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Courtroom Guide

The Courtroom

The Courtroom


  • The Legislature creates the law;
  • The Executive branch enforces the law; and
  • The Judicial branch, the courts, interpret the application of the law.

The California court system is composed of two types of courts: trial and appellate. The Superior Court of California is a trial court and its decisions are reviewed by the appellate courts, which are the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

The Superior Court is unique in that it functions as a trial court for criminal and civil cases. Additionally, the superior court has an appellate division which has jurisdiction over appeals from decisions in limited civil cases and misdemeanor and infraction cases. These appeals, other than those in small claims cases, are heard by a three-judge panel and are governed by rules adopted by the Judicial Council. The Superior Court consists of a presiding judge and judges who serve six-year terms and are elected by county voters. Judicial appointments are made by the Governor when vacancies occur before the end of a term. Each of California's 58 counties has a superior court.

The Appellate Court reviews trial decisions made by the Superior Court on unlimited jurisdiction matters; unlimited civil cases, felony or juvenile cases and has original jurisdiction in habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari, and prohibition proceedings. There are six appellate districts in the State of California; First District, San Francisco; Second District, Los Angeles (with one division in Ventura); Third District, Sacramento; Fourth District, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Santa Ana; Fifth District, Fresno; and Sixth District, San Jose. The Appellate Court consists of a Presiding "Justice" and two or three Associate Justices who are appointed by the Governor and must be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Cases are decided by three-judge panels. Decisions of the panels, known as opinions, are published in the California Appellate Reports if they meet certain criteria for publication. In general, opinions are published if they establish a new rule of law, involve a legal issue of continuing public interest, criticize existing law, or make a significant contribution to legal literature.

The Supreme Court of California is the state's highest court. Its venue is the entire state, and its decisions are binding on all other California state courts. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court includes reviewing decisions made by the state's courts of appeal, deciding all appeals from cases in which a judgment of death has been pronounced by the trial court and issuing special writs. Regular court sessions are held in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and at the court's headquarters in San Francisco. The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of California and six Associate Justices. Decisions of the Supreme Court are published in the California Report.

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The Courtroom

The Courtroom is a room where formal court proceedings are held. The Courtroom is a quiet and dignified setting reflecting the importance and seriousness of legal matters brought before the Court.

The courtroom is divided into two parts by a barrier known as the bar. The bar may be an actual railing or a barrier. On one side of the bar is the bench where the Judge sits and across the bench are the counsel tables where the plaintiff, defendant, and their respective counsel sit. To one side of the bench are the witness stand and a separate group of seats known as the jury box where the jury is seated. The court clerk, court reporter, interpreter and bailiff are also seated in this area. To the other side of the bar is an open area with seating provided for the general public, referred to as the gallery.

All persons entering a courtroom must conduct themselves in a respectful manner. Members of the public are generally allowed to observe courtroom proceedings.

When entering a courtroom, individuals must remain quiet when observing or waiting for a matter to be called by the Judge.

Cell telephones, cameras and all other electronic equipment must be turned off before entering the courtroom. Food, drinks and chewing gum are not permitted in the courtroom. Court security officers are authorized to open and inspect any item carried into a courtroom. Wearing of hats is strictly prohibited except in accordance with religious beliefs.

No one, except for the judge, defendant's attorney, and Sheriff's office personnel may attempt to communicate with an in-custody defendant. Anyone who attempts to communicate with in-custody defendants will be subject to arrest.

The bailiff will announce when the Judge is entering the courtroom, and everyone in the courtroom, unless physically unable, must rise when the Judge enters and shall remain standing until the Judge requires everyone to be seated.

If you are making a court appearance, when your case is called, the bailiff will direct you to stand in front of the counsel table. When the Judge speaks to you, do not interrupt. When addressing the Judge, always refer to him/her as "Your Honor" or "Judge." Speak clearly and loudly, as the court proceedings are either being recorded electronically or reported by a court reporter.

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The Role of the Judge

The Judge presides over a court of law, applies the law, oversees the legal process in court proceedings and issues a ruling on the matter at hand based on his or her interpretation of the law.

The Judge sits behind a raised desk, known as the bench. Behind or to the side of the Judge are the great seal of the jurisdiction and the flags of the appropriate federal and state governments. The Judge wears a plain black robe. The robe symbolizes the law, authority and neutrality. The gavel is also a symbol of authority, and judges have historically used gavels to make a sound of authority to bring a courtroom to order or adjourn a court session.

The Judge must ensure that all court hearings are conducted fairly and safeguard the legal rights of all parties involved, which is referred to as due process. Due process is the principle that the government respects the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law. Due process includes the right to a fair and public hearing by the court.

California law is divided into two categories: criminal and civil. Generally, a court is considered the proper trial court if the criminal matter occurred within its venue. For civil matters, the proper venue may be where the defendant lives, where the accident or injury occurred, where the contract or obligation was to be performed, or where the real property is located.

In a criminal case, an arraignment is held, at which time the Judge informs the defendant of the charges filed against him/her. The defendant may plead guilty to the charges or not guilty and the defendant may ask for a trial.

In a civil case, the Judge will usually meet with the attorneys to determine if the case can be resolved or settled without having a trial. In a civil case, the settlement usually involves private disputes, contracts, and family and probate law. If the civil case cannot be settled between the parties, it will be scheduled for trial.

The most visible responsibility of judges is presiding over trials or hearings as attorneys represent their clients. Judges rule on the admissibility of evidence and the methods of conducting testimony, and they may be called on to settle disputes between opposing attorneys. Also, Judges ensure that rules and procedures are followed, and if unusual circumstances arise for which standard procedures have not been established, judges interpret the law to determine how the trial will proceed.

In many trials, juries are selected to decide guilt or innocence in criminal cases or liability and compensation in civil cases. Judges instruct juries on applicable laws, direct them to deduce the facts from the evidence presented, and hear their verdict.

When the law does not require a jury trial or when the parties waive their right to a jury, judges decide cases. In such instances, the judge determines guilt in criminal cases and imposes sentences on the guilty; in civil cases, the judge awards relief—such as compensation for damages—to the winning parties to the lawsuit.

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Judge's Chambers

The Judge's chambers is an office near the courtroom where the Judge meets with attorneys, reads court files, researches legal issues and writes opinions. Unlike the courtroom, a judge's chambers is not open to the public.

Some Judges, in between court proceedings, will conduct pretrial conferences in their chambers with the plaintiff's counsel and the defendant's counsel to discuss and to try to settle the case with an agreement. If an agreement is reached, the Judge will go back into the courtroom with the attorneys and state the agreement on the official court record. If an agreement is not reached, the case will go to trial.

Role of the Baliff

A courtroom bailiff, a law enforcement officer of the Monterey County Sheriff's Office, is responsible for providing security and enforcing the law in and around the courthouse. The bailiff provides the following security services:

  • For Judicial Officers, courtroom personnel, jurors and members of the public;
  • Escorts in-custody defendants to and from court proceedings; and
  • Takes charge of the jury during the time of deliberation to assure that no unauthorized persons come into contact with members of the jury.

The bailiff maintains order and prevention of unnecessary disturbances in and about the courtroom and ensures no one approaches the bench without the approval of the Judge. The bailiff also ensures the courtroom is secure and orderly. At the beginning of the day, between court sessions, and at the end of the day, the bailiff inspects the courtroom for weapons, contraband, suspicious objects, and safety hazards.

The bailiff makes an announcement in open court when the Judge is about to enter the courtroom to take the bench by stating "All rise, the Honorable Judge (name) presiding, please be seated."

Role of the Courtroom Clerk

The courtroom clerk sits in the courtroom near the Judge and prepares the minutes of the court proceedings. The courtroom clerk also administers oaths to witnesses and interpreters, secures records and exhibits, prepares criminal judgments and verdict forms and generally assists the Judge in managing the court calendars.

The courtroom clerk is employed by the Superior Court. Typically, one or two courtroom clerks support each Judge in a court.

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Role of the Court Interpreter

The state Constitution guarantees that "a person unable to understand English who is charged with a crime has a right to an interpreter throughout the proceedings."

A court interpreter is a person who interprets a criminal court proceeding for a defendant or witness who speaks or understands little or no English. The role of the interpreter is to allow a non-English-speaking defendant or witness to participate in judicial proceedings. Interpreters must render a complete and accurate interpretation, without altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated or written.

The court interpreter interprets exactly what the witness or defendant says, without commenting on it. If a witness does not understand a question, the interpreter must translate the witness's request for explanation to the attorney or whoever asked the question, and that person will explain or rephrase what he or she said. The interpreter then translates the rephrased words for the witness.

The English rendition provided by the interpreter becomes the official court record.

Role of the Court Reporter

The court reporter sits near the witness stand in the courtroom and records every word that is spoken during the trial or introduced into evidence by typing on a stenographic machine. This verbatim record becomes the official record of the trial. The court reporter also produces a written transcript of the proceedings as ordered by the court or upon request by either party.

The court reporter uses a stenographic machine that has 22 keys. Using these 22 keys, a court reporter uses symbols to record what is said in court. The stenographic machine has a computer to help convert the symbols into the English words spoken in Court.

A court reporter may also be required to read out loud in court from the transcription on the stenographic machine. The court reporter may also be asked to read back portions of the official Court record for a jury.

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Role of the Attorney

The Attorney sits at the counsel tables near the bench. The attorney will speak to the judge, a witness, or the jury.

In a criminal case, the government's lawyer--the Prosecutor --is a representative from the District Attorney's office. The defendant may be represented by a Public Defender, a lawyer appointed by the court, a private attorney hired by the defendant, or occasionally defendants will decide to proceed without an attorney. In a civil case, the parties will hire their own lawyers, or appear without counsel.

Generally, there are two sides in a courtroom proceeding. One side, called the plaintiff, is seeking a remedy for an injury or to a violation of rights. The plaintiff is also called the complainant. A plaintiff can be the government, a corporation, a group of people or a single individual. The other side is the defendant, who is accused of causing an injury or of violating the plaintiff's rights. The defendant is also called the respondent.

A plaintiff's attorney represents the plaintiff and explains to a judge what happened between the plaintiff and the defendant and why it happened. The attorney for the plaintiff wants to prove that what happened was not legal and that it should be remedied.

A defendant's attorney represents the defendant, and explains to a judge what happened between the plaintiff and the defendant and why it happened. The attorney for the defendant wants to prove what happened was legal. The defendant can be the government, a corporation, a group of people or a single individual.

Role of the Witness

The witness gives testimony about the facts or issues in the case that are in dispute. During the testimony, the witness sits on the witness stand, facing the courtroom. Because the witness is asked to testify by one party or the other, they are often referred to as the plaintiff's witness, government witness, or defense witness.

The witness must swear under oath or affirm that the testimony is true and accurate to the best of the witness's knowledge as to what he/she may have heard or seen.

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Role of the Jury

The jury is seated in the boxed-in area on one side of the courtroom. A jury is a group of 12 individuals sworn to hear the evidence presented in a case. One or more alternate jurors are selected in the event a sworn juror is unable to complete the trial for health or other reasons. Alternates hear the trial but do not take part in deciding the verdict unless a juror is unable to deliberate.

The jury's role is to decide the facts in the case and apply the law on which the Judge has instructed them in order to reach a verdict.

In cases in which there is conflicting evidence, it is the jury's responsibility to resolve the conflict and decide what really happened. For example, in a criminal case, the jury might listen to the testimony of a witness who claims they/he/she saw the defendant commit the crime and then listen to the testimony of the defendant's friend, who claims the defendant was with him/her in another part of town when the crime was committed.

In a criminal case, the jury must unanimously decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of a crime as charged. In a civil case, the jury must decide by a majority of votes, whether or not a party accused of some wrongdoing or negligence is liable.

It is the jury's role to decide the facts in the case and apply the law on which the judge has instructed it to reach a verdict. Typically, a jury must come to a unanimous decision before delivering a verdict; however, there are exceptions. When a unanimous decision is not reached and the jury feels that one is not possible, they declare themselves a hung jury, a mistrial is declared and the trial may be retried at the discretion of the plaintiff.

Courtroom Vocabulary Words


A legal determination that a person who has been charged with a crime is innocent.


A request for a higher court to review a decision made by a lower court.


The result of a criminal trial in which a person is found guilty.


The questioning of a witness by the lawyer for the opposing side.


The process in which a jury trial discusses in private the evidence presented in court and decides by vote on a verdict.


In a trial, the first questioning of a witness by the lawyer who called that witness.

Hung Jury:

A trial in where a jury cannot agree upon a verdict after an extended period of deliberation.


An accusation of a crime made against a person by a grand jury upon the request of a prosecutor.


An accusation of a crime, made against a person by the prosecutor.

Jury Trial:

A group of citizens that listen to the evidence presented by both sides at trial and figure out the facts in dispute. Criminal juries consist of 12 people; civil juries are made up of at least 6 people.


A trial that becomes invalid is essentially canceled because of a mistake in procedure.


How a lawyer asks the judge to make a decision.


The opposing side finds fault with the question being asked of the witness.


The judge, following an objection, decides the questions may continue.

Pre-Trial Conference:

A meeting of the judge and attorneys to plan a trial, discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, review proposed evidence and witnesses, and set a trial schedule. Typically, the judge and the attorneys also discuss the possibility of a plea agreement on the case.


The judge, following an objection, agrees that the line of questioning should not continue.


A verdict of guilty or not guilty is handed down by the jury, or by the Judge, if a court trial.


The punishment given to a person who has been convicted of a crime.

Your Honor:

The way a judge is addressed in a courtroom.

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