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Guide to the Federal Judicial System

How a Civil Case Proceeds in Federal Court

A. Jurisdiction. Federal courts do not have the same broad general jurisdiction that state courts have. Federal courts, which are courts of limited jurisdiction, are only able to hear certain types of cases as they are listed in the Constitution and federal statutes. Nonetheless, they have the power to hear civil, as well as criminal, cases.

For the most part, federal courts hear cases in which the United States is a party, cases involving violations of the Constitution or federal laws, cases involving foreign diplomats, and some special types of cases, such as bankruptcies and cases concerning incidents at sea or in the air. Federal courts also hear cases based on state laws that involve parties from different states.

The federal government doesn't have to be a party to a civil case in federal court. If jurisdiction is appropriate for a given case, any person or group may sue any other person or group in a federal civil case.

B. Civil Cases and the United States Attorney's Office. While criminal cases tend to receive more media publicity than civil cases, the fact remains that most cases in federal courts are civil rather than criminal. It may surprise you to know that although the staff of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri expends more work hours on criminal than on civil matters, approximately 75 percent of the office caseload is civil in nature. The office's civil workload, including financial litigation cases, normally exceeds 1,400 pending cases and matters at any given time.

The clients of the United States Attorney in civil cases are the various departments and agencies of the federal government. Types of cases range from defense of damages actions under the Federal Tort Claims Act to affirmative litigation such as pursuit of civil penalties for environmental violations. The Civil Division of the United States Attorney's Office also serves as a collection agent for judgments taken on debts owed the federal government, including delinquent student loans, Small Business Administration loans in default, and unpaid criminal fines.

Principal client agencies in the Western District of Missouri, among others, include the Internal Revenue Service, principally in collection and bankruptcy matters; the Veterans Administration; the Department of Agriculture; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and the various military branches.

C. How a Civil Case Proceeds. A federal civil case begins when someone--or more likely, someone's lawyer--files a paper with the clerk of the court that states a claim against the person believed to have committed a wrongful act. This is referred to as a plaintiff filing a complaint against the defendant. The defendant may then file an answer to the complaint. These written statements of the positions of the parties are known as pleadings.

There is a right to a trial or a hearing in civil cases if the court finds it has jurisdiction and there is no legal impediment to letting the case proceed. But because trials are often emotionally and financially draining, a person may not wish to exercise his or her right to trial. Also, if the court grants summary judgment to either party or decides to dismiss the case, no trial is held. Thus, about 90 percent of all civil cases never come to trial. A similar proportion of criminal defendants plead guilty rather than stand trial.

If the parties in a case can't agree on how to settle the case on their own or through independent arbitration, the court will decide the dispute through a trial. In a civil trial, the purpose is to determine whether a defendant failed to fulfill a legal duty to the plaintiff.

Many civil cases are not subject to a trial by jury. Assuming a jury trial is available, any party may request one. If the party chooses to have a jury trial, determining the facts is the task of the petit jury, or trial jury. If the parties decide not to have a jury and to leave the fact-finding task to a judge, the trial is called a bench trial. In either kind of trial, the judge decides what legal standards to apply. With certain exceptions, civil trials proceed the same as criminal trials, in that they use an adversary process to allow each side to present evidence, including exhibits and testimony.

Standards of proof are different, however. In criminal trials, the government must prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." But in civil trials, in order to decide for the plaintiff, the jury or bench trial judge must determine by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty and violated the plaintiff's rights. A "preponderance of the evidence" means that more of the evidence favors the plaintiff's position than favors the defendant.

In civil cases, if the jury or bench trial judge decides in favor of the plaintiff, the judge usually orders the defendant to pay the plaintiff money, referred to as damages, or to take some specific action that will restore the plaintiff's rights, or to do a combination of both. If a defendant wins a case, there is nothing more the trial court needs to do, except decide whether the plaintiff must pay certain costs and fees incurred by the defendant in defending the case.