The legal process of resolving a dispute. The formal giving or pronouncing of a judgment or decree in a court proceeding; also the judgment or decision given. The entry of a decree by a court in respect to the parties in a case. It implies a hearing by a court, after notice, of legal evidence on the factual issue(s) involved. The equivalent of a determination. It indicates that the claims of all the parties thereto have been considered and set at rest.
Three types of disputes are resolved through adjudication: disputes between private parties, such as individuals or corporations; disputes between private parties and public officials; and disputes between public officials or public bodies. The requirements of full adjudication include notice to all interested parties (all parties with a legal interest in, or legal right affected by, the dispute) and an opportunity for all parties to present evidence and arguments. The adjudicative process is governed by formal RULES OF EVIDENCE and procedure. Its objective is to reach a reasonable settlement of the controversy at hand. A decision is rendered by an impartial, passive fact finder, usually a judge, jury, or administrative tribunal.
The adjudication of a controversy involves the performance of several tasks. The trier must establish the facts in controversy, and define and interpret the applicable law, or, if no relevant law exists, fashion a new law to apply to the situation. Complex evidentiary rules limit the presentation of proofs, and the Anglo-American tradition of STARE DECISIS, or following precedents, controls the outcome. However, the process of applying established RULES OF LAW is neither simple nor automatic. Judges have considerable latitude in interpreting the statutes or case law upon which they base their decisions.
An age-old question that still plagues legal theorists is whether judges "make" law when they adjudicate. SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE believed that judges do nothing more than maintain and expound established law (Commentaries on the Laws of England); other writers vehemently disagree. Some legal analysts maintain that the law is whatever judges declare it to be. Echoing those sentiments, President THEODORE ROOSEVELT asserted that "the chief lawmakers in our country may be, and often are, the judges, because they are the final seat of authority. Every time they interpret … they necessarily enact into law parts of a system of social philosophy; and as such interpretation is fundamental, they give direction to all law-making" (Message to Congress [Dec. 8, 1908]). Supreme Court Justice BENJAMIN N. CARDOZO, writing in The Nature of the Judicial Process, argued that the law is evolutionary and that judges, by interpreting and applying it to specific sets of facts, actually fashion new laws.
Whether judges are seen as making law or merely following what came before, they are required to operate within narrow strictures. Even when they are deciding a CASE OF FIRST IMPRESSION (a question that has not previously been adjudicated), they generally try to analogize to some existing precedent. Judges often consider customs of the community; political and social implications; customs of the trade, market, or profession; and history when applying the law. Some, such as Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES and Justice Cardozo, thought that considerations of social and public policy are the most powerful forces behind judicial decisions.
A hearing in which the parties are given an opportunity to present their evidence and arguments is essential to an adjudication. Anglo-American law presumes that the parties to the dispute are in the best position to know the facts of their particular situations and develop their own proofs. If the hearing is before a court, formal rules of procedure and evidence govern; a hearing before an ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY is generally less structured.
Following the hearing, the decision maker is expected to deliver a reasoned opinion. This opinion is the basis for review if the decision is appealed to a higher tribunal (a court of appeals). It also helps ensure that decisions are not reached arbitrarily. Finally, a well-reasoned opinion forces the judge to carefully think through his or her decision in order to be able to explain the process followed in reaching it.
Adjudication of a controversy generally ensures a fair and equitable outcome. Because courts are governed by evidentiary and procedural rules, as well as by stare decisis, the adjudicative process assures litigants of some degree of efficiency, uniformity, and predictability of result.
Cardoza, Benjamin N. 1960. The Nature of the Judicial Process. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.
Lewis, William D., ed. 1922. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Philadelphia: Bisel.
Lucy, William. 1999. Understanding and Explaining Adjudication. Oxford Univ. Press.
Roosevelt, Theodore. 1908. Message to Congress. Congressional Record, December 8, pt. I:21.