. Common Law and the Jury System


A. Discussion

Discuss the following questions with your classmates:

• Have you seen scenes of American courtrooms in movies or on TV?

• Do you think they realistically depict what happens in courtrooms?

• How are courtrooms different in your country?

Q B. Vocabulary and Key Concepts

Read through the sentences, trying to imagine which words would fit in the blanks. Then listen to a dictation of the full sentences, and write the missing words in the blanks.

1. The average person in the legal profession would probably say it’s

better to let a dozen_________________________ people go free

than to punish one innocent person__________________________

2. The guiding principle for the U. S. legal system is that an

accused person is_________________________

3. Under civil law the judge consults a complex

________________________ to decide whether the defendant is

guilty and, if so, what sentence to give.

4. Under_________________________________________________

the judge considers the__________________________ set by other

court decisions.

5. The jury hears_________________________ in either civil or crim­inal trials and reaches a_____________________________

6. A civil trial is one that deals with disputes between

_________________________________________________ , often

involving contracts or property rights.

7. In a civil trial, the jury decides which side is right and how much money should be paid in________________________________________ and

8. For a jury to convict a person in a criminal case, they must believe the person guilty_________________________________________

9. A person’s liberty and even life can be taken away if he or she is, that is, found guilty, of a crime.

10. Some of a judge’s responsibilities are excluding

________________________ remarks and questions by lawyers

and witnesses and deciding what kind of_____________________


11. If the required number of jurors cannot agree on a decision, it is

called a_________________________ jury, and the law requires a

new trial.

12. What happens in plea bargaining is that the accused _____ to a

Follow-up: Check the spelling of the dictated words with your teacher. Discuss the meanings of these words and any other unfamiliar words in the sentences.

C. Predictions

Using the photograph and the vocabulary exercise as a starting point, write three questions that you think will be answered in the lecture.

Example: • How many people are on a jury?

1. ________________________________________________________

Follow-up: After you have written your questions, share them with your teacher and your classmates.

D. Notetaking Preparation

1. Prelecture Reading

Before listening to a rather difficult lecture on the U. S. legal system, read a related passage dealing with precedents and surrogate mother­hood, and then answer the comprehension questions that follow. Although somewhat difficult, the reading and the questions will prepare you for the lecture you will hear later.

The Baby M Case

The Baby M case became a controversial legal case in the United States in 1988. At issue were Baby M’s custody and the validity of a contract. The contract provided that a woman, the surrogate mother, would have a baby for an infertile couple by artificial insemination of the husband’s sperm and would receive payment for this service. Cer­tainly, Baby M was not the first baby born to a surrogate mother, but in this case the surrogate mother, Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould, changed her mind after the baby was born and did not want to give the baby up, as she had agreed to do in the contract. The Sterns, the couple who had contracted for the baby, insisted that Ms. Whitehead – Gould fulfill the terms of the contract, and they took her to court. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that this type of contract was against public policy (the good of the general public) and, therefore, could not be enforced. (However, the court did award custody of the baby to the biological father. The mother, Ms. Whitehead-Gould, was awarded limited visitation rights.) This particular ruling was very important because there had been no previous court decision of this type at the level of a state supreme court. Therefore, this decision establishes a precedent for other states when they have to deal with the issue of surrogacy.


a. Are Baby M’s natural mother and father married to each other?

b. Who wanted to break the contract, Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould or the Sterns?

c. In this reading, precedent most nearly means

1. a reason not to do something

2. a decision used as a standard

3. proof of innocence

4. proof of guilt

d. Was there a precedent for judging surrogacy contracts before the Baby M case?

e. In what sense will the Baby M case serve as a precedent in the future?

Follow-up: Discuss your answers with your teacher before you continue.

2. Courtroom Language

Look at the following illustration of a typical courtroom scene. Work with a partner to answer the following questions.

Who keeps a written record of what is said in court?

b. Who ensures that the trial is conducted according to the law?

c. Who is a person who has knowledge of the case and is called to testify in court?

d. Who deliberates on the facts of the case and delivers a verdict (decision)?

e. Who has custody of prisoners and maintains order in the court?

f. Who is the person against whom the court action has been taken?

g. Who initiates court action against the defendant?

h. Who takes care of records involved in the court case?

Follow-up: Check your answers with your teacher.


!J A. First Listening

The lecturer begins with a rather long introduction in which she attempts to provide some background to a rather technical discussion of the U. S. legal system, which is based on common law. She then goes on to discuss the jury system and, finally, plea bargaining. It is not necessary to take notes until she begins to compare common law to civil law. Use the notetaking skills that you have practiced to make a set of meaningful and usable notes.


Follow-up: Check your subtopics with your teacher. How did you organize your notes? Yours may be different from another student’s. What is important is that your notes should reflect the basic organiza­tion and information of the lecture.

Q В. Further Listening

While listening again, write down necessary relevant details below the main subtopics to which they belong.

Follow-up: Check your notes. If you missed important information or have doubts about your notes, (1) verify them by asking a classmate questions to fill the gaps in your notes or (2) listen to the lecture a third time. When verifying your notes with a classmate, do not show each other your notes; ask specific questions to get the information you need.

Examples: • What is the difference between common law and civil

law? Do you have that in your notes?

• I don’t have anything in my notes about what a judge does. Do you have it in your notes?

This is also a good time to check to see if the lecturer answered your Predictions questions about the lecture.

Ill – POSTLISTENING________________________________________________

Q A. Accuracy Check

Listen to the following questions, and write short answers. You will hear each question one time only.

1. _________________________________________________________


3. ________________________________________________________

4. ________________________________________________________






10. _________________________________________________________________

Follow-up: Check your answers with your teacher. If your score is less than 70 percent, you may need to listen to the lecture again or rewrite your notes so that you can understand and use them later.

В. Oral Activities

1. Review

In small groups, discuss your notes, section by section, to be sure that all members have a complete set of notes for each subsection. At the end of this activity, your instructor will ask various class members to reproduce sections of the lecture for the whole class to listen to. At that time, check what you hear against your notes. If you don’t under­stand or you disagree with what you hear, wait until the speaker finishes. Then bring your notes into agreement by seeking clarification, as follows:

• Would you please repeat what you said about a written code of laws?

• Excuse me, but you didn’t mention plea bargaining. I think it’s important.

2. Transfer

If your class is multinational, prepare a short oral report about the legal system of your country, comparing and contrasting it to the legal sys­tem of the United States. Work with other students from your country.

If your classmates are all from your country, discuss the similari­ties and differences as a class.

C. Collaboration: Discussion

Discuss these questions in small groups. Appoint one person to report your group’s responses for each question to the class.

1. Which system do you think results in more convictions, or guilty verdicts, and why: civil law as practiced in Europe or common law as practiced in Great Britain and the United States?

2. Compare the advantages of having a judge decide a case without a jury to the advantages of having a jury decide a case.

3. Which principle of law do you think is fairer, "innocent until proven guilty" or "guilty until proven innocent"? Why?

D. Pursuing the Topic

The following are recommended for a closer look at the justice system in the United States:


Posner, Richard A. "Juries on Trial." Commentary, March 1995, pp. 49-53.

Posner discusses criticism of the American jury system by experts who claim that the system is too easy on the defendants in crimi­nal cases and too sympathetic to plaintiffs in civil cases. Recent books suggest that the jury system is likely to end in civil cases. www. uscourts. gov

Explore this Web site to find out more about the judicial branch of the U. S. government. www. crimelibrarv. com

This Web site contains a wealth of information about notorious and highly publicized crimes and criminals.


The Verdict, Sidney Lumet, director; 129 minutes, R.

This film depicts courtroom drama as a down-and-out Boston lawyer takes on a medical malpractice suit.

Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder, director; 120 minutes, R.

A Harvard law professor and lawyer attempts to reverse the con­viction of a man found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife in this film, which is based on a true story.

Field Trip

If you are studying in the United States, it may be possible for your instructor to make arrangements for your class to visit a local court­house, where you can watch the proceedings. Virtually all courtroom proceedings are open to the public.

Now that you have completed the chapters in this unit, your teacher may want you to take a quiz. Your teacher will tell you whether or not you can use your notes to answer the questions on the quiz. If you can use your notes, review them before taking the quiz so that you can anticipate the questions and know where to find the answers. If you cannot use your notes, study them carefully before you take the quiz, concentrating on organizing the information into main ideas and details that support these main ideas.

Work in small groups to help each other anticipate the questions your teacher will ask. Before breaking up into groups, review your notes and highlight important, noteworthy points. After reviewing your notes, break up into groups. Discuss and write specific short – answer questions and more general essay questions. (For guidelines in writing questions, see the Unit Quiz Directions at the end of Unit 1.)

Write your group’s questions on the following pages.


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