Saturday, December 8, 2012

Specialized courts

Modern life is so vast and complex, the law and the legal system must be equally vast and complex to deal with the numerous different types of problem that arise. Nearly everyone knows there is a difference between a criminal court action and a civil court action, and if you watch TV you may also know that large urban areas may have traffic courts that do nothing but handle minor traffic violations. Technically, these are criminal actions even if the penalty is nothing more than a money fine. Or, small claims courts that specialize in civil actions below a specified dollar amount.

Most people understand that the U.S. legal system has always been divided between trial courts that are the first to hear witnesses, to look at evidence and to make judgment calls, with or without a jury, and appellate courts that review the work of trial courts.

In the world of courts and judges there is a division of labor and subject specialization that most non-lawyers may have never considered. At the federal level are bankruptcy courts and tax courts, for example, that do nothing but handle disputes in those respective legal areas. There are various administrative law judges, or 'hearing officers' as they are sometimes called, that are somewhat apart from the general judicial system even if ultimately answerable to it. Social Security is one example. The denial of a Social Security claim is first appealed to a Social Security administrative law judge who does nothing but decide Social Security disagreements. There are many of these specialized avenues of dispute resolution, depending upon the nature of the dispute.

What brought this to mind was a recent announcement on the Kentucky Court of Justice website that a new three-year program has started in Jefferson County, Kentucky, focusing on military veterans who get into trouble because of drug abuse. This new program for veterans is a supplement to the existing Jefferson County Drug Court, but it is the first program of its kind in Kentucky because of the high number of military veterans living in Louisville.

The program is a collaborative effort between local prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, medical providers and non-government social services. Specifically:
"The Administrative Office of the Courts is collaborating on this project with the Office of the Jefferson County Attorney, the Robley Rex Veterans Administration Medical Center, Jefferson County Drug Court, Seven Counties Services and Morehead State University."  Leigh Anne Hiatt, APR, Public Information Officer, Administrative Office of the Courts
What may be different from the popular conception of what courts do is the focus on solving the problem and providing treatment, rather than just dishing out punishment. The program is funded by a by a three-year$350,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice.