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Adjudication is a mechanism by which disputes or controversies are peacefully resolved. It is a method of conflict resolution wherein an official and formal declaration of a legal judgment or determination is rendered in a tribunal proceeding. Societies can resolve conflicts among parties in a variety of ways without recourse to formal adjudications: legislative statutory enactment of policies, mediation and arbitration in employment disputes or labor-management clashes, persuasion, compromising and negotiation among parties to a contract, marriage counseling, or even parental discipline. The diverse methods of conflict resolution can be classified according to two dimensions: the level of formality of the proceedings and the level of governmental involvement in the proceedings. The higher the level of each, the more the method displays the hallmarks of adjudication.
Both the courts and regulatory administrative agencies engage in formal adjudication. In terms of the raw numbers adjudications in the United States, agencies engage in far more than the courts do. Nevertheless, the archetypal adjudication is found in the court system, and adjudication procedures in administrative agencies increasingly resemble adjudication in the courts. The delivery of justice to aggrieved parties has been at the heart of adjudication from ancient times, but the contemporary era has developed a specific archetype of adjudication: a tribunal that establishes the facts in a dispute, assesses the relevant law and attendant guiding rules and principles, and then applies the law to the facts. Claims of all parties to the dispute are duly weighed and considered, and there are avenues for appeal by the parties of the final decision. The presiding judge must be impartial and have no vested interest in the outcome.
In the American system, courts are organized into trial and appeals courts. Both types of courts engage in adjudication, albeit with different underlying dynamics. Trial courts possess original jurisdiction; that is, they are the initial courts to hear cases. There is much variation among different court jurisdictions and judicial systems in the rules of evidence that guide and structure the establishment of the facts in trial courts. Appeals courts have appellate jurisdiction; that is, they hear appeals from parties who lost in a trial court or in a lower appeals court. Appellate courts, which are composed of a multiple judge panel, do not reconsider the facts and do not retry the case; instead, they assess the fairness of trial court proceedings by ascertaining whether the law and legal procedures were followed properly. They review trial court procedures and rulings (for example, the admissibility of evidence) for congruence with statutory and constitutional obligations. In other words, they review previous court proceedings and assess whether those court proceedings were fair.
Trial and appellate courts hear and resolve both civil and criminal cases. Criminal adjudications revolve around murder, rape, robbery, assault, embezzlement, extortion, and other acts that bring harm to society and are violations of the penal code. In criminal adjudications the government brings the legal action against the defendant. Alternatively, civil cases revolve around disputes between private parties and potential violations of private rights—the state is typically not a party in such disputes. These private disputes typically are over personal welfare, property, or finances. Judicial responses in such cases involve a judge’s declaration ordering certain actions be taken or some amount of pecuniary compensation to be awarded.
For a process of adjudication to proceed, two conditions must be met: the court must have the legal right to hear the case (jurisdiction) and the parties must have the right to bring the case before the court (standing). Jurisdictions for courts stem primarily from statutes and constitutions laying out what specific types of disputes or types of parties to a dispute fall under the purview of particular courts. The jurisdictional requirement reinforces the main function of the courts—to protect the rights of individuals. At the core of standing is that the plaintiff has suffered an actual injury or harm to a legally protected interest. Such a harm or injury must be clear and concrete and particularized to that plaintiff, and it also must be actual or immanent, not merely hypothetical or speculative. The standing requirement distinguishes the courts’ role from the role of the legislature, which is to promote the public interest and society in general. In other words, adjudications by the courts focus on more individualized-level dispute resolution, whereas the public policy-making process as conducted by legislatures focuses on more generalized-level disputes. Nevertheless, class-action lawsuits, such as those brought against the tobacco industry because of its health effects, tend to blur the line between the two.
- Baum, Lawrence. American Courts: Process and Policy, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
- Carp, Robert A., Ronald Stidham, and Kenneth L. Manning. Judicial Processes in America. 6th ed.Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.
- Melone, Albert P., and Allan Karnes. The American Legal System: Foundations, Process, and Norms. Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2003.
- Murphy,Walter F., C. Herman Pritchett, Lee Epstein, and Jack Night. Courts, Judges, and Politics: An Introduction to the Judicial Process. Boston: McGrawHill, 2006.
- Porto, Brian L. May It Please the Court: Judicial Processes and Politics in America. New York: Longman, 2001.
- Warren, Kenneth F. Administrative Law in the Political System, 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.:Westview, 2004.
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