The Role of the Judiciary in Law Enforcement

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  • 0:00 The Judiciary
  • 0:51 Interpreting &…
  • 2:42 Justice
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore the relationship between the judiciary, law enforcement, and the distribution of justice. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Judiciary

What do police officers do? I mean, this seems obvious, but what do they do in terms of justice? The answer? Nothing. Police officers are not responsible for distributing justice. They are responsible for maintaining public safety, preventing crimes, and investigating infractions of the law. They gather evidence and conduct investigations so that justice may be done, but the police themselves are not designed to create justice.

So, who is? The judiciary, the branch of government responsible for interpreting and upholding the law. Basically, it's the court system. If you break a law, you get arrested by the police, but it's the courts that are responsible for actually ensuring that justice is served.

Interpreting and Upholding the Law

Our laws are created by the legislative and executive branches of both the federal and state governments. However, with over 300 million people living in this country, it's understood that these laws cannot possibly be specific enough to describe the exact outcome of every situation. Very rarely is the law broken in a clear-cut, textbook way. It's generally more a case of people breaking parts of one law and parts of another.

So, how do you determine what exactly they did wrong? That's one of the primary roles of the judiciary: to interpret the laws as they apply to individual scenarios. Is a law relevant in this case? Did the suspect actually break the law, or not? Is this law even fair, or does it violate a person's constitutional rights? It's the role of the judiciary to decide this, which is why it's so important for law enforcement officers to conduct their investigations thoroughly. The judiciary can only make decisions based on facts, so evidence is required to prove that a law was broken.

Once this law has been interpreted, it's up to the judiciary to see that it is appropriately upheld. This means assigning punishment. One of the basic rules of our justice system is that the punishment must fit the crime, so you can't assign incredibly harsh punishments for minor infractions. Judges are highly educated and highly trained to understand what sort of punishment is most appropriate for the crime committed. Is it community service, or life in prison? Law enforcement officers are not qualified to make that distinction, so we leave this in the hands of the judiciary.

Justice

In practical terms, the judiciary interprets the law. But what is its ideological function? Basically, the judiciary is dedicated to justice, which is a complex idea roughly equating to fairness and moral application of the law. The judiciary actually applies justice in multiple ways. First, obviously, is providing justice for society. That's why we prosecute and punish people who break the law. In our moral and legal system, it is fair that people who break the law are punished. This provides justice for the victims and for society at large.

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