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What is a Court?

A court is an institution that the government sets up to settle disputes through a legal process. People come to court to resolve their disagreements. Did Bill Jones run a red light before his car ran into John Smith's, or was the light green, as he says it was? Did Frank Williams rob the bank? Courts decide what really happened and what should be done about it. They decide whether a person committed a crime and what the punishment should be. They also provide a peaceful way to decide private disputes that people can't resolve themselves.

The "Adversary Process"

Courts use the adversary process to help them reach a decision. Through this process, each side presents its most persuasive arguments to the "fact finder" (either a judge or a jury) and emphasizes the facts that support its case. Each side also draws attention to any flaws in its opponent's arguments. The fact finder then decides the case. American judicial tradition holds that the truth will be reached most effectively through this adversary process.

Impact of Court Decisions

The work of the courts may affect many people besides those directly involved in the lawsuit. For example, the Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, that it was unconstitutional to require white children and black children to attend separate schools, meant not only that plaintiff Linda Brown could enroll in a formerly all-white school, but also that other African-American children could, too. (Of course, this didn't happen overnight; court orders implementing the decision were not always obeyed.) Court decisions not only tell those involved in the case what their rights are, but also tell other people how the courts would probably decide similar cases. When the decision is made by a court with a broad geographic reach, such as the U.S. Supreme Court or the supreme court of a state, it can provide guidance to people who are considering legal action and may help them resolve their dispute without going to court.

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