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In a golden statue Lady Justice is blindfolded. In one hand she holds a balanced scale, and in the other hand she holds a sword tucked under her arm.
Figure 11.1 Lady Justice is traditionally shown wearing a blindfold to indicate impartiality, holding scales to weigh the evidence of guilt against the presumption of innocence, and wielding a sword as a symbol of power. (credit: “Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium” by Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers stopped George Floyd, a Black man, for allegedly using counterfeit money. During his arrest, one of the officers, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while the other officers looked on, leading to Mr. Floyd’s death. Several people witnessed the event, including one person who recorded it on her phone, and these witnesses immediately spoke out against the officers’ actions.

The death of Mr. Floyd prompted demonstrations protesting police conduct to spread across the United States and worldwide, with protestors demanding immediate action against the officers.1 However, it was the Minnesota judicial system that would determine the legality of the officers’ conduct and whether and how they would be punished. Like all others in the United States, this judicial system must follow a constitutionally ordained process in every case, no matter how people may feel about the parties involved. Following these constitutionally required procedures, Minnesota law enforcement investigated George Floyd’s arrest and death, and prosecutors with the Minnesota state attorney general’s office prosecuted Chauvin for three crimes: third-degree murder, second-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. News sources reported on the pretrial process, and the trial was carried live on television.2 Throughout the trial process, viewers saw the order, procedures, and vocabulary of the United States judicial system at work.

Many people have less personal, everyday experience with the courts than they have with the legislative and executive branches of government. The court system uses a specialized vocabulary that can be intimidating until you learn it, but understanding a country’s court system is central to understanding how that country’s government and society work. This chapter will discuss court systems and their processes to help you understand the operations of judicial systems and their purpose in society.

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