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  • The State Court System

  • The State Court System

    Historically each of the thirteen original states had their own unique court structure. This independence continued after the American Revolution and resulted in widespread differences among the various states, some of which still exist today. Because each state adopted its own system of courts, the consequence was a poorly planned and confusing judicial structure. As a result, there have been several reform movements whose purpose has been to streamline and modernize this system.

    Many state courts can be divided into three levels:

    Trial courts.

    Appellate courts.

    Supreme courts.


    Trial courts are where criminal cases start and finish. The trial court conducts the entire series of acts that culminate in either the defendant's release or sentencing. State trial courts can be further divided into courts of:

    Limited or special jurisdiction.

    Courts of general jurisdiction.

    The nature and type of case determines which court will have jurisdiction.

    Limited jurisdiction. Courts that only hear and decide certain limited legal issues are courts of limited jurisdiction:

    Courts of limited jurisdiction hear and decide issues such as traffic tickets or set bail for criminal defendants.

    Typically, these courts hear certain types of minor civil or criminal cases.

    There are approximately 13,000 local courts in the United States.

    They are called county, magistrate, justice or municipal courts.

    Judges in these courts may be either appointed or elected. In many jurisdictions these are part-time positions, and the incumbent may have another job or position in addition to serving as a judge. However, simply because they handle minor civil and criminal matters does not mean these courts do not perform important duties. Often, the only contact the average citizen will have with the judicial system occurs at this level.

    In addition, courts of limited jurisdiction may hear certain types of specialized matters such as:

    Probate of wills and estates.


    Child custody matters.

    Landlord-tenant disputes.

    Juvenile proceedings.

    These types of courts may be local courts or, depending on the state, may be courts of general jurisdiction that are designated by statute to hear and decide specific types of cases. For example, in California, a superior court is considered a court of general jurisdiction; however, certain superior courts are designated to hear only juvenile matters, thereby becoming a court of limited jurisdiction when sitting as a juvenile court.

    General jurisdiction. Courts of general jurisdiction are granted authority to hear and decide all issues that are brought before them. These are courts that normally hear all major civil or criminal cases. These courts are known by a variety of names, such as:

    Superior Courts.

    Circuit Courts.

    District Courts. Courts of Common Pleas.

    Since they are courts of general jurisdiction, they have authority over all types of cases and controversies and, unless otherwise geographically limited, may decide issues that occur anywhere within the state. Some larger jurisdictions such as Los Angeles or New York may have hundreds of courts of general jurisdiction within the city limits. It is important to be certain about the correct terminology for courts in each jurisdiction. For example, the New York Supreme Court is the state's trial court and its highest court is called the Superior Court. Just the reverse is true in many jurisdictions.

    Typically, these courts hear civil cases involving the same types of issues that courts of limited jurisdiction hear, although the amount of damages will be higher and may reach millions.

    These courts also hear the most serious forms of criminal matters including death penalty cases.

    Courts of general jurisdiction traditionally have the power to order individuals to do or refrain from doing certain acts.

    These courts may issue injunctions that prohibit performing certain acts or require individuals to perform certain functions or duties.

    This authority is derived from the equity power that resides in courts of general jurisdiction.

    Equity is the concept that justice is administrated according to fairness as contrasted with the strict rules of law. In early English Common Law, such separate courts of equity were known as Courts of Chancery. These early courts were not concerned with technical legal issues; rather they focused on rendering decisions or orders that were fair or equitable. In modern times, the power of these courts has been merged with courts of general jurisdiction, allowing them to rule on matters that require fairness as well as the strict application of the law.

    The power to issue temporary restraining orders (TROs) in spousal abuse cases comes from the equitable powers of the court.


    Appellate jurisdiction is reserved for courts that hear appeals from both limited and general jurisdiction courts.

    These courts do not hold trials or hear evidence.

    They decide matters of law and issue formal written decisions or "opinions."

    There are two classes of appellate courts:

    Intermediate, or Courts of Appeals.

    Final, or Supreme Courts.

    Courts of appeals. The intermediate appellate courts are known as courts of appeals. Approximately half the states have designated intermediate appellate courts.

    These courts may be divided into judicial districts that hear all appeals within their district.

    They will hear and decide all issues of law that are raised on appeal in both civil and criminal cases.

    Since these courts deal strictly with legal or equitable issues, there is no jury to decide factual disputes.

    These courts accept the facts as determined by the trial courts.

    Intermediate appellate courts have the authority to reverse the decision of the lower courts, and to send the matter back with instructions to retry the case in accordance with their opinion.

    They also may uphold the decision of the lower court. In either situation, the party who loses the appeal at this level may file an appeal with the next higher appellate court.


    Final appellate courts are the highest state appellate courts. They may be known as supreme courts or courts of last resort. There may be five, seven, or nine justices sitting on this court depending on the state. This court has jurisdiction to hear and decide issues dealing with all matters decided by lower courts, including ruling on state constitutional or statutory issues. This decision is binding on all other courts within the state. Once this court had decided an issue, the only potential appeal left is to file in the federal court system, but only if grounds for federal appellate jurisdiction exist.

    This information came from a
    US DOJ online article.

    *** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***

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