State Court System – Explained

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "State Court System – Explained," in The Business Professor, updated January 3, 2015, last accessed April 1, 2020,
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State Court System
What is the State Court System? The courts in the state system are modeled after the federal system.

Next Article: Subject Matter Jurisdiction in Courts


What types of courts exist in 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.

Article III State Courts

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 law – in accordance with the state’s constitution. Cases generally go before the Supreme Court via a Writ of Certiorari or pursuant to 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.

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 law to the facts of the case – as present in the record of trial.

Superior Court – This is generally the naming convention for the highest level of 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.

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.

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 – 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.
  • Magistrate Court (“Small Claims Court”) – This is a special court of limited jurisdiction to 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.
  • Probate Courts – 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.
  • Family Courts – 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.
  • Courts 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 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.
  • Business Courts – 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.

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?

Discussion Input

  • Like the federal court system, the state court systems has 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.

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