Definitions

under state

State court

In the United States, a state court has jurisdiction over disputes with some connection to a U.S. state. Cases are heard before and evidence is presented in a trial court, which is usually located in a courthouse in the county seat. Territory outside of any state in the United States, such as the District of Columbia or American Samoa, often have courts established under federal or territorial law which substitute for a state court system, distinct from the ordinary federal court system.

If one of the litigants is unsatisfied with the decision of the lower court, the matter may be taken up on appeal (but an acquittal in a criminal trial may not be appealed by the state due to the Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy). Usually, an intermediate appellate court, if there is one in that state, often called the state court of appeals, will review the decision of the trial court. If still unsatisfied, the litigant can appeal to the highest appellate court in the state, which is usually called the state supreme court. Appellate courts in the United States, unlike their civil law counterparts, are generally not permitted to correct mistakes concerning the facts of the case on appeal, only mistakes of law, or findings of fact with no support in the trial court record.

Courts of inferior jurisdiction

Many states have courts of inferior jurisdiction, presided over by (for example) a magistrate or justice of the peace who hears criminal arraignments and tries petty offenses and small civil cases. Larger cities often have city courts which hear traffic offenses and violations of city ordinances. Other courts of limited jurisdiction include alderman's courts, mayor's courts, recorder's courts, county courts, probate courts, municipal courts, courts of claims, courts of common pleas, family courts, small claims courts, tax courts, water courts (present in some western states such as Colorado and Montana), and workers' compensation courts.

All these courts are distinguished from courts of general jurisdiction, which are the default type of trial court that can hear any case which is not required to be first heard in a court of inferior jurisdiction. Most such cases are civil cases involving large sums of money or criminal trials arising from serious crimes like rape and murder.

A few states like California have unified all courts of general and inferior jurisdiction to make the judicial process more efficient. In such judicial systems, there are still departments of limited jurisdiction within the trial courts, and often these departments occupy the exact same facilities they once occupied as independent courts of limited jurisdiction. However, as mere administrative divisions, departments can be rearranged at the discretion of each trial court's presiding judge in response to changing caseloads.

Differences among the states

  • Delaware, New Jersey, and Tennessee make a distinction between a "court of law" and a "court of equity" (chancery court). For the most part in the American legal system, while the distinction between law and equity has some legal consequences, separate court systems are not maintained.
  • Texas and Oklahoma have separate courts of last resort for criminal cases and other cases. In all other states, there is a single court of last resort. While collateral attacks on criminal convictions, such as state level habeas corpus petitions, are usually considered to be technically civil cases, because they are not brought by a prosecutor and do not seek to convict someone of a crime, these suits are, in both states, appealed to the criminal court of last resort, rather than the civil court of last resort.
  • In Maryland and New York, the Court of Appeals is the highest state court, and in New York the Supreme Court, Civil Court, and Criminal Court collectively are lower.
  • The courts of Louisiana and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are organized under a civil law model with significantly different procedures from those of the courts in all other states and the District of Columbia, which are organized on an American version of the common law system established originally in England. The courts of one state are generally not required to follow the decisions of the courts of another state, but in the common law legal system it is customary for the courts of one state to look to decisions of other states as persuasive statements of what the law should be in the state making the decision, where express statutory provisions do not control.

Nature of cases handled in state courts

The vast majority of non-criminal cases in the United States are handled in state courts, rather than federal courts. For example, in Colorado, in 2002, which is typical, roughly 97% of all civil cases were filed in state courts and 89% of the cases filed in federal court were bankruptcies. Just 0.3% of the non-bankruptcy civil cases in the state were filed in federal court. In Colorado, in 2002, there were 79 civil trials in federal court (41 jury and 38 non-jury), and 5950 civil trials in state court (300 jury and 5650 non-jury). Essentially all probate and divorce cases are also brought in state court, even if the parties involved live in different states.

Often, a plaintiff can bring a matter either to state court or federal court, because it arises under federal law, or involves a substantial monetary dispute (in excess of $75,000 as of October 26, 2007) arising under state law between parties that do not reside in the same state. If a plaintiff files suit in state court in such a case, the defendant can "remove" the case to federal court if a timely request is made to do so. Deciding on the jurisdiction is part of litigation strategy for both plaintiff and defendant, in which the make up of the likely juries in each court, and the differences between federal and state court procedures figure highly. A mere federal law defense to a claim arising under state law, however, is generally not a basis for removing a case to federal court from state court.

About 91% of people in prison at any given time in the United States were convicted in state court, rather than federal court, including 99% of defendants sentenced to death. Federal courts disproportionately handle white collar crimes, immigration related crimes and drug offenses (these crimes make up about 70% of the federal docket, but just 19% of the state court criminal docket). A large share of the violent crimes that are prosecuted in federal court arise on Indian Reservations or federal property, where state courts lack jurisdiction and tribal court jurisdiction is usually limited to less serious offenses.

Many rights of criminal defendants in state courts arise under federal law, but federal courts only examine if the state courts applied those federal rights correctly on a direct appeal from the conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, after state court direct appeals have been exhausted, or in a collateral attack on a conviction in a habeas corpus proceeding.

Relationship to federal courts

The relationship between state courts and federal courts is quite complicated. Although the United States Constitution and federal laws override state laws where there is a conflict between federal and state law, state courts are not subordinate to federal courts. Rather, they are two parallel sets of courts with different often overlapping jurisdiction.

State courts systems always contain some courts of "general jurisdiction." All disputes which are capable of being brought in courts, arising under either state or federal law may be brought in one of the state courts, except in a few narrow case where federal law specifically limits jurisidiction exclusively to the federal courts. Some of the most common cases exclusively in federal jurisdiction are suits between state governments, suits involving ambassadors, certain intellectual property cases, federal criminal cases, bankruptcies and most securities fraud class actions. There are also a handful of federal laws under which lawsuits can be pursued only in state court, such as those arising under the federal "junk fax" law.. Unlike state courts, federal courts are courts of "limited jurisdiction", that can only hear the types of cases specified in the Constitution and federal statutes (primarily federal crimes, cases arising under federal law and cases involving a diversity of citizenship between the parties).

Federal courts must defer to state courts in their the interpretation of state laws, and sometimes "certify" a question of state law to a state court in a case pending before it, if state law is unsettled on the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court can review final decision of state courts, after a party exhausts all remedies up to a request for relief from the state's highest appellate court, if the justices believe that the case involves a question of constitutional law or federal law. On average, in an average sized state, one or two decisions every year or two from a state's court system are reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Most U.S. Supreme Court review of state court decisions involves review of the constitutional rights of state court criminal defendants.

Another method of federal court review of state court judgments in criminal cases is the federal writ of habeas corpus, in which a federal court is asked to review whether a defendant has been given due process of law. If the federal court finds that the defendant has been denied due process then the defendant must be released or re-tried in the state court. Applications for habeas corpus review are most frequently made in death penalty cases, although the scope of review has been sharply restricted in recent years by Supreme Court decisions and legislation.

Nomenclature

The following table notes the names of the courts in the states and territories of the United States. Listed are the principal courts of first instance (general jurisdiction), the principal intermediate appellate courts, and the courts of final appeal or resort.

In some cases where courts are generally assigned to counties, the number of county-based courts does not exactly match the number of actual counties in the state. This happens when a single court has jurisdiction over more than one county.

[[California >
State Court of first instance
(general jurisdiction)
Intermediate appellate court Court of last resort
(State supreme court)
Alabama (District) Circuit Court
(41 judicial districts)
Court of Civil Appeals
Court of Criminal Appeals
(-1969: single Court of Appeals)
Supreme Court
Alaska (District) Superior Court
(4 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Arizona (County) Superior Court
(15 counties)
(Division) Court of Appeals (2 divisions) Supreme Court
Arkansas Circuit Court
(23 judicial circuits)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
(County) Superior Court
(58 counties)
(District) Court of Appeal
(6 appellate districts)
Supreme Court
Colorado District Court
(22 judicial districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Connecticut Superior Court
(12 or 13 judicial districts)
Appellate Court Supreme Court
(previously: Supreme Court of Errors)
Delaware Superior Court
(previously: Superior Court and Orphans' Court)
Court of Chancery
(none) Supreme Court
(previously: Court of Errors and Appeals)
District of Columbia Superior Court (none) Court of Appeals
(previously: Municipal Court of Appeals)
Florida Circuit Court
(20 judicial circuits)
District Court of Appeal
(5 districts)
Supreme Court
Georgia Superior Court
(49 judicial circuits)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Hawaii Circuit Court and Family Court
(4 circuits)
Intermediate Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Idaho District Court
(7 judicial districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Illinois Circuit Court
(22 judicial circuits)
(District) Appellate Court
(5 districts)
Supreme Court
Indiana Superior Court (177 divisions),
Circuit Court (90 circuits)
(District) Court of Appeals
(5 districts)
(previously: Appellate Court)
Supreme Court
Iowa District Court
(8 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Kansas District Court
(31 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Kentucky Circuit Court
(57 circuits)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
(-1976: Court of Appeals)
Louisiana District Court
(40 districts)
(Circuit) Court of Appeal
(5 circuits)
Supreme Court
(-1813: Superior Court)
Maine Superior Court (none) Supreme Judicial Court
Maryland Circuit Court
(8 judicial circuits)
Court of Special Appeals Court of Appeals
Massachusetts Superior Court
(14 divisions)
Appeals Court Supreme Judicial Court
Michigan Circuit Court
(57 circuits)
Court of Claims
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Minnesota District Court
(10 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Mississippi District Circuit Court
(22 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Missouri Circuit Court
(45 circuits)
(District) Court of Appeals
(3 districts)
Supreme Court
Montana District Court
(22 judicial districts)
(none) Supreme Court
Nebraska District Court
(12 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Nevada District Court
(9 districts)
(none) Supreme Court
New Hampshire Superior Court (none) Supreme Court
New Jersey (Vicinage) Superior Court
(15 vicinages), has separate law & equity divisions
Superior Court, Appellate Division
(previously: Court of Chancery,
Supreme Court,
and Prerogative Court)
Supreme Court
(previously: Court of Errors and Appeals)
New Mexico District Court
(13 judicial districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
New York (District) Supreme Court
(12 judicial districts)
County Court
(57 counties)
Supreme Court, Appellate Term
(3 judicial departments)
Supreme Court, Appellate Division
(4 departments)
Court of Appeals
(-1848: Court for the correction of Errors,
Supreme Court of Judicature,
and Court of Chancery)
North Carolina (District) Superior Court
(46 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
North Dakota District Court
(7 judicial districts)
(none) Supreme Court
Ohio (County) Court of Common Pleas
(88 counties)
(District) Court of Appeals
(12 districts)
Supreme Court
Oklahoma District Court
(26 judicial districts with 77 district courts)
Court of Civil Appeals Supreme Court
Court of Criminal Appeals
(1907-1959: Criminal Court of Appeals)
Oregon (District) Circuit Court
(27 judicial districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Pennsylvania District Court of Common Pleas
(60 judicial districts)
(District) Superior Court
(3 districts)
Commonwealth Court
Supreme Court
Rhode Island Superior Court (none) Supreme Court
South Carolina Circuit Court
(16 circuits)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
South Dakota Circuit Court
(7 circuits)
(none) Supreme Court
Tennessee (District) Circuit Court
(31 judicial districts)
(District) Criminal Court
(31 judicial districts)
(District) Chancery Court
(31 judicial districts)
(Grand Division) Court of Appeals
(3 grand divisions)
(Grand Division) Court of Criminal Appeals
(3 grand divisions)
Supreme Court
Texas District Court
(420 districts)
(District) Court of Appeals
(14 districts)
Supreme Court (civil cases);
Court of Criminal Appeals
Utah District Court
(8 districts)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
Vermont Superior Court
District Court
Family Court
(none) Supreme Court
Virginia Circuit Court
(31 judicial circuits)
Court of Appeals Supreme Court
(previously: Supreme Court of Appeals)
Washington (County) Superior Court
(39 counties)
(Division) Court of Appeals
(3 divisions)
Supreme Court
West Virginia Circuit Court
(31 judicial circuits)
(none) Supreme Court of Appeals
Wisconsin (District) Circuit Court
(10 judicial administrative districts)
(District) Court of Appeals
(4 districts)
Supreme Court
Wyoming District Court
(9 districts)
(none) Supreme Court
American Samoa High Court, Trial Division (none) High Court, Appellate Division
Guam Superior Court (none) Supreme Court
Northern Mariana Islands Superior Court (none) Supreme Court
Puerto Rico Court of First Instance
Superior Division (13)
Municipal Division (13)
Circuit Court of Appeals Supreme Court
U.S. Virgin Islands Superior Court
(2 divisions)
Supreme Court Third Circuit Court of Appeals (federal, temporary)

See also

External links and references

References

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