Purposes and Responsibilities of Courts

Curriculum Guidelines Summary

What Court Leaders Need to Know and Be Able to Do

The Purposes and Responsibilities of Courts Core Competency includes five areas, each of which assumes a link between theory and practice; concept and behavior; and idea and application: 

Why Courts Exist

 Only the judiciary can definitively determine who is to prevail in the inevitable conflicts that arise between individuals; between government and the governed, including those accused by the state of violating the law; between individuals and corporations; and between organizations, both public and private.  The atmosphere surrounding courts and court events is formal and peculiar, because the courts are unique.  They resolve disputes by applying the law to the facts of particular cases independently and impartially.  When the law is applied to the facts in courts, every party has the absolute right to an arbiter who is independent of the parties to that case and their advocates.

 Court processes must reflect established court purposes such as individual justice in individual cases, the appearance of individual justice in individual cases, provision of a forum for the resolution of disputes, the protection of individuals against the arbitrary use of governmental power, and the making of a record of legal status.  Individual cases must receive individual attention. The law must be correctly applied to the facts. Regardless of economic or other status, there must be equal access. Everyone who comes to and before the court must be treated respectfully, fairly, and equally.  Case processing and the application of the law to the facts in individual cases must be consistent and predictable.

 Courts as Institutions

When they are impartial and independent, courts earn public trust and confidence as they balance needs for social order and individual freedom in the “ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice.” (Federalist 17)  Justice requires courts whose ordinary everyday administration reflects the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, America’s compound republic, and the public’s respect for and voluntary adherence to the law and judicial decisions in individual cases.

Courts are separate from the executive and the legislative branches of government.  But, at bottom, the constitutional and statutory basis of their authority dictates interdependency and independence, not autonomy.  Competent court managers understand the historical basis for judicial independence, judicial authority, concepts of jurisdiction and venue, and the inherent power of the courts.  Whether exercised through management and restrained activism or via adversarial relations with the other branches, the courts self-consciously protect their decisional processes and maintain their distinctive political and administrative boundaries.

Because the Trial Court Performance Standards persuasively and thoroughly articulate what courts should accomplish with the resources available to them, competent court leaders know what they say and take them seriously.

Rule of Law, Equal Protection and Due Process

 The promise of equal justice under law and the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law ground day-to-day judicial administration.  Courts protect all persons equally without bias or discrimination of any type.  This is equal protection.  Proper judicial administration demands protection of private rights through regular administration according to prescribed rules, processes, and forms.  This is due process.  Elements of due process on the criminal and civil side include notice, discovery, right to bail, counsel, lawful and regular process, confrontation, cross examination, the right to call witnesses, the privilege against self incrimination, and public and timely resolution, among others.

Court management competency requires an informed understanding of equal protection and due process and their historical evolution from rights first granted by the English king to the Lords of the Realm, to rights now guaranteed to all Americans.  Rule of law, equal protection, and due process have profound practical implications. The ends of judicial administration are not autonomy or even judicial independence, but rather liberty, social order, equal access, the equality of individuals and the state, and justice.


Purposes and Responsibilities of Courts require balance between independence and external and internal accountability.  Courts do not serve their enduring purposes or continuing responsibilities unless their structure, governance, operations, programs, processes, and performance lead to the reality and deserved public perception that the judiciary is accountable.  The justification for court control of the pace of litigation, the tracking and reporting of case disposition times, and adherence to judicial decisions is not merely efficiency.  Rather it is the courts’ responsibility for the proper use of public money to ensure rule of law, equal protection and due process, individual justice in individual cases, and the appearance of individual justice in individual cases.

Court managers establish, explain, and maintain the court’s use of public resources.  They report on court performance to the judiciary, the public, and the judiciary’s political co-equals.  Judges and court staff recognize the public’s right to an accountable judiciary, which demonstrates service excellence

Interdependence and Leadership

Federalist 51 declares that a “contriving … interior structure of government … is … essential to the preservation of liberty.”  Contriving interdependency and overlapping power assume on-going relationships and, plainly, conflict.  The judiciary’s relationships have a distinctive flavor in needed balance between interdependency and responsiveness to others, independence and distinctive boundaries, and leadership of the judiciary, individual judges, and the justice system.

Courts depend on the executive and legislative branches for resources. The judiciary cannot process and resolve even simple disputes without the cooperation of others who have conflicting responsibilities. Courts oversee an adversarial process as the way to truth and justice.  Court leaders remain above the fray even as they actively manage cases, work to improve the justice system and court performance, and build public trust and confidence.  Judicial communications and interventions are subject to public and governmental accountability.  But the judiciary should never be subservient.  The judicial voice must be strong and steady, yet modest and measured.  The judiciary must lead the justice system in resolving criminal, civil, and family matters.

Advanced courts have leaders who not only know what the enduring purposes and continuing responsibilities are, they live it.  Enduring values are acted upon, risks are taken in the interest of justice, and leadership is exercised in the interest of justice and the courts as institutions.   Effective leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and with their affirmative responsibility to lead.  Absent leadership, courts cannot structure and maintain distinctive relationships.  Likewise, leadership allows courts to build and to protect judicial authority. Authority requires understanding and effective communication of the proper purpose behind judicial prerogatives, emoluments of office, legal and administrative processes, programs, offices and activities.

In Hamilton’s words, “the judiciary has neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment…” (Federalist 78)  Judicial administration is a high calling.  With their passion for justice and courts as institutions, court leaders motivate others and bring pride to everyday routines and responsibilities.  They demand integrity and ethical conduct.  They know that the courts integrity must be pure.

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