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General Structure of State Court Systems

The general workhorse of a state court system is the trial court. This is the lowest level of court and is usually the forum in which a case or lawsuit originates. It may be a court of general jurisdiction, such as a circuit or superior court, or it may be a court of special or limited jurisdiction, such as a probate, juvenile, traffic, or family court. Some states handle “small claims” in separate courts, while others handle such claims in special divisions of the general trial courts. This is also true for probate and juvenile matters. Although someone may broadly refer to “juvenile court” or “small claims court,” he or she may actually be referring to the juvenile or small claims “division” of the general circuit court.

  • Probate courts primarily handle the administration of estates and the probating of wills. In many states, probate courts also handle such matters as competency hearings, applications for guardianships, adoptions, etc. In a minority of jurisdictions, probate courts may be referred to as surrogate’s courts.
  • Family courts hear cases involving (mostly) custody and child support, neglect and abuse cases, and, sometimes, juvenile crime or truancy. Most family courts do not handle divorces, which are generally handled by the courts of general jurisdiction.
  • Traffic courts handle civil infractions and violations involving motor vehicles, petitions for reinstatement of driving privileges, and related matters. Some may handle minor (misdemeanor) criminal offenses related to motor vehicle-related violations. Most traffic courts do not handle automobile accident cases (as between the parties involved in an accident).
  • Housing courts, or landlord-tenant courts, handle exactly that. In many jurisdictions, landlords must choose to file their cases in one of two courts, depending upon whether they seek eviction, injunction, etc. (landlord-tenant court), or seek money damages (small claims court). Other jurisdictions handle all landlord-tenant related matters in a single court.
  • Small-claims courts handle all civil matters in which the dollar amount in controversy does not exceed a certain amount. If a party seeks damages in an amount greater than the jurisdictional limit of the small claims court, the party must either waive his or her right to the exceeding amount or re-file the case in a court with greater jurisdiction. The maximum jurisdictional limit of small claims courts varies greatly from state to state but mostly falls in the range of $3000 to $7500.
  • Juvenile courts handle truancy and criminal offenses of minors. The maximum age of the minor varies from state to state but generally is either 16 or 18 years. Older juveniles who have committed serious crimes may be “bound over” to a court of general jurisdiction for determination of whether they should be tried as adults.

Importantly, states may have separate courts for criminal and civil matters. Most often, a trial court of general jurisdiction will handle both, but often on separate dockets. Many local or district courts will have limited jurisdiction for criminal matters (e.g. misdemeanors only). In such circumstances, a person charged with a felony may be arraigned in the district court and then “bound over” to the next level court (having proper jurisdiction) for criminal trial. Again, this varies greatly from state to state.

Every state has its own system to handle appeals from the trial courts. Most states have a three-tiered court system in which there are intermediate “appellate” courts that review jury verdicts or the opinions of trial court judges (on a limited basis and under strict criteria). These appellate courts may or may not be distinguished by separate buildings or courthouses. Often, what is referred to as a “court of appeals” is in reality a panel of justices who merely convene to hear and decide cases at the appellate level.

In a minority of states, trial court decisions receive only one appellate review at the level of the state’s highest court or the court “of last resort” (generally referred to as the state’s “supreme court”). Once a state’s highest court has decided a matter, the only available appeal is to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court is generally deferential to state supreme courts, and only reviews matters in very limited circumstances (e.g, where a state’s highest court has ruled that a federal statute or treaty is invalid or unconstitutional, or where the highest courts of two or more states have ruled differently on federal issues). When a state’s highest court has decided a matter that involves both federal and state issues, the U.S. Supreme Court will nonetheless refuse to review the matter if the non-federal question is decisive in the case.

Inside General Structure of State Court Systems