Law & the Media in Texas — Federal Civil & Criminal Cases

The Federal Process

Civil Cases

Federal Courts handle civil matters primarily when one of these circumstances emerges:

1.Someone sues the government,

2.The government sues someone,

3.A citizen of one state sues a citizen of another,

4.Redress of grievances is sought based on constitutional or federal safeguards,

5.Bankruptcy cases handled by bankruptcy courts.

When suits involve the government, either as plaintiff or defendant, or when federal law is involved, federal civil procedures are used at the trials. When cases involving citizens of different states are tried in federal court, the civil procedures of the states in which the trials are held are used if substantial rules exist -- that is, rules existing for special state purposes.

Criminal Cases

The United States Code contains federal offenses classified as criminal as a result of laws passed by the United States Congress.

Any offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year is a felony. Any other offense is a misdemeanor.

A misdemeanor for which the penalty does not exceed six months or a fine of $500, or both, is classified as a petty offense.

Federal Grand Jury

Complaints may proceed to trial in federal court without grand jury action. The arresting agency may file an information, which becomes the basis for the trial proceeding.

Grand jurors and jurors in the federal system come from within the district in which the court sits. They are selected from voter registration lists.

The federal grand jury is often used for investigation. The grand jury may meet anywhere to study situations anywhere in the country. For example, a grand jury may be convened in Dallas to look into some type of price-fixing that has its roots in Minnesota.

Witnesses may be compelled to appear before a federal grand jury. But they may not be made to testify if their testimony would be self-incriminating unless they are granted immunity from prosecution.

The best sources of information about what the federal grand jury is doing are usually the United States attorney for the district or an assistant.

Unlike state procedure, reporters can attempt to talk with grand jurors, and grand jurors can talk with reporters. If grand jurors choose not to talk with reporters, other sources for finding out what goes on in a federal grand jury are usually the United States attorney or an assistant.

Each district has a United States attorney and a clerk, who are in the headquarters city of the district. Deputy clerks, U. S. marshals and federal magistrates are in divisions within the district. Magistrates act in the same way as justices of the peace in receiving complaints from federal officers.

The Criminal Trial

Upon arrest for a federal offense, a prisoner will be arraigned before a U. S. magistrate at the earliest possible time. The magistrate informs the suspect of the information against him or her, sets or denies bond, informs the suspect of rights and ascertains if the suspect has an attorney.

The defendant may request a preliminary hearing, which is a show cause hearing before the magistrate.

The trial procedure begins with another arraignment before the judge. Decisions before the judge at that time may include the questions of setting or reducing the bond. Pleas may be taken. Then a date is set for the trial.

The trial will be before the judge unless the defendant requests a jury. The jury determines the guilt or innocence and the judge determines the punishment. Sentencing is usually delayed to allow for a probation report, which is the basis for determining the severity of the punishment.

Federal courts are more formal than state courts. Decorum is exacting and enforced. Reporters covering federal courts for the first time should remember that to avoid embarrassing themselves.

Jury Selection

The names of prospective federal court jurors are taken from voter registration lists within the division in which the court is convened. Selection is based on proportional representation of the counties within the division.

Prospective jurors must complete and return qualification forms to the federal district clerk’s office. When the time comes for a jury panel to be summoned, the district judge determines how many are called and the prospective jurors are sent summonses that tell them when and where to report. Fees and mileage are paid.