The Court System and Basic Legal Structure

All state court systems are structured as hierarchies. The names of the courts at the various levels differ somewhat across the states, but their purposes are nevertheless quite similar. The lowest courts (typically called civil or district courts) hear cases of such limited pecuniary magnitude as to preclude participation by forensic economists as a practical matter. Here occur trials at which there is a presiding judge or magistrate and no separate jury (a “bench trial”), so the presiding official is the legal expert (as always) and also the “finder of fact” in the case at trial.

The next level of courts (often termed superior courts) is where forensic economic testimony would be heard. Cases appear in that venue based on a loss claim exceeding some minimum amount (not infrequently $5,000) or a request by either party for a jury trial. Trial outcomes are subject to review in appellate courts. Each state has a unique highest court, also convened to hear appeals of lower court decisions. The name of the highest court varies across states. Perhaps the oddest terminology appears in New York, where the highest court is called the Court of Appeals and the courts below it consist of the Supreme Court, County Court and a group of specialized courts.

In the trial courts, various testimonies, rulings on motions, formal objections and the verdict are all recorded, which permits review by appellate courts, where written decisions espousing legal reasoning appear. Lower courts are bound by such written decisions in subsequent cases at trial. Written appellate decisions and underlying statutory law assist forensic economists in knowing how to present loss estimates, identifying which elements may be included, and sometimes specifying which elements may not be included no matter how worthy the argument for inclusion from a purely economic perspective. The law trumps economic theory when the two are in conflict.

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