Court Culture

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In California, courts have a “culture” which is based on the English “common law” tradition. As there are other legal traditions around the world, people don’t always know what to expect when they enter a courtroom.

The following are some general principles upon which a California court will operate.

  • The judge or jury is to make all decisions based on the “rule of law.”  All people are to be treated equally in the courtroom, regardless of race, creed, sex, economic status, political power, place of birth, and so on. (This is not the case in all societies.)
  • The law used is civil law, not religious law.  The laws of California are made by legislatures, judges, and government employees. While the laws may be based on what some people call Christian values, they apply to everyone – of every religious tradition. (Each religion – Hinduism, Judaism, Islamic, etc.- has its own set of laws. These are respected but not applied in California courts.)
  • The “rule of law” includes complex sets of rules and procedures.  There are “rules of court,” “rules of evidence,” and more, plus court procedures to be followed that can be quite rigid. Everyone who uses the court system is expected to know these rules and procedures, and to follow them.
  • The point of the trial is to decide who is right and who is wrong, and to punish the wrong-doer.  The “common law” tradition is very adversarial. It looks for proof of wrong-doing, and decides suitable punishment. (In contrast, the goal of the legal systems in some societies is to learn what the victim needs and to restore relationships.)
  • Each participant in the case is expected to present his or her side of the story to the judge or jury (or to have a lawyer present it for him or her).  In the “common law” culture, each side is expected to give oral arguments in front of the judge that explain what the facts are, as they see them, and suggest how the law should be interpreted in this case. (In contrast, in many legal systems the judge will ask each side a series of questions that the judge believes need to be answered for a just decision to be made.)
  • People involved in most civil and criminal cases have the right to a trial by jury.  The “common law” culture includes the direct involvement of society in the legal framework. “Ordinary citizens” are often the judge of facts in a case. (In many societies there is no jury system.)
  • Western social “constructs” were created by, and are the basis of, the law.  California law is based on a set of legal “constructs” that have developed in western culture. These include corporations, contracts, estates, rights and powers. (The concepts of private ownership, individual rights, and businesses as “legal entities” that can sue and be sued, for example, do not exist in many cultures.)
  • Law is not fixed “in stone:” the judge has some flexibility.  There are certain principles of law that should not change from case to case. But every day the legislature is passing new laws, each week government agencies are issuing new regulations, and there is a continuous flowing of court cases. This means that the law is not as fixed as one would think. Also, it is the job of the judge to decide how the law applies to the case being considered. So there can be no certainty about the outcome of a court case in California.
  • A person’s name will be recorded in the English tradition.  California court forms, computer databases, and so on, are set up to record a person’s name as: (1) a “given” name or “first” name, (2) a middle name – or the first letter of a middle name, and, (3) the family name of the person’s father. There is no room for the mother’s family name, as is used in many cultures. There is no space to include the name of a person’s tribe, if the person has three other names. The place of birth will not fit if there are three other names. If a person only has one name, he or she will be asked for more names. (These same cultural traditions would have been used by the U.S. immigration department.)
  • The date will be written: month, day, year.  California court forms, computer databases, and so on, are set up to record a date in this order: month, day, year. (And the year will be the same as that used by the culture at large – the Gregorian version of the Christian calendar. Each religion – Hinduism, Judaism, Islamic, etc.- has its own calendar. These are respected but not used in California courts.)
  • Measurements of time play an important part in court procedure.  There are many court rules about time: what can be done when, how long a person has to accomplish certain processes, and so on. Emphasis is on efficiency. (Different cultures value time differently.)

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