have just listed a few of the different types of cases that a court might see. When you look at this list in front of you; a burglary, a broken contract, an adoption, an assault, a car accident, a murder, a landlord/tenant dispute or a bankruptcy; these are very different types issues that might come before a court. What I think is important before we jump into the court structure, is to understand that the United States court system is separated into civil cases as well as criminal cases. Really broadly, a civil case tends to be something that a private citizen or private party can bring against another party, whether it’s another private citizen, whether it’s a company, whether it’s the government.
It’s a lawsuit or a dispute that can be initiated by a private citizen. Whereas a crime is something that is prosecuted by the government. Private citizens don’t have the right to prosecute crimes. The decision is left up to the District Attorney or the prosecutor for that jurisdiction. It’s important to remember that, because it’s easy to get those lines crossed. Typically, in civil disputes the remedy or the penalty might be money, monetary damages or something that we call injunctive relief; which is an action that a party has to comply with. You get this example in neighbors who fight about tree branches hanging over their bench, right? If a party were to sue their neighbor, they could do something about that tree branch but they can’t put their neighbor in jail in the way that a prosecutor can for a criminal action.
It’s also important to remember that some of these disputes can actually be both civil and criminal. The reason it’s important to know whether you’re on the civil side of things or the criminal side of things, is that it will ultimately determine what court you go to. If you take a look here at the list. I would encourage all of the participants right now to take a moment and see if you can put this list into categories, right? Ask yourself, is a burglary a crime or is it a civil action or is it both? Same thing with the broken contract or an adoption. Just take a moment to look at that list. See if you can categorize those. Here are some of the results. You can see that some of these are actually both. Right?
Some of these will fall into both the criminal and the civil action and some of them will fall only into one or another. Some good examples of this in the media that you might relate to are the cases of George Zimmerman and O.J. Simpson. I’m going to talk about O.J. Simpson first. That’s the one they actually went through the full criminal trial as well as the full civil trial. O.J. Simpson, for those of you on the line who many not be quite familiar, is a football player who was accused and tried for killing his wife. He was acquitted in criminal court. So he was found not guilty by a criminal court, but the he was found guilty in civil court.
Often times people will say that’s double jeopardy and no, it’s not because the civil action is completely different than the criminal action. You may have heard of burdens of proof. The burden of proof for a criminal action is much higher than it is for a civil action, so beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor needs to put in enough evidence to find the defendant not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in a civil action the burden is the preponderance of the evidence. So you might have enough evidence to meet the preponderance burden and find O.J. Simpson guilty in a civil matter but not guilty in a criminal matter. Okay?
So that’s how the two systems work and this is similar with George Zimmerman. There was some talk after he was acquitted of murder in Florida that he might have a civil suit against him filed by the families of the victim. Okay? It’s important to know that the two systems exist in parallel. Certainly for those of you who are students of the law this is something that we go into more depth in as we study the law but it’s important to have the broad f. Once you have that broad understanding, we can think about where these cases go to court. In addition to whether the action is civil or criminal, we also have to ask ourselves whether it falls under state law or federal law. Depending on where it falls, we go to different courts.
Matters of state law go through a state court system and matters of federal law go through a federal court system. Some issues can be both state and federal. If you were a student in our Paralegal program, we spend at least one class period talking about how to really decide that, how to find out whether it’s state or federal for those areas that overlap or what to do if a case implicates both state and federal law. How do you determine which court you would file in? But for purposes of today’s webinar, it’s just important to recognize that there are state courts as well as federal courts.
Within the state court system, you can have trial courts, appellate courts and the highest court which is usually the Supreme Court, although you should not always presume that the term Supreme Court means the highest court in the land. For example, in New York state, the Supreme Court of New York is actually a trial court, right? That lowest court in the dark purple that you see there. In the federal courts, there is also trial courts, which are the United States district courts, then there are courts of appeal and then the Supreme Court. It’s important to understand the tiers of the courts and all matters start at what we call the lowest court, which are the trial courts. You see that in the first, bottom level of this diagram. Okay? So federal vs. state law.
A really recent and current example, are the marijuana laws that are happening all throughout the country, the legalization or de-criminalization of marijuana. It’s actually important to recognize the difference between legalization and de-criminalization. It implicates what I started the webinar with, right? One is within the criminal system and one is within the civil system. De-criminalization of marijuana means that no jail time is going to be served but it might mean that you could still have a fine. This really depends on the state laws regarding marijuana, but a really broad, broad overview of the marijuana usage laws in the United States now shows that there are all sorts of conflicts between state law and federal law.
So something can be legal in a state. Let’s use Colorado as an example. Colorado has come of the most liberal marijuana use laws and without getting into the details of the law in Colorado, let’s presume for this example that it is legal to use marijuana in Colorado. You’re a Colorado citizen. Colorado says, “Yes, marijuana usage is legal. Even for recreational use and we’re going to allow our citizens to buy and use marijuana in our state.” Remember, Colorado is still part of the nation, right? It’s still subject to federal laws, so if I’m a citizen in Colorado and I decide that I want to use marijuana in the streets of Colorado.
Colorado law has told me that I’m not going to be prosecuted under Colorado state law, however if there is the FBI sitting next to me, which is a federal agency, or prosecutors from the United States Department of Justice, which is a federal agency. The federal government has not legalized or de-criminalized marijuana usage in the United States. So I can still be prosecuted under federal law prohibiting the use of marijuana in the United States, even if Colorado says it’s okay. It is no defence to say, “Well Colorado allows it Department of Justice, so you can’t prosecute me.” No, the Department of Justice is prosecuting federal laws under federal court, so the state law does not come into play in that action. Okay?
It’s really important to understand first, whether a matter is criminal or civil; but then also whether a matter falls under state or federal law. Sometimes both are implicated and those cases can be quite complicated. I think it’s really key to understand that distinction. I often talk to new students of the law who do not understand that just because the marijuana usage has been de-criminalized or legalized in a state jurisdiction is not a defence to federal prosecution. So right now there’s a real conflict of the laws in the United States on this issue and on many other issues. The marijuana issue just happens to be one that most people can relate to and know that’s happening. Okay?
So once you understand that, we can talk a little bit about court structure. The rest of this seminar is really going to focus on the federal court structure because the federal court structure is consistent across the county. So depending on where you’re calling from, your state courts may be quite different than the state courts where I am in the District of Columbia or in the Commonwealth of Virginia or on New York or in California or Indiana. Each of the state court systems have their own structure and their own jurisdiction of how cases will go into the state courts. So for me, for this webinar, it’s much easier to talk about the federal court system which is consistent across the country. In our federal court system, it’s generally a three tiered system.
We have trial courts, which are the lowest courts which you see in this diagram in green. Most of the United States district courts are divided by judicial district, that are based on geography. Once you go to a trial court, the federal district courts will hear matters of federal law – not only, but for the most part. The majority of the cases are matters of federal law. Once a trial court makes a decision, the next tier is United States Court of Appeal. These are also organized for the most part by geography and then there is the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court. Okay? That’s the overview of the structure.
Let’s talk about how a case can make its way from trial court to the Courts of Appeal and to the United States Supreme Court. Here’s a map of all of the federal districts in the United States. You can take a minute to sort of see where you live where you might be listening to this webinar from to determine what district court you would go to. As I mentioned in the previous slide, the federal district courts are all organized by geography. You are required to take your case, if you’re filing in federal court, to the United States District Court in your jurisdiction. I live in northern Virginia, so my District Court is the Eastern District of Virginia and if you look at the picture of the United States here of Virginia, you can see a white dotted line that Virginia has two districts; an eastern and a western.
Because I fall in eastern, I must file in the eastern district of Virginia. I cannot say, “Well, I work in D.C. and it’s more convenient for me to file in D.C.,” or maybe, “I go up to New York all the time. I want to file in New York.” You’re not allowed to do that. Okay? You can look at the map and see what the districts are. Within this map, you also see some color-coded regions. Those color-coded regions denote the appellate court jurisdiction. You can see that the appellate court jurisdiction is done by number, so I’m in Virginia. I’m in that greyed area and Virginia falls in the Fourth Circuit. That’s why there’s the number four over where that grey area is. Okay? You can take a minute.
You can see where your district court is. Some states are just one district, like Wyoming. And Wyoming falls in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s important to know what your local courts are, because you’re mandated to file where you live. So what is the role of the trial court? Let’s say I have a dispute. I file in trial court. What is the trial court really doing? The trial court is the fact finder, whether it’s a court that is by jury or by the judge. A case that is going to tried by the jury or the judge, the main role of the fact finder is to determine and evaluate the weight of the evidence and then the court applies the facts to the law.
So you will often hear or you may see on T.V., that there are witnesses that get called for various matters in court. Let’s say it’s a breach of contract case and you have some witnesses that come up and say, “I honored my portion of the contract. I sent all the goods to the buyer and the buyer claimed that they didn’t get them, but I sent them. It’s not my fault.” Then someone else comes and says,” Witness A says that they sent the goods, but I work at the post office in and I never received any of the goods for shipping.” What you have there is conflicting evidence. You also see this a lot in movies about crime, right? You’ll have one witness that says, “Well, I think I saw the defendant with a gun that night,” and someone else will say, “No the defendant was with me that night. You know, I’m the alibi witness.”
What’s happening there is that each of those witnesses are giving testimony under oath, under the penalty of perjury. We know that individuals have imperfect memories, right? The role of the court, in a trial court, is to weigh that evidence, that testimony and determine what is credible and what are the actual facts that surround that incident. Just because a witness says it happened, doesn’t mean that it actually happened in the way the witness testified. That’s why you can get conflicting testimony. The role of the court is to determine, “Well, who are we going to believe? Why do we believe them and how does their testimony play into the rest of the case?” The court then applies the facts to the law and issues a verdict, an outcome. Right?
We all know this about the basic trial court system. Where it gets a little bit harry, is when one party is unhappy with the outcome of the trial court. So what happens? Let’s remember that from the trial court, which is the district court here in green. The next level court are the Courts of Appeal. So I lost my case in trial and I want to appeal. What’s interesting about appeals is, I think, many people before they really study the law think that an appeal happens just because you’re not happy with the way the trial court outcome is. Right? I lost, so I’m going to appeal. Cases are not actually appealed because you’re not happy with the outcome.
That’s what it feels like but what an appellate court is almost always doing is determining whether the trial court made an error. An error that would be outcome determinative. They’ve made an error that is so grave that maybe the case would have come out differently in the trial court. That’s what you’re appealing. Parties appeal trial court errors, not just their general unhappiness with the outcome of the case. Okay? So just because you lose doesn’t mean you can appeal. I have an image here of this Serial podcast. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Serial podcast, but it’s a podcast that was released last year.
They’re currently in their second season, but in the first season they featured a young man named Adnan Sayed who was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend and this investigative reporter goes in and does a very in depth report creating a series of one hour podcasts just going over the evidence that exists in their individual’s case. What happens is, through this investigation the journalist finds that there are some key witnesses that were not called to testify at Adnan Sayed’s trial. And it really raises some questions as to whether these witnesses would have affected the outcome of the case.
As a result of the Serial podcast and the result of reviewing the evidence, the defendant, Adnan Sayed – the gentleman who was convicted of murder here filed a motion to have the appellate court just evaluate the missing evidence. What’s interesting here is the way the media paints this case and maybe it’s even your understanding of the case is that Adnan was granted an appeal and that’s a win. But that is actually very far from the legal procedure that’s happening behind the scenes. He was granted a limited scope motion to determine whether these additional witnesses could provide testimony and if so, it’s whether to reopen the trial case for a new trial where the testimony of these new witnesses or these old witnesses who were not called to testify before could testify at trial now.
We have no idea – even if the court grants that motion, which is pending so we don’t know what the court will decide. Even if the court allows that, this whole case would still have to go back to the trial court, right? He could still be found guilty again, even with the new testimony from the witnesses. So, it’s a stretch to say, “He won because he got his appeal granted.” That’s one thing I’m often emphasizing in my courses, is that the media has to summarize the case in a way that’s very easy for us to digest but it certainly tends to over-simplify the legal procedures that are happening behind the scenes. As a student of the law, as you study the law, it’s really important for you to read carefully and to read with a careful eye to the details.
In general, if there was an easy outcome to legal matters, they wouldn’t be going to court, right? Going to court is very expensive for parties and if it were cut and dry, black and white, so clear that one party should win or not; they would have settled. They wouldn’t be going to court. It’s really important as students of the law to understand that and to help others understand that because it’s very easy to overgeneralize the legal procedure. So here, outcomes of appeals – it tends to be the court finds that there is no material error and the decision of the trial court can stand. The court could say, “Yes, we see an error here,” and send it back to the trial court.
The court could say, “Yes, we see an error here and as a result of this error it actually does change the outcome of what the trial court did.” It really depends on the type of error that is being appealed and considered by the court. So just because – let me underscore this – just because you hear a party is going to appeal or won their appeal, it does not actually mean that they win their case. Winning an appeal does not automatically mean a reversal of what happened in trial court. Often times it means you have to go back to trial court to fight it out again. Okay? Alright, let’s say you’re on an appeal in the Court of Appeals and you lose that case and you want to take that “all the way to the Supreme Court”. Right?
You hear this often. “I’m going to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court,” and what’s important to realize is that number one, the Supreme Court does not take all cases. In fact, it takes a very, very, very select few of cases. So what types of cases can get to the Supreme Court? First, to get to the Supreme Court, you typically have to have a matter of federal law. The Constitution of the United States is a matter of federal law. So that’s why we often see constitutional issues going to the United States Supreme Court, right? They might be First Amendment issues, free speech issues, they might be Fourteenth Amendment issues, due process issues but they are all issues that often implicate the United States Constitution. Sometimes there’s a state law issue that also implicates that United States Constitution, that’s how it gets to the Supreme Court. Let’s back up a little bit.
Let’s say that you have a case starting in state court on a matter of state law. You take it to state trial court. Let’s go with the simple court matter like a family law case. Let’s say it’s a child custody issue. You take that to the state trial court and if you’re not happy with that outcome and you believe there is an error committed by the trial court in the application of the law then you can appeal it. What’s important here actually, is that the errors by the trial court that are going to appeal are almost always on the application of the law and not the actual facts. The facts stay as determined by the trial court. Remember when I talked about the trial courts where we have witnesses giving testimony, you have evidence being presented, you might have a smoking gun for example.
Once the trial court admits that evidence and determines that, that’s part of the record. Typically, the appellate courts are not re-investigating that. So when you go to appeal, you don’t typically have people giving testimony. The appellate stage is almost always done just on paper. It’s done by briefs. Your briefing the issue for the court, whatever the mistake is you believe the trial court committed and the appellate court is reviewing the briefs and the records determined by the trial court. Okay? Back to our child custody case. So you’re not happy, you believe the trial court applied the law incorrectly. You can appeal it to the state appellate court and then, let’s say that you’re still not happy with the that the Court of Appeals determined, yes there was an error or no, there was not an error.
You could appeal to the highest court of that state. If there are no issues of federal law implicated in that trial custody battle, it’s 100% just a matter of state law on determining which parent get custody of that child, the state Supreme Court is the highest court for that case. That case cannot be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. So right away, a statement you might hear, “I’m going to take that all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” can’t even happen under out court structure. The cases that can go from the state court system up to the United States Supreme Court need to raise federal constitutional questions.
There needs to be a violation of some constitutional right or some other federal law in order for a state case to go to the United States Supreme Court. Otherwise, the highest court in the land is the highest court in that state. With federal cases, if you’re already in federal court, it means that there is federal law that is implicated, federal jurisdiction is implicated and that case would get appealed to the United States Supreme Court of Appeals. That map that we saw. From there you could get to the United States Supreme Court. What’s interesting, that I think some students of the law don’t initially recognize – and I’m going to back a few slides here, to look at this map.
Sometimes you may have a case – let’s say you have a case that implicate federal law and it starts in Arizona, okay? So you would file – take a look at this map – you would file in the United States District Court for Arizona. You would file your appeal in the Ninth Circuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit because you can see that Arizona falls in the Ninth Circuit, that lightly blueish green shaded Ninth Circuit region. The Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit will issue a decision on that case. Let’s say you have someone very similarly situated within a very similar dispute but they live in Illinois and they file their case in the North District of Illinois.
Let’s say they live in Chicago and then they appeal their case United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, because as you can see Illinois falls in the Seventh region and they get an outcome and that outcome on the same issue – a very similar or even identical legal issue as the person who lived in Arizona but the Ninth Circuit comes out with a different decision. You can have live conflicting law in the United States on the same issue. You can have conflicting courts interpreting the same federal law. The Ninth Circuit might say, “This is the outcome,” and the Seventh Circuit might say, “There is an opposite outcome.”
This is what we call a Circuit split in the United States. There are often Circuit splits that start to bubble up where you get two or three Circuits that fall on one side of the issue and two or three Circuits that fall on another side of an issue. These types of disputes, Circuit splits, tend to be ones that the Supreme Court will eventually hear. The United States Supreme Court will eventually hear to settle the split, right? Because in each jurisdiction, people who live in the Eighth Circuit, they’re subject to the way the Eighth Circuit interprets that law. People who live in the Seventh Circuit are subject to the way the Seventh Circuit interprets that law.
And if those two Circuits are conflicting in the way they interpret the law, it’s just too bad for the people that live there. Right? People in Illinois have to follow one thing and people in South Dakota have to follow another thing until it is resolved by the United States Supreme Court. Sometimes you’ll get a split and you’ll see this happening in the legal profession and sometimes the Supreme Court will purposely wait. Wait for more Circuits to weigh in on the issue before they actually take a case to resolve the split. Once the split is resolved, then we have coherent national law on that federal issue that the Supreme Court resolved.
That’s often when attorney’s, legal teams are evaluating whether to bring a case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That could be a factor, right? If we know that there’s a significant split happening in the United States, it might weigh a little bit more heavily in the Supreme Court’s determination of whether or not to consider a case. Okay? So let’s go back here to my Supreme Court example. The other issue that the United States Supreme Court will take are issues of international matters, so if the United States as a whole gets into a legal dispute with another nation, if we get into a dispute with Canada or with Mexico, the United States Supreme Court might take that case or if states get into issues.
So sometimes we see this with state boundary issues. This might happen with two states who are bordering each other who are having a dispute over pollution, for example. Or any other sort of intra-boundary issue, disputes between states; the Supreme Court might consider that case. But regular citizens like you or I, who have state law based disputes, cannot actually take our cases to the United States Supreme Court unless there is a matter of federal law or constitutional law implicated in our dispute. So the next time you hear that statement, “I’m going to take this all the way to the Supreme Court,” you, sort of. start to know what questions to ask. Right? Be skeptical when you hear someone saying that.
You want to ask, “Is this a criminal or civil case? Is this a state or federal case? What courts have they gone to?” Right? Very few matters can start at the Supreme Court or at the highest court of that state jurisdiction. You almost always have to go through the appellate process; starting in the trial court, appealing to an appellate court and then appealing again to the highest court whether that’s the United States Supreme Court or highest court in your state jurisdiction. So that’s the really broad overview of the way the United States court system is structured. I would encourage all of you if you’re interested in this subject to really think about doing a little research and determining how your own state court system is structured.
In my courses and the Paralegal Studies program, one of the first assignments we have is to research one state’s court system and then we do a comparison of how different each of the state courts systems are and how it relates to the federal court system. I would encourage all of you with an interest in the law to really do some research. Where would you file a dispute? If you have a dispute with a neighbor, if you have a dispute with a broken contract; where would you file that case in your state court system? Some sate court systems have family courts, probate court, small claims court, landlord/tenant court. Some states just have a general trial court where you would start things. Each state would be very different in their court structure and it’s important to understand that process in order to understand how the law works, how the law gets interpreted in your particular jurisdiction. So that’s most of the formal content I have prepared today. I’m happy to take some questions if you’ve typed some questions in. I think Kira is going to help me facilitate some of the questions that may have been asked.
Kira: Yes, thank you Ethel. The first question we have is concerning the difference between the civil and – in civil, is it guilty or not guilty? Or is it, responsible or not responsible?
Ethel: In civil we typically use the terms liable or not liable. We don’t typically use the terms guilty or not guilty. The terms guilty or not guilty are typically only used in criminal cases. So if you find a party liable in civil, it is sort of the equivalent of guilty, right? They are liable for whatever action it was that you were suing on.
Kira: Okay. How many cases are accepted by the Supreme Court annually?
Ethel: That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. It’s probably something we could Google into, but it varies. So you apply, you – if you’ve heard the term a writ of certiorari, that’s the document that parties have to submit the United States Supreme Court to ask them to hear your case. There’s also something called the writ of habeas corpus. That’s another way you can ask the Supreme Court to hear your case but you have to file with Supreme Court asking them to take the case and then the Supreme Court evaluates all of the applications for appeals that it gets and it determines which cases it will hear in that particular session. I don’t actually know off the top of my head how many cases they hear in a year, although I’d be happy to take a look. I’m certain you could find it in the Supreme Court website. You can always find the list of cases that they are going to hear in the current year and I’m certain you can go in past years and count how many cases they’ve heard.
Kira: Thanks Ethel. How do previous SCOTUS decisions get overturned?
Ethel: SCOTUS stands for the Supreme Court of the United States. You might sometimes hear people use the term Scotus, they’re referring to the Supreme Court of the United States. They get overturned only by other Supreme Court decisions. It’s quite difficult. You have to have another case that percolates up through the trial court system to a point where the Supreme Court says, “You know what? I think it’s time to re-visit one of our past decisions and perhaps re-evaluate and come out with a different outcome.” It’s not common and it takes a lot of time. Typically, decades pass before you get decisions that will overrule one of the past Supreme Court decisions, but only the Supreme Court can go against its own precedent. For those of you who know a little but about the United States Supreme Court system or other common law systems, our legal system is based on precedent; which means that the decisions of prior courts influence the way current courts determine or interpret the law. Right? So that’s the reason why the Supreme Court decision affects all the federal courts below it, because it hold the highest precedent.
Kira: How can a Paralegal just be prepared to participate in this process, Ethel? Do you have any advice?
Ethel: Oh goodness. There are lot of ways Paralegals are involved in the process. If you’re dealing with the United States court systems, you’re typically on the litigation side, although you don’t always have to be but in the law – and this can be a whole other webinar – there are what legal professionals think of as divide – it’s not a clear divide – between litigation and transactional law. Transactional law tends to be – the easiest way to describe it is sort of contracts. You can sign a document, enter into a contract. If any of you have purchased a house or leased an apartment, you probably did that without ever going to a court. You just enter into an agreement, bam, you’ve rented an apartment, right? That’s typically transactional and until it actually goes to court, you’re on one side of that divide.
The litigation component is when there’s some sort of dispute, like the ones we’ve been talking about today. And for Paralegals who are involved in litigation, there are so many roles for Paralegals. You could be doing research on the law to determine the weight of the case. Is this a good case to take? What’s our chances of winning? What are the strengths of our case? What are the weaknesses of our case? Paralegals have a role in drafting documents, assisting attorneys in drafting documents that are going to be filed in court; whether that’s the initial complaint, the document that starts a lawsuit, whether it’s a motion asking the court for permission to do something, whether it’s drafting the appeal.
There are all levels of Paralegals doing legal drafting. It could be preparing witnesses, preparing questions for witnesses. It could be reviewing documents to determine what documents should be used as evidence. Paralegals really are part of a legal team to work through each stage litigation, whether it’s at the trial court, appellate court or at the highest level of the courts. Indeed, one of our alumnus of our Paralegal Studies program is working at the United States Supreme Court now doing just that. She helps the attorneys and the judges at the U.S. Supreme Court prepare the decisions that are published, that we all read about in the newspapers. Paralegals are involved at all levels of litigation.
Kira: Wonderful and I’m sure many of our attendees today are curious about how they can leverage on the GW education, the Masters Degree in Paralegal Studies Online Program. This is something that you would be able to complete entirely online, so it wouldn’t disrupt your career momentum and our Recruitment Services Department, we are accepting applications right now for the Summer 1 term which begins May 9th. If you have any questions about the application process, course selection, anything like that, please get in touch with Shiromi Prava and she can be reached at 1-888-989-7069, extension 3251 and her email is just there on your slide. I’m just going over the application requirements as well, so you have some context when you’re speaking with Sheromi. For the application we’re looking at the online application form through GW’s application website.
There’s an application free of $75.00 and we also want to have your statement of purpose where you would illustrate motivation, your background, why the Paralegal program is the right fit for you. Just so we can understand more about your aspirations, your career path and aspirations as well. Of course, a current resume and two letters of recommendation and official transcripts from all schools attended. If you have any additional questions, please refer them to me via the chat box and we will continue with our Q and A. This is a very wonderful experience to hear from Ethel, who is the Assistant Professor of our Masters Degree in Paralegal Studies Online Program, both a certificate and the graduate degree are available completely online.
It’s a really wonderful opportunity for you to immerse yourself in the legal world, make a difference and impact your community and we really thank you for your participation today and let’s go on with the Q and A. So Ethel the next question we have is, can you describe – provide our audience with a little more basis about the curriculum of the program? I understand that there are 10 courses and also the practicum component. Would be able to give us an overview of how that’s going to prepare our Paralegals as well as people who are looking to enter into the field?
Ethel: Absolutely. Our program consists of what we call a core program, some upper level speciality courses and then the capstone experience. In each of these courses, we’ve designed the program to really cater to what we believe are the needs of the students but also what the legal marketplace has told us that they’re looking for in their Paralegals. So the curriculum starts with an American Jurisprudence class. You’ve gotten a flavor of that class today. The American Jurisprudence class is a legal survey class. It touches on various areas of the law to warm you up for the rest of the curriculum, right? Then we have a strong emphasis on oral and written communications in the program, so you see the thread going through each of the courses.
One of the courses is Legal Research and Writing. Another course is Advance Legal Writing. Obviously those are really focused on getting you the skills to conduct legal research, which is very, very different than traditional research that you may have done in your academic studies before, as well as legal writing. Legal writing is its own entity. You can be a wonderful writer, you can have written many, many different things in many, many different contexts and legal writing is sort of its own beast. And so we really focus a lot of time on perfecting and strengthening those legal writing skills. From there you will take classes in – again, that divide I refer to in the webinar, the transactional courses: business entities, contracts.
You’ll take a litigation course, you’ll take an intellectual property class, a government contracts class, an international law class, each of these bringing more depth to your legal knowledge and what I think is important for students to understand is that even if there’s a particular that isn’t really your cup of tea, maybe you really are interested in international law but less interested in intellectual property – what I think is most important in all of the classes in addition to the subject matter is really learning something new and learning to analyze legal issues because even in our day to day work we don’t always get to determine they types of cases we will have to work on, whether we love the subject matter or not, we need to learn it for our day to day work.
I think that’s one thing the program really emphasizes as well and that ends in the capstone experience, which is an independent writing thesis sort of course where you have to do research and draft an in depth paper and present that paper, as well as a practicum experience where you can get legal experience, experience in a law office whether it’s at a non-profit, at a government entity, a private law office, to really apply what you’ve learned in the program. I actually teach the practicum course and we do a lot of professional development and goal setting in that class to really say, “You have the substantive knowledge now, what is it that you need to do to apply that substantive knowledge?” so that you can really take that next step in your career and you have a path forward.
A lot of people, I think, let their careers dictate them. They say, “Oh well, you know, I fell into this job and then someone else quit so there was this opening and I got the promotion,” and of course you need to do things to get that promotion but you can also be quite a bit more deliberate and plan to have that next step in your career, rather than waiting around for an opportunity to present itself. All of that is included in our program. All of the courses are offered online. It’s a fully online program and our faculty members interact in some way like this webinar, although we also have some live video that we can use to connect with our students from all over the country and quite frankly, all over the world.
Kira: Thank you and for someone who is looking into applying into the program and may have a GPA – our GPA requirement is 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. What is your advice for someone who is a little shy of the 3.0? What do we look for in an application portfolio? And what advice do you have for someone who might be shy of the requirements?
Ethel: My advice for that is the same as the advice I give for applicants to jobs that our graduating from our programs, which is those are guidelines and preferences but each of us has a unique life experience that we bring to the community, right? That’s what makes out student body so robust, that’s how we learn from each other. If you’re shy of that GPA requirement I would encourage you to submit your application and really highlight other things about your unique experience. Why are you interested in our program? What do you have to bring? Maybe you’re shy on GPA, but maybe you’ve had this wonderful, wonderful experience working in a law office as an administrative assistant or maybe you’ve had some life experience that’s really touched you and brought you closer to the law, that makes you interested in studying the law further.
I would say, highlight those other experiences so we can really understand who you are as whole person and how are you going to contribute to our community of students and alumni, right? GW has a wonderful community of students and alumni that really help each other out. We have this in online courses and in person courses, you will take your GW connections and they will be with you for life. What we’re looking for is someone who is going to contribute to that community.
Kira: Wonderful and it looks like we are just a couple of minutes away from the hour. I really thank all of our audience and to Ethel, our presenter today for taking the time to be with us and to share your questions as well as your knowledge. I hope you found this webinar to be informative and we will continue to have more webinars throughout the year. There is one coming up in two weeks as well. You’ll be seeing an invitation for that. I really thank you for your attendance. Upcoming start date is this summer and we are currently accepting applications. Please get in touch with Shiromi, your Enrollment Advisor, for any questions you may have and I hope that you will join GW’s Masters Degree in Paralegal Studies Program and it is a completely online program, both for the certificate track as well as for the graduate degree. Ethel, do you have any final thoughts for the audience?
Ethel: No, I just love that there are so many participants today. It really shows that there is a robust interest in the law. It’s a wonderful area to study and learn about and I really hope that we see some of the attendees in our classes. I would love to get to know more people and really build that community at GW.
Kira: Excellent. Thank you so much everyone and I hope you all have a wonderful day.
Interviewer: Great, thank you.
[End of recorded material 00:59:52]

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