State Court System - Explained
How Does the State Court System Work?
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What is the state judicial system?
State governments establish courts pursuant to Articles III and I of their respective state constitutions.
The general structure for the state court system is outlined below.
Next Article: Subject Matter Jurisdiction in Courts Back to: US COURT SYSTEM
What types of courts exist in the state judicial system?
The general structure for the state court system is outlined below.
What is the Stae Supreme Court?
The State Supreme Court is generally the highest court in a state. In some states, there is a different naming convention.
In New York, for example, the highest court is the Court of Appeals.
Nonetheless, the purpose of the highest state court is the same across all states.
They review cases generally to ensure the correct or appropriate application of the law - in accordance with the state's constitution.
Cases generally go before the Supreme Court via a Writ of Certiorari or pursuant to a request for appeal by a losing party.
This process is similar to that of the federal system.
Some state cases have automatic appeal rights to the state Supreme Court. This is the case for all capital murder cases.
What is the State Appellate Court?
Many state judicial systems have an intermediate court of review. Not every state is big enough to have an intermediate appeals court.
As such, appeals must go directly to the State Supreme Court.
The function of the intermediate state court of appeals is similar to that of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
It reviews the decisions of lower courts based on their interpretation and application of the law to the facts of the case as present in the record of trial.
What is the State Superior Court?
This is generally the naming convention for the highest-level trial court in the state.
That is, the superior trial court is the court with general jurisdiction empowered by the state constitution to hear any matter of state law.
It is the trial court for the most serious offenses (criminal and civil).
It will hear any cases falling outside of the jurisdiction of subordinate trial courts. These courts generally employ juries as triers of fact.
What is the State Intermediate Trial Court?
Nearly all states have an intermediate trial court that has limited jurisdiction over certain types of cases.
This court will generally hear criminal cases involving charges that have a specified limit in the potential sentence if found guilty.
Further, it will generally hear civil lawsuits that have a specific limit in the dollar amount in dispute or in controversy.
These courts often have special limitations, such as no right to jury trial and special court rules.
The geographic jurisdiction of the court is generally broken down by county or district.
What are Courts of Limited or Special Jurisdiction?
Most states designate special courts to hear cases of a particular subject matter.
This frees up the intermediate and superior trial courts to focus on criminal and civil trials that meet their jurisdictional requirements.
Common examples of courts of limited jurisdiction include:
- Municipal Court
- Magistrate Court
- Probate Court
- Family Court
- Courts of Equity
- Business Courts (Chancery Courts)
What is a Municipal Court ?
Municipal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction to handle local ordinance violations.
The geographic jurisdiction is generally limited to within the city or town limits.
- Example: Common municipal court cases include citations (tickets) based on speeding or noise violations.
What is a Magistrate Court or Small Claims Court?
This is a special court of limited jurisdiction empowered to hear minor criminal offenses and small civil disputes.
Magistrate court is important for small businesses.
It handles much of the litigation between businesses and customers that falls within a jurisdictional limit (commonly $10-20K or less).
The benefits of the magistrate court are that it generally has very informal court procedures and low court costs.
What is a Probate Court?
Probate courts handle matters involving death and estate administration.
Specifically, the word probate signifies the process of administering an individual's estate.
The court may also hear matters of child welfare and related family matters, such as guardianship, adoption, etc.
What is a Family Court?
Some states have a designated court to handle family law matters.
The primary subject-matter jurisdiction for these courts includes divorce, annulments, and spousal and child support disputes.
What is a Court of Equity?
Some states designate special equity courts that operate based on principles of fairness.
These courts apply equitable maxims, rather than statutes, to reach a fair and just result.
Most states have unified courts of law and equity and do not designate stand-alone courts of equity.
Equity courts often hear civil disputes that do not involve the commission of a tort (such as a mortgage default).
They may act as a special form of mediator to certain disputes between individuals and businesses.
- Example: States that have courts of equity include: Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
What is a Business Court?
States increasingly create a separate court or docket within the trial system to hear business law matters.
These courts recognize the need to employ judges who are subject-matter experts in business principles.
The most notable example of this is the Chancery Court of Delaware.
What are Article I State Courts?
All state constitutions allow for administrative state agencies to handle regulatory issues between citizens and the state government.
These courts are structurally and operationally similar in nature to federal administrative courts.
They fall under the state executive branch's authority.
Examples of state administrative courts include: revenue (taxation), licensing, disability, employment, etc.
Discussion: How do you feel about states developing such extensive courts of special jurisdiction? Do these special courts provide any advantages or disadvantages for parties appearing before them?
- Like the federal court system, the state court systems have become increasingly complex. Creating courts of special jurisdiction has some advantages and disadvantages. Advantages may include expertise or subject-matter knowledge and speed to trial. Disadvantages may include costs of operation (such as court staff and funding) and increased administrative process.