From the Archives: The Eight Purposes of Courts

This morning, my colleague, TMCEC Deputy Counsel Robby Chapman, presented a webinar on Records. In his introductory remarks he mentioned the Eight Purposes of Courts from Ernie Friesen. In September 2016, I wrote the following about the purposes on an earlier version of this blog. In the wake of this morning’s webinar, now is the perfect time to visit these eight purposes again.

The Eight Purposes of Courts

In 2016, I had the privilege of attending a three day course titled Purposes & Responsibilities of Courts. It was my sixth and final course needed to become a Certified Court Manager (CCM) through the National Center for State Court’s (NCSC) Institute for Court Management (ICM). I was fortunate to be one of 45 court professionals from across Texas that graduated on Wednesday, August 10, 2016. The courses were offered in partnership from NCSC and the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center (TMCEC). All of the courses were wonderfully educational, and I enjoyed them. This final course, led by Dr. Anthony Simones of the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, was a great way to end the certification program. It really reminded all of us why we do what we do.

One portion of the course identified eight purposes of courts, that and I’d like to share them with you.

1. To Do Individual Justice in Individual Cases

This first purpose really spoke to me as I think it is crucial to remember in our municipal court world here in Texas. In our courts, many of us deal with incredibly high volume. We often say in our training that we see more people in our courts than in all other courts combined. With all of these cases coming before our courts, it is easy to think about “the forest,” but lose sight of “the trees.” Each of these cases involves individual persons, and they deserve individual justice. Each person should be heard and treated with appropriate respect and attention. This means keeping in mind that while the case may be one of dozens we deal with during the course of a day or week, this case is most likely a singular concern to the defendant. To do justice, we must apply the law to the facts before us–the facts of that specific, individual case as opposed to applying some general guidelines that may not be appropriate for the case.

2. To Appear to Do Individual Justice in Individual Cases

This second purpose may sound odd at first. Absent the context of following the first purpose, it would sound empty or even false–as though appearing to be just was the concern more so than being just. And even with the context of the first purpose, this purpose still seems strange on first glance. Isn’t it superfluous? If we are actually doing individual justice, then how important is it to appear to be doing justice? The more I thought it about it, the more important appearing to do justice became.

You’ve probably had times working in the court where you’ve had to deal with an unsavory defendant, a pushy defense attorney, or an angry prosecutor. You may have even thought to yourself that you are going to give this person justice whether they know it or not and move on to the next one. This can be dangerous thinking, however.

Consider the Canon 2 of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. In it we are told that in all of the judge’s activities, impropriety and the appearance of impropriety shall be avoided. This ideal should not be limited to the judge’s activity; it should be the goal of all court staff. We should all promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and not allow an impression that anyone is in a special position to influence the judge.

Appearing to do justice may take a bit more time. It may entail explaining why something is being done, or why something cannot be done. It may entail reassuring defendants of their rights and explaining how they are being protected in the court. Not every defendant will leave getting what they want, but every defendant should leave knowing that they were treated fairly and why the outcome turned out the way it did.

3. To Provide a Forum for the Resolution of Legal Disputes

This may appear to be more closely aligned with a court handling a civil lawsuit, but many of our cases to boil down to a legal dispute. Law enforcement or a city official may feel that a person has broken the law. The accused may disagree and has a right to dispute that. At the court we provide a venue for this to be resolved with fairness and neutrality. It is important that this forum exists, so that people don’t take matters into their own hands.

4. To Protect Individuals from the Arbitrary Use of Government Power

The very existence of our laws reflects our country’s (and by extension our state and city) desire to be ruled by law as opposed to man. Prior to the Magna Carta, the King could act purely on his own without being subject to any checks or limitations. English Barons confronted the King of England and demanded that certain rights be written down and that the King respect those rights and abide by the rule of law.

Centuries later, our system of laws and the structure of our government protects individuals from the arbitrary use of government power. As courts, it is our job to ensure that governmental powers are not abused, but that they follow the law.

5. To Provide a Formal Record of Legal Status

At first glance, this seemed more applicable to a court handling divorces or bankruptcy or immigration, but in reality we spend a good deal of our time and resources documenting everything that happens in our courts. The reason we do this is that it provides a formal record of one’s legal status.

Over 75% of municipal court cases in Texas are traffic cases. The process as well as the outcome of those cases very frequently has an effect on the person beyond whether they must pay a fine. Our formal record and our reporting may determine whether they can still legally drive, whether they can renew their license, whether they can register their vehicle, whether they can take another driving safety course, and how much they must pay for auto insurance. Additionally, our formal record may prevent someone from possessing a firearm in the future, and it may determine  whether they must pay a surcharge or whether they must be committed to jail.

This purpose stresses to me the importance of accurate case files and court reports, and this will be reflected in our academic programs this coming year.

6. To Deter Criminal Behavior

One of the foundations of criminal justice is deterring criminal behavior. What happens to the defendant in our court can serve to deter future criminal behavior. The purpose here is not deterring the criminal behavior of the person before us, but rather deterring criminal behavior in the rest of society. In a nutshell, if people that break the law face a consequence and are held accountable, then others may think twice before breaking the law.

7. To Rehabilitate Persons Convicted of Crime

Rehabilitation probably doesn’t come to mind when you think of the payment of the fine. However, there are many situations in municipal court where rehabilitation can come into play. First of all, driving safety courses are very common and are one way our courts are involved in rehabilitation. The hope is that drivers who complete a driving safety course will become better, safer, and more educated drivers. We hope to rehabilitate their poor driving. Another common example of rehabilitation related to fine only misdemeanors is deferred disposition. A simple conviction and fine may not rehabilitate someone, but if, as a reasonable condition of deferred disposition, a defendant is ordered to complete a drug or alcohol class, attend counseling, or complete community service those can be effective steps toward rehabilitation.

Our laws related to juvenile defendants reflect this rehabilitation purpose most closely. If a young person is convicted of an offense in the Alcoholic Beverage Code, they must be sentenced to a type of rehabilitation such as an alcohol awareness or drug education class, as well as complete some community service.

8. To Separate Convicted Persons from Society

While this is a purpose of courts generally, it is not a central purpose to our courts. It is true that sometimes people are placed in jail by a judge in relation to a fine only misdemeanor, but the purpose is not to separate them from society. The purpose in this situation is to ensure satisfaction of the judgment, when the person has failed to satisfy the judgment.

This purpose can be seen with higher level offenses that do involve jail time. This time separated from society is punishment, and hopefully serves to protect the rest of society.

Reading about and hearing these purposes led me to think about why we do what we do in our courts. I think doing individual justice and appearing to do justice should remain in the forefront of our thoughts all the time as judges, clerks, and court personnel. Perhaps it is no coincidence they are numbers one and two.

Do you agree with these purposes?

I am thankful that I was able to go through this training and become a certified court manager. For more information about these purposes, check out this video:

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