Judicial System 101 (Is the justice system just?)


The judicial system is made up of courts,
judges, juries, defenders and prosecutors. Together, they interpret the law and decide
how to punish those who break it. This is one of the three branches of government,
and probably the most important for checking executive power, including Presidents and
the police. On paper, judges exist to stop the powerful,
from exercising their power without justification. That makes them essential to upholding our
constitution and protecting our democracy from corrupt leaders. Many judges are elected officials, but still,
most of us don’t know much about who they are or what they do. Let’s start on the federal level, with the
94 district courts scattered around the country and on islands and other US territories. These courts are the entry point for cases
involving federal law or where the federal government is a party to the litigation, either
as a defendant or plaintiff. These courts handle cases like constitutional
rights violations, mail or internet fraud, tax evasion and drug trafficking, which all
add up to about 350,000 cases a year. If the losing party in one of these cases
doesn’t like the outcome and wants to appeal, the case will move on to be heard in, you
guessed it, a Court of Appeals. These are also called Circuit Courts. If a decision from one of these courts is
appealed, the case might go all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is a body of 9 Justices
who have the final say over all federal cases. Since the landmark decision of Marbury v Madison
in 1803, the Supreme Court also has the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional. That means they also provide a check on the
power of the legislative branch of government. The Supreme Court hears about 100-150 cases
a year, out of about 8000 they’re asked to review. If they don’t choose to take your case,
don’t take it personally, but the decision of the Circuit court would end up being final. Federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices,
are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate, and usually serve for life. As important as our federal court system is,
most people may not ever have a reason to interact with it. 350,000 cases a year may sound like a lot,
but the US system of state courts see over 100 million cases a year! Also, Federal prisoners only make up about
12% of the prison population. About 57% of prisoners are held by the states. Georgia’s court system is set up similarly
to the federal government. It’s a bit more complex because there are
a number of courts where a case could begin, each with a different specialty. For example, the State Court of Athens-Clarke
County handles misdemeanors and general civil cases, except for domestic relations. The Superior Court handles all felonies. I’m Lisa Lott and I am one of the Superior
Court judges for the Western Judicial Circuit. That includes Clarke and Oconee Counties. In Superior Court, there are four judges,
and we deal with all felony criminal cases and really all civil cases. Custody and divorce are exclusively in the
realm of Superior Court, but the bulk of what Superior Court does is felony criminal cases
and family law. All of these judges are elected by the people,
and most serve 4 year terms. Judges on the Courts of Appeals and Justices
on the Georgia Supreme Court serve 6 year terms. On the local level, we have several courts
including Magistrate Court, Probate Court, Juvenile Court and Municipal Court. If someone appeals a decision of one of these
courts, they’ll wind up in the state Superior Court. Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope was appointed
by the mayor and is confirmed by the commission every two years. The jurisdiction of the Municipal Court, generally
throughout the state of Georgia, is that it adjudicates traffic offenses, that’s what
it’s probably most known for. In most jurisdictions, it would also handle
ordinance violations and some minor misdemeanors. So that is the bulk of my case load. And then the traffic could be anything from
a seatbelt up to driving under the influence of alcohol would probably be the most serious
offense you could have in municipal court. Now, we have a general understanding of the
structure of the judicial system, but there are a few important positions I haven’t
mentioned yet. The District Attorney and Solicitor are both
elected positions. The DA is responsible for prosecuting felonies
and the Solicitor is responsible for misdemeanors. The flip-side of the District Attorney is
the District Public Defender’s Office, which defends those accused of crimes but who can’t
afford to hire an attorney. My name is John Donnelly and my title is the
Circuit Public Defender. So, I am a laywer at the Public Defender’s
office, staff of 18 lawyers actually, and I’ve worked there for a little over 25 years. Now let’s expand our conversation beyond
courts and judges to discuss our criminal justice system as a whole, including prisons
and the police. The United States has the highest number of
people behind bars of any country in the world. We even have the highest incarceration rate
– yes, higher than Cuba, higher than China. Our police are heavily armed and kill more
people over a period of days than they do in many countries for an entire year. We put 5 times the number of children behind
bars than any other country. Do you think the criminal justice system needs
reform, and if so how? Yeah, it does! Yes, absolutely. I think the justice system always, always
can be reformed. There are certainly many things wrong in our
justice system across the nation. There are certainly areas that are constantly
being worked on, and in some jurisdictions are better than others. So I feel like the Leslie Knope of the justice
system sometimes, because I do feel like we can do good things, even though that might
not always be the public perception. And as a judge, we are sometimes limited in
what we can do. I can’t just say I don’t like this law
and not do anything about that law. I think that the thing that could have the
biggest impact would happen outside of the criminal justice arena. The school system, with the, you know, just,
employment opportunities, to address as I said sort of this rift in society between
the haves and the have-nots. But, within the criminal justice system, yeah
there are reforms to be made. Some of them have started happening. I think that, you know, as probably natural
they are starting with the lowest, the easiest things. Georgia has been a front-runner in the past
decade in reforming the criminal justice system, and it really started under Governor Deal. Certainly from reducing the “prison pipeline”
as people refer to it, reducing the number of people incarcerated, making sure that pro
se people have access to the courts, making sure that people who are drug-addicted, substance-abuse
defendants don’t just go to prison and we shut the door and not treat them. We’ve seen that approach expand to mental
health issues with our mental health court treatment and accountability court, veterans
court, and I think some of those philosophies are now getting into just how we deal with
our day-to-day cases. Even if someone isn’t a repeat offender
that’s going into one of those accountability court-type programs, I think the judges in
general realize that what may have happened in the past, just because something was always
done that way, doesn’t mean it should continue to be done that way. Mandatory minimums on certain felony offenses,
that would be, in my opinion, a big thing to get rid of. People end up in the criminal justice system
for things that sound insignificant, like driving on a suspended license or without
a license, and that can snowball into bigger issues, and you would be surprised at the
number of days people spend in jail just for driving without a license, and maybe if there
was a program where people, licenses could be issued in high school if they took a mandatory
driver’s ed class or something. It’s true we’ve made some real reforms
in Georgia over the past several years. We’ve also made reform here in Athens, and
we seem poised to continue making change for years to come. But are these changes happening quickly enough? At what point is this a losing proposition? If we’re putting someone in jail, sending
them to prison for a year or two years for shoplifting? Who is being punished more at that point,
if it’s going to cost the taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars. Change isn’t going to come overnight. But if we stay informed and stay engaged,
it will come eventually. Yes! People should absolutely care about the justice
system and who their judges are. The courts, even on something as minor as
traffic offenses, can really impact someone’s life. The amount of money a speeding fine can cost,
what it can do to someone’s insurance, whether or not they get to keep their license based
on how fast the speed is, or how serious their offense is. The courts obviously have a huge impact on
the lives of the individuals who come before them. Sheriff, the Solicitor General, CR Chisholm
currently, the District Attorney; those are very powerful positions! They have the authority to lock folks up,
and particularly in the DA’s office, to lock them up for a long time. Most of the voters would want them to be good
at their job, to put away the bad guys, so to speak. So there is that, but there’s also the responsibility
about exercising discretion in who to prosecute and for how long. With the Sheriff and DA up for election in
May, Athens will have a chance to further reform our criminal justice system. You can subscribe to my channel to keep up
to date on the state and local-level elections happening in 2020. I’m going to do interviews with candidates,
create a voter guide and more. I’ll see you on the next one.

5 Responses

  1. Janderius says:

    Keep up the good work man, awesome video. Very informative! I like this format!

  2. LogicianTenderstone says:

    If only what is on paper could be translated to reality. We might not have so many white-collar criminals getting away with everything including murder.

  3. LogicianTenderstone says:

    Well done Chris. Makes it so much easier to understand the court system hierarchy.

  4. LogicianTenderstone says:

    We have more people in prison but more stupid people committing stupid crimes. So much for the deterrent Factor.

    But most of the people are probably incarcerated for crimes that probably shouldn't be crimes in the first place.

    So what does this tell us? We have very stupid lawmakers and very stupid citizens who don't find incarceration to be a deterrent for actual crimes that are legitimately punishable.

    Then there are the white collar criminals who don't get nearly the punishment they should get, if any, and as we have seen many times but especially more recently, crimes committed by people as high up as the White House.

  5. LogicianTenderstone says:

    Selective immunity is a big problem in this country. The people in power are given immunity no matter what they do.

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