Understanding civil/criminal court cases
August 15, 2022 8:49 AM   Subscribe

I know plaintiffs and defendants (and by extension, their attorneys) are discouraged from discussing pending court cases publicly (for reasons I don't fully understand). But what about after a case is decided or settled? Where are the victors bragging about justice served, or the angry losers railing against an unjust legal system? I'm interested in both civil and criminal cases.

A few years ago I listened to an audiobook version of one of The Great Courses on the US legal system; it was enlightening. But it was mostly theory; I'd like to hear stories of how things work out in practice. (Lots of stories in varied areas, so teaching me to fish is better than giving me a fish.)

The more behind-the-scenes info the better. I don't want anything that's illegal for me to possess or read, but if it was illegal (or inadvisable) for the party to the case to publish, that's just fine.

Accessibility for lay people is desirable; I have no intention of studying for the bar and need maximum understanding for minimum time spent on this. I'm mostly interested to know how the law actually affects me as a civilian and (hopefully eventually) small business owner. I'll wade through jargon for the right case, but ideally this will be somewhere between "For Dummies" and unedited court opinions. (Though actually ways to look up court documents would be good too!)

I am in the USA but knowledge that is applicable internationally is even better than things that only apply in the USA.
posted by commander_fancypants to Law & Government (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I know plaintiffs and defendants (and by extension, their attorneys) are discouraged from discussing pending court cases publicly (for reasons I don't fully understand).

This part's not complicated at all. You're not supposed to be contaminating the jury pool. (It's not just "discouraged"; in certain circumstances, in most jurisdictions it's an ethical violation.)

For the rest...I'm trying to understand. Are you specifically looking for people complaining about/celebrating results, or...?
posted by praemunire at 8:55 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


The third season of Serial focuses on the criminal legal system in Cleveland, with lots of detailed behind-the-scenes footage.
posted by earth by april at 8:55 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


This is an interesting question. To clarify – you're looking for stories of what happens after litigation is settled? Any particular type of case or circumstance? Legal stories are really about the context they occur in – corporate boardroom, parent dealing with custody over children, small business taken advantage of by those with no power.

Generally, after a case settles, parties will sign an agreement prohibiting them from discussing this settlement or disparaging the other party. So in a case that settled, that would likely be the reason why we don't hear anything about it.
posted by lookoutbelow at 8:56 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


I sued an employer for discrimination, case was mediated and settled; I had to agree to non-disclosure of the details of the settlement. In settled civil cases, this is typical.
posted by theora55 at 9:02 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: Are you specifically looking for people complaining about/celebrating results, or...?

Such complaints/celebrations seem likely to contain analysis (amateurish or not) of how the conclusion was reached, which is what I'm really after.

you're looking for stories of what happens after litigation is settled?

That's part of it - what's the aftermath for plaintiffs and defendants? But also, what was the legal process that got everyone to this point?

Any particular type of case or circumstance? Legal stories are really about the context they occur in – corporate boardroom, parent dealing with custody over children, small business taken advantage of by those with no power.

No particular type/circumstance. Hopefully that doesn't make the question too broad. I want to understand mechanisms of the legal system that apply to a variety of contexts.

after a case settles, parties will sign an agreement prohibiting them from discussing this settlement or disparaging the other party.

I had some inkling of this and am pretty mad about it; seems like a part of the legal system that's operating behind closed doors. I'd be curious to know of any resources that circumvent this restriction. (Leaks, etc.)
posted by commander_fancypants at 9:07 AM on August 15


Well, as a non-lawyer a lot of what I've learned about the US system comes from being on a jury twice (once criminal and once civil). Purely an FYI, despite the inconvenience that jury service involves, it does have that side benefit.

Without getting too specific, in the criminal case we had the evidence in the deliberation room with us, and since the evidence involved a hand gun and the number of bullets available, that was a little disconcerting. But really the decision was about which laws were violated how many times, so not as exciting as you might think. Add to that the criminal penalty (jail time) did not seem (?) to be directly related to the jury's findings, it made the jury members' decisions (and arguments) somewhat moot in my opinion.

In the civil case it was all about the relative veracity of the various witnesses and yes, there was a Perry Mason maneuver which pretty much ruined the testimony of one witness. Without any sense of true harm to the plaintiff or violation of professional standards by the defendant, it was relatively easy to award $0.00.

I came close to being involved in a high profile criminal trial but luckily the panel was filled before I was even interviewed.

Granted, not all cases involve a jury, and some don't even go through court (as opposed to mediators). I hope this was somewhat (?) of interest.
posted by forthright at 9:35 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


The thing about lawsuits is that, for parties (it doesn't matter whether they're a plaintiff or defendant) who aren't large corporations, it's usually one of the most stressful things they go through in their entire lives. Most people who make it through a court case are just glad it's over. They don't want to dwell on it any longer than they have to. On the other hand, for lawyers, it's just another day. A busy trial attorney might have dozens of cases pending at any given time. They're moving on to the next one as soon as one is over. It's like asking why don't you hear plumbers talking about unclogging drains. Because that's just what plumbers do. If you have a plumber friend, you might hear a story about a particularly difficult drain, but mostly it's pretty mundane. Lawyers definitely celebrate big wins, but then the next day it's back to work.

There are a couple of reasons not to talk about a case after its conclusion. The first is that it might not actually be over. If it's a civil case, or a criminal case that resulted in conviction, there's a chance of appeal. The second is that it can expose lawyers to issues of professional liability. Once you've made your behind-the-scenes strategy public, your client can then argue that the representation was inadequate, which is grounds for appeal, and third party watchdogs can look for ethical violations (e.g., prosecutors not disclosing certain evidence to defense attorneys), which can result in penalties up to and including disbarment. There are exceptions, especially for really high-profile cases with historical interest (such as the OJ case, or Brown v. Board of Education), but in general, it's not worth the hassle. And for complex cases, where strategy is involved (e.g., prosecuting Al Capone for tax evasion), there's an element of tradecraft involved - you don't want your opponent to know what you're doing, in case you have to do it again.

On the flipside, there's no real benefit to discussing such things publicly. Lawyers don't get points for making creative arguments; they either win the case or they don't. And parties, even when they're allowed to talk, don't have much to say. I would bet most don't really have any understanding of the legal process beyond "I was right and the other guy was wrong".

I think you're probably overestimating the role of strategy in the legal process. Legal fiction makes strategy seem a lot more important than it actually is. There's not actually much strategizing in everyday court cases. Most of what goes on at trial is establishing facts. This is the "where were you on Sunday night, August 14th?" types of questions come from. I'm greatly oversimplifying here, but in general, the job of a trial is for the party with the burden of proof (the plaintiff in civil cases, the state in criminal ones) to prove a certain set of facts, and then the judge/jury applies the law to those facts. So like, if A, B, and C are all true, the defendant is guilty of trespassing. The defense's job is to make it so that the jury doesn't believe one or more of the relevant facts to be true. In most cases, it's pretty easy to determine whether something is true. Most commonly, a witness will say something like "I saw the defendant at the scene", or another witness will say "the defendant couldn't have been at the scene, because they were with me at the time of the crime, and here's a photo to prove it". These aren't things you have to strategize like a football coach trying to figure out what running plays will beat a particular defense. A lot of criminal law, especially, has state-of-mind component that leads to some kind of unanswerable questions (was Derek Chauvin recklessly or merely negligently kneeling on George Floyd's neck?), but most of the time, the plan is pretty clear cut. When the prosecution has the suspect's fingerprints at the scene, a witness to identify the suspect, and a manifesto published on the suspect's social media prior to the crime, they don't need a strategy.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:38 AM on August 15 [6 favorites]


You might be interested in the writings of Joshua Rozenberg, who is a legal commentator in England and Wales. You can find him on substack, but also Twitter and various UK-based outlets.
posted by plonkee at 9:42 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


I can’t think of any particular ones, but I feel like you could get a lot of the sort of information you are looking for out of CLE (continuing legal education) presentations that are focused on trial and post-trial activities. There are a lot of videos online but you will have to pay a service. I’m not aware of any requirement that you have to be a lawyer to purchase and watch any of them.
posted by gauche at 9:45 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


In terms of looking up court documents, for federal cases, you want PACER. Pacer costs money to use, but only if you generate more than $30 in billing per quarter. So, if you learn about a case you're interested in and want to read some of the filings, you can do so without incurring charges if you're careful.

I haven't read these books, but I have heard good things about the books in the Yale Contemporary Law Series as being accessible books about the American court system. I think American Civil Procedure: An Introduction might be close to what you are looking for.

And, if you come across an interesting and important case in your reading, you could do a lot worse than looking up the case by name on Wikipedia. The summaries can be hit and miss, but there's actually some pretty decent high level analysis of a lot of cases to be found there -- what the arguments were, what the opinions were, what the aftermath was.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:04 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


What you are looking for is something called a Trial Practice Manual, in the area of law you are interested in. (Here are some from Illinois). They won’t have the full case but will have the holdings and why and what currently governs.
posted by corb at 10:06 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


I think the book The Buffalo Creek Disaster may satisfy your desire for a ground-level view of trials, trial procedure, and how they affect the lives of the parties. It was written by an attorney who represented West Virginia townspeople after a dam built by a coal mine failed and flooded their town in 1972, killing 125 and leaving 4,000 homeless. It's written for a lay reader and features a gripping narrative, but many law schools assign the book to first-year students for its discussion of civil procedure, the rules that dictate how civil lawsuits are brought, investigated, and tried.
posted by hhc5 at 10:09 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


It’s a very unusual set of cases, but the current interlocking defamation cases against Alex Jones have generated a lot of coverage and discussion. The podcast Knowledge Fight has covered a lot of it, and they have had interviews with some of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. Unfortunately, due the the attitude and actions of Jones and Co, you mostly learn by seeing what happens with uncooperative participants, so the analysis tends to be “in a normal trial, x, y, and z would have happened, but here it didn’t.” There’s also a lot of trial to listen to, and, frankly, it’s kind of exhausting.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:14 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


I had some inkling of this and am pretty mad about it; seems like a part of the legal system that's operating behind closed doors. I'd be curious to know of any resources that circumvent this restriction. (Leaks, etc.)

Pardon me if I’m misunderstanding, but I think you might be mixing up what people in this thread are saying about settlements vs. court cases. Settlements are usually agreed upon this way (behind closed doors, often with a nondisclosure clause) because both parties would prefer to avoid a court case. The way to circumvent this would be for the injured party to refuse to accept the settlement offered and take things to court.
posted by capricorn at 10:29 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


There can be a bit of strategy involved that probably fades in the person’s mind once the trial is done.

For instance my friend was charged with something and had two ex-boyfriends who could both be excellent witnesses to support her innocence. One had tattoos and a shaved head, one was clean-cut. The lawyers were quite clear which one they wanted in a courtroom (the conservative looking one). The lawyer also told her it couldn’t be both, since “having two ex-boyfriends” also told a story about her (and it should have been, wow she must be emotionally mature and lovely if her exes like her enough to stand for her in trial… but the lawyer felt it implied that she must have still been sleeping with them both to earn their loyalty).

Another example is that my friend was told not to go to every appearance, just to send his lawyer, since making every appearance gave the impression, not that he cared deeply and was responsible, but rather, that he was unemployed!

In the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault case, there was an interesting perspective published on the website Canadaland suggesting that his defence lawyer took a sneaky tactic about identifying what car he drove at the time, to undeservedly discredit the victims, and the prosecutor should have knocked it down but didn’t- possibly costing them the case.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:35 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


More to say later, but I think a book that you would find satisfying, though it's now old enough that it doesn't reflect a lot of current practice, is the classic A Civil Action.
posted by praemunire at 11:08 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


From a victim/family of the victim perspective:

Sometimes, you're just so exhausted by everything that went on, and still trying to heal as best you can from it, and recover financially from all the disruption, that even if you WANT to speak out, you just don't have the time/money/energy/etc.

And then there's privacy. Depending on the type of case, it feels incredibly invasive even to talk to the judge/grand jury/jury/victim's advocate/lawyer/law enforcement/other interviewers... especially when it's multiple times.

In sexual assault cases, especially - most victims aren't speaking out in public until many years or decades later, if at all. A victim tends to blame themselves, and society unfortunately piles on more blame. It's not something they want to share with the world; they want to heal and move past it, if they can.
posted by stormyteal at 11:13 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


May get some fodder from The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken (2018) by "The Secret Barrister". This is an exposé of how the English legal system is a parody of justice from someone who has, through eloquence and hard work, on the balance of probability been responsible for miscarriages of justice.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:25 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]


I think a book that you would find satisfying, though it's now old enough that it doesn't reflect a lot of current practice, is the classic A Civil Action.

I also came in to say you'd probably like A Civil Action.
posted by phunniemee at 2:10 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]


The true crime weekly Dateline is formulaic. The first half covers the crime and the second half will cover the main arguments of the court case, outcome, and very broadly the aftermath. It’s generally murder in the US.

There are other true crime shows that cover appeals—IIRC Making a Murderer on Netflix explored that in depth.

Confirming that being involved in the legal system on either side is one of the most exhausting, expensive, and unsatisfying experiences of ordinary people’s lives even if the outcome is what they wanted. You do see verdicts celebrated/debated, appeals filed, etc.
posted by kapers at 2:44 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]


Of all the legal dramas, The Good Wife to me had the best stories concerning civil cases. The 'case of the week' structure managed to center aspects of the legal case as the driver of the storyline relatively often. On top of that, there's the human dynamic between the various participants in the system. If you're looking for an engaging narrative, I would look at that stuff.

In my view, the interesting stories really turn in the human dynamic rather than the law per se.

If you are looking for real life stories, decisions in cases for breach of a settlement agreement in the civil context, professional negligence, professional misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and other such things will by necessity recite the facts surrounding the manner in which lawyers deal with a case.

For example, generally professional discipline and professional negligence cases are about whether the lawyer should have acted the way that they did. This might include discussing the strategic options available to the client and whether the lawyer gave good advice to them given the circumstances.

Probably, the best way to consume this kind of information is by reading case briefs rather than reading actual legal decisions. I don't really have a good source to point you towards and I'm located in Canada so I'm not familiar with the voluminous materials on the various US courts.

Information exchanged by parties in the course of settling a legal case is ordinarily privileged but this does not apply where the case is about breaching the settlement agreement.

Looking for that kind of stuff might give you the inside baseball view it seems you are looking for. Keep in mind that the stories that are publicly available are only those where something went wrong – extrapolating from that information to the general trend will create a skewed viewpoint.
posted by lookoutbelow at 4:36 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]


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