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Judicial Branch

The judicial branch of U.S. government resolves legal disputes as well as interprets the law.



Judicial Branch

The judicial branch of government is the court system. It is comprised of trial courts (to determine the facts) and appellate courts (to interpret or clarify the Constitution, statutes, regulations and common law).

  • For example, North Dakota Constitution, Article VI, sections 2 and 8 state "The supreme court shall be the highest court of the state. It shall have appellate jurisdiction . . ." and "The district [trial] court shall have original jurisdiction [where the lawsuits are initiated] of all causes ..."

The court system is our mechanism for resolving disputes (it is better than using force or resorting to violence to resolve disputes).

"Litigation is civilized war." Doug Nill, attorney and '81 NDSU graduate, BS Ag Economics, quoted in AGWEEK , May 10, 2004, page 30.


Types of Court Cases

There are primarily two types of court cases.

    • Criminal -- state or federal government charges a person with a crime; penalty will be either imprisonment or a fine. As a general rule, criminal cases arise in the food industry when a firm continuously or knowing violates a food law.  This behavior will cause government to charge the food business and its owners or managers with a crime.
      • "A criminal action is one prosecuted by the state as a party against a person charged with a public offense for the punishment thereof." N.D.C.C. §32-01-05.
      • "The owners of the farm linked to the Colorado 2011 cantaloupe listeria outbreak that killed 33 and sickened at least 147 people in 28 states have been charged criminally... "  "'The defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed," [U.S. Attorney John Walsh] said. "The chlorine spray, if used, would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit.'"
      • The managers of the food business apparently understood what needed to be done to reduce the risk of an unsafe food product, but they appeared to be unwilling to pursue those practices. Combining that attitude with the severe outcome of consumer illness and death led society (through government) to charge these managers/owners with a crime.
      • Civil -- Dispute between two parties (e.g., dispute a buyer and a seller, dispute between a landowner and a tenant, dispute between two neighbors); not a crime. Solution generally will be a court order to compensate the injured party and/or to stop an illegal act .
          • "As a general rule compensation is the relief or remedy provided by the law of this state for the violation of private rights and the means of securing their observance. Specific and preventive relief may be given in no cases other than those specified in this title." N.D.C.C. §32-01-11.
          • In a civil lawsuit, the party who files the lawsuit (also stated as "commences the action" or "brings the action") is the plaintiff; that is, the party who is complaining that they have been injured or treated wrong. The party being sued is the defendant; that is, the person or persons who have to defend themselves against the accusations being made by the plaintiff.
          • A court case is sometimes referred to as litigation, and the plaintiff and defendant are called the litigants or litigating parties.
          • With respect to food, civil lawsuits often arise when a sickened consumer sues the food company that caused the food to be unsafe.  Likewise, one food business will sue another food company if the first business that the second business caused the food product of the first business to be unsafe.  For example, a baker may sue a flour miller if the baker's bread was unsafe and the baker believes the miller's flour was the cause of the unsafe bread product.
        • Civil lawsuits and criminal proceedings are initiated in a trial court. The task is for the jury (or in some cases, the judge) to listen to the evidence presented by the litigants, decide what happened, and determine a solution to the dispute. The judge oversees the trial process to assure all litigants are given an opportunity to present their information and to assure the jury appropriately applies the law to the facts of the case.


        Interpreting the Law

          • Courts also decide whether there is a conflict among a regulation, statute, and Constitution; if there is a conflict, the Constitution prevails and the conflicting portion of the statute or regulations will not be enforced.  Two examples:
            • Excerpts from
            • "Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), also known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters" (33 U.S.C. 1251(a)). Among the core provisions, the CWA establishes the NPDES permit program to authorize and regulate the discharge of pollutants from point sources to waters of the U.S. 33 U.S.C. 1342.
            • "The CAFO industry organizations argued that the EPA exceeded its statutory authority by requiring all CAFOs to either apply for NPDES permits or demonstrate that they have no potential to discharge. The court agreed with the CAFO industry petitioners on this issue and therefore vacated the "duty to apply" provision of the 2003 CAFO rule.
            • "The court found that the duty to apply, which the Agency had based on a presumption that most CAFOs have at least a potential to discharge, was invalid, because the CWA subjects only actual discharges to permitting requirements rather than potential discharges. The court acknowledged EPA’s policy considerations for seeking to impose a duty to apply but found that the Agency lacked statutory authority to do so."
            • The preceding case illustrates that a court will order an agency of the executive branch (in this case, the Environmental Protection Agency) to alter its practices if the court determines that the agency was pursuing activities that were not authorized by the statutory law enacted by the federal legislative branch (that is, Congress).


            • Excerpt from
            • "The U.S. Federal District Court in Missoula, Montana, issued a preliminary injunction on Friday, July 18, 2008, that immediately reinstated the Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains."
            • This situation illustrates a court ordering an agency of the executive branch (in this case, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to pursue actions that are required by the statutory law that had been enacted by the federal legislative branch (again, that is Congress).


        • An appellate court reviews the action of the trial court; a litigant will initiate an appeal if the litigant feels the trial judge made a mistake in overseeing the trial process or in interpreting and applying the law. The appellate court does not determine the facts of the case (that has already been done by the trial court); the appellate court focuses on whether the law was correctly interpreted and applied during the trial process.
        • Appellate court decisions/opinions serve as precedence for later disputes with similar facts and questions; these decisions are referred to as the common law. These decisions are often clarifications or interpretations of the law, including the Constitution, a statute, a regulation, a previous court decision, or a combination of these.
        • Although appellate court decisions are primarily intended to interpret current law, there are times when court decisions serve as an indicator of society's concept of right and wrong, especially if the legislature has not clearly stated a policy or direction. Thus, judicial decisions can influence legislators (policy).


        Summary Judgment

        Reading a court opinion can sometimes be confusing because the justices have to address several legal issues; this is especially difficult if the reader is interested in only one of the legal concepts the court addressed in making its decision. Therefore, as you read a court case, there will be times when much of the opinion may not be of interest to you. Focus on the part of the decision that applies to your question but do not overlook the remainder of the opinion to such an extent that you are unable to understand the overall situation.

        In many cases, the appellate court is asked to review the trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

        "Summary judgment is a procedure for the prompt and expeditious disposition of a controversy without trial if either party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, if no dispute exists as to either the material facts or the inferences to be drawn from undisputed facts, or if resolving factual disputes would not alter the result." Steiner v. Ford Motor Co., 2000 ND 31, 606 N.W.2d 881.

        If the judge of the trial court concludes, based on the information presented by the litigating parties, that one party will prevail and there is no reason to continue the trial on that point, the judge can issue a summary judgment on that point. It is not uncommon then for the party who lost on summary judgment at the trial to appeal to an appellate court to argue that the trial judge made an error and the trial should have been completed. It is this appeal of the summary judgment that is then being explained in the decision of the appellate court.

        Although the question of granting a summary judgment may appear in many of the court opinions we will read, you will often focus on the part of the opinion that discusses the legal concept we are studying at the time.


        Closing Thought

        The judicial branch consists of trial courts and appellate courts to resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying the law; courts also interpret the law (whether it is the Constitution, statutes, regulations or the application of prior court decisions).

        Court proceedings often address some or all of the following questions:

        • Does the statute align with the Constitution?
        • Does the regulation align with the statute and the Constitution?
        • Did the person's actions violate the regulation and statute?
        • Did the court appropriately interpret the regulation, statute and Constitution?
        • Did the court appropriately apply the regulation, statute and Constitution in assessing the legality of the person's actions?
        • Did the court follow the appropriate judicial procedures in deciding the case?




        This material is intended for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for competent legal counsel. Seek appropriate professional advice for answers to your specific questions.

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