Federal Trial Practice

The federal court system receives its power directly from the US Constitution. As a result, the federal courts hear many important legal issues, but the daily legal business of the country tends to revolve around the more flexible state courts.

A litigant must establish that the federal court possesses subject matter jurisdiction over his or her case before it may be resolved. Under the American system, the Constitution grants limited power to the federal courts to decide certain subjects or types of cases. The federal courts possess the power to decide cases for which state courts are inappropriate. Therefore, conflicts between states, conflicts between an individual state and a citizen of another state or conflicts between citizens of different states are all subject to federal jurisdiction. Federal court jurisdiction also covers cases regarding interstate commerce. As an example, federal diversity jurisdiction allows the federal courts to hear disputes between citizens of different states that involve more than $75,000. If state courts heard these types of cases, their objectivity might be drawn into question, but federal courts have no vested interest in particular state allegiances.

In addition to interstate disputes, the US Constitution extends federal court authority to cases involving ambassadors, consuls and other public representatives. Disputes between US citizens and foreign nationals may also be brought to the federal courts. Because cases involving other nations' representatives or citizens may affect US foreign relations, such cases are decided in the federal courts. The Constitution further grants the federal courts power to hear cases involving the Constitution as a law, laws enacted by Congress, treaties and laws relating to navigable waters and commerce on them. Finally, federal courts have some limited powers to decide criminal law cases involving federal offenses.

The federal court must also have personal jurisdiction over the parties to the suit. The federal court must have the power to render a judgment against the named defendant, either because he or she is domiciled in the federal district in which the court sits or somehow has a connection with the district. If a defendant has minimum contacts with the court's district, whether by doing business in that area or by owning property therein, the court might have personal jurisdiction over that individual.

A lawsuit commences with service of a summons and complaint upon the defendant and the court, which states the plaintiff's case and the desired relief. The defendant must either respond with an answer to the complaint or a motion to dismiss. The answer may assert procedural defenses (i.e., the court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case); contest or deny allegations stated in the complaint; or advance affirmative defenses (i.e., the plaintiff signed an arbitration clause and cannot bring the dispute to court). A motion to dismiss alleges that the complaint fails to state a claim for which there is a legal remedy.

Example: Denise offers to paint Nancy's office as a birthday present but never starts the work. Nancy sues Denise for failing to paint her office. Denise could move to dismiss because she did not enter into a legally enforceable promise to paint the office, so there is no legal basis for Nancy's lawsuit and consequently no way a court could adjudicate the matter.

If an answer is filed or if a motion to dismiss fails, then the lawsuit continues. Prior to the trial, the parties proceed with discovery. Discovery allows each side an opportunity to gather and review evidence from the other party in order to unearth the factual background of the dispute. The court oversees the discovery process, which may include the names of witnesses, the contents of documents and the bases for calculations of damages in the case. Additionally, the parties may serve interrogatories (lists of written questions for response) on one another and complete depositions (in-person interviews under oath of certain witnesses). Discovery helps each side define its arguments and may, in some instances, lead to settlement as explanatory or exculpatory information comes to light.

If the plaintiff cannot support his or her claim with evidence gathered during discovery, the claim may be dismissed prior to trial via summary judgment. Summary judgment is granted to defendants who show that there is no factual dispute on which to proceed to trial. If a genuine issue of fact does exist, the motion for summary judgment will fail and the parties will go to trial.

At trial, both parties make opening statements, followed by the presentation of the plaintiff's case through the examination of witnesses. The defendant may cross-examine each witness, which may be followed by redirect by the plaintiff's attorney. At the end of the plaintiff's case, the defendant may move for a directed verdict. A directed verdict means that even if the plaintiff's case is taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, he or she still fails to show that he or she is entitled to a legal remedy. If the motion is not granted, the defendant presents his or her arguments in the same manner as the plaintiff. Both parties make a closing argument and review the jury instructions before the close of the trial. After a verdict is rendered, the losing party may move for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial. A motion for judgment as a matter of law (or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict) asks that the court replace a jury verdict with its own decision. If none of these motions are granted, the losing party may choose to appeal the decision based on errors committed by the trial court or on the misapplication of the law to the factual record.

Trial practice is very demanding and involves not just the ability to think on one's feet but also the specialized procedural and legal knowledge to navigate through the many deadlines, formal requirements, and jurisdictional and legal issues. Persons interested in pursuing federal litigation should seek an attorney with trial expertise.

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