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A legal proceeding where an issue of law or fact is tried and evidence is presented to help determine the issue.
Hearings resemble trials in that they ordinarily are held publicly and involve opposing parties. They differ from trials in that they feature more relaxed standards of evidence and procedure, and take place in a variety of settings before a broader range of authorities (judges, examiners, and lawmakers). Hearings fall into three broad categories: judicial, administrative, and legislative. Judicial hearings are tailored to suit the issue at hand and the appropriate stage at which a legal proceeding stands. Administrative hearings cover matters of rule making and the adjudication of individual cases. Legislative hearings occur at both the federal and state levels and are generally conducted to find facts and survey public opinion. They encompass a wide range of issues relevant to law, government, society, and public policy.
Judicial hearings take place prior to a trial in both civil and criminal cases. Ex parte hearings provide a forum for only one side of a dispute, as in the case of a temporary restraining order, whereas adversary hearings involve both parties. Preliminary hearings, also called preliminary examinations, are conducted when a person has been charged with a crime. Held before a magistrate or judge, a preliminary hearing is used to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to justify detaining the accused or discharging the accused on bail. Closely related are detention hearings, which can also determine whether to detain a juvenile. Suppression hearings take place before trial at the request of an attorney seeking to have illegally obtained or irrelevant evidence kept out of trial.
Administrative hearings are conducted by state and federal agencies. Rule-making hearings evaluate and determine appropriate regulations, and adjudicatory hearings try matters of fact in individual cases. The former are commonly used to garner opinion on matters that affect the public—as, for example, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers changing its rules. The latter commonly take place when an individual is charged with violating rules that come under the agency's jurisdiction—for example, violating a pollution regulation of the EPA, or, if incarcerated, violating behavior standards set for prisoners by the Department of Corrections.
Some blurring of this distinction occurs, which is important given the generally more relaxed standards that apply to some administrative hearings. The degree of formality required of an administrative hearing is determined by the liberty interest at stake: the greater that interest, the more formal the hearing. Notably, rules limiting the admissibility of evidence are looser in administrative hearings than in trials. Adjudicatory hearings can admit, for example, hearsay that generally would not be permitted at trial. (Hearsay is a statement by a witness who does not appear in person, offered by a third party who does appear.) The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) (5 U.S.C.A. § 551 et seq.) governs administrative hearings by federal agencies, and state laws largely modeled upon the APA govern state agencies. These hearings are conducted by a civil servant called a hearing examiner at the state level and known as an administrative law judge at the federal level.
Legislative hearings occur in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress, and are a function of legislative committees. They are commonly public events, held whenever a lawmaking body is contemplating a change in law, during which advocates and opponents air their views. Because of their controversial nature, they often are covered extensively by the media.
Not all legislative hearings consider changes in legislation; some examine allegations of wrongdoing. Although lawmaking bodies do not have a judicial function, they retain the power to discipline their members, a key function of state and federal ethics committees. Fact finding is ostensibly the reason for turning congressional hearings into public scandals. Often, however, critics will argue that these hearings are staged for attacking political opponents. Throughout the twentieth century, legislative hearings have been used to investigate such things as allegations of Communist infiltration of government and industry (the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings) and abuses of power by the executive branch (the Watergate and Whitewater hearings).