What is summary judgment?

Summary judgment is a motion filed by a party, requesting that the court grant that party a judgment before the matter ever reaches trial. In a summary judgment motion, a party explains to the court why it should prevail as a matter of law and that there are no disputed issues of material fact that need to be decided by a jury. Remember that juries decide questions of fact and judges decide questions of law.

Throughout discovery, a party can establish facts and then explain why he or she should prevail. Most often defendants attempt to win cases on summary judgment, while plaintiffs hope to settle a case or take it to trial. In other words, plaintiffs hope to avoid summary judgment, while defendants attempt to win on summary judgment. This is not always the case, as sometimes plaintiffs will file summary judgment motions as well.

What are the rules of civil procedure?

The rules of civil procedure govern civil cases. There are separate rules of criminal procedure for federal cases. There are federal rules of civil procedure and rules of procedure in every state. They are similar but there are a few differences. These rules of civil procedure govern the requirements of pleadings, motions, the discovery process, and even the trial process.

What is a pre-trial conference?

A pre-trial conference is a meeting of the attorneys with the judge in the case to discuss the case. There are different purposes of pre-trial conferences. Sometimes judges use them to facilitate discovery, to expedite the case, to discourage certain pre-trial activities, to settle certain evidentiary disputes, and to facilitate a settlement of the case. Sometimes at a pre-trial conference, parties will agree to certain stipulations. If the parties stipulate to a fact, that fact is presumed valid and does not have to be covered or disputed at trial.

Some jurisdictions require the attorneys in a case to attend a settlement conference, in which each side discusses certain strengths and weaknesses of their case.

What happens at the trial process?

An initial step is that the court must empanel or sit a jury. In most locales, juries are composed of 12 members. But, the 12 must be selected from a much larger body of persons. Collectively, all prospective jurors comprise the jury pool.

The process of selecting a jury is known as voir dire. Attorneys ask questions of prospective jurors to determine if they have certain biases or outlooks that would be beneficial or detrimental to their client's case.

Can attorneys challenge certain jurors?

Yes, there are two basic types of challenges: (1) challenges for cause and (2) peremptory challenges. Challenges for cause occur when it is clear that a juror is too biased or predisposed in a case and could not decide the case impartially. There is no limit to for-cause challenges but usually it has to be pretty clear that the prospective juror is biased.

Peremptory challenges are those in which an attorney has a gut feeling that someone would not make a good juror for his side. The court sets the number of peremptory challenges in a case or the number may be established by a state's rules of civil procedure.

The court must select a jury before trial. This can be a long process, as the attorneys for each side have the right to challenge whether someone can be a juror (iStock).

The court must select a jury before trial. This can be a long process, as the attorneys for each side have the right to challenge whether someone can be a juror (iStock).

Are there other limits on who can be dismissed and not selected as jurors?

Yes, many states have laws that limit the dismissal of blind persons as jurors. Texas law provides that a person's blindness cannot be the "sole reason" for their dismissal.

Are there any limitations on peremptory challenges?

Yes, attorneys may not dismiss jurors in a discriminatory way based on race, gender, or religion. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky (1986) that it violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to dismiss jurors based on race.

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