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State Courts


The judicial powers of individual states are generally vested in various courts created by state constitution or (less frequently) state statute. Within the boundaries of each state and coexisting with state courts are numerous federal district and/or appellate courts that function independently. Also coexisting within state boundaries are various administrative tribunals that also hear and decide legal matters, such as worker’s compensation boards, professional licensing boards, and state administrative tribunals. Yet, there are often local, district, and/or municipal courts within the community. At first blush, it may appear overwhelming and confusing to consider what legal matter may be decided in which forum. But for the most part, each of the above courts has its own separate function and role in applying the laws to the controversies brought before it and administering justice to all.

Function and Scope of State Courts

To understand the function and scope of state courts, it is necessary to consider them in relation to the federal court system expressly created in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Article III also establishes the type of cases that federal courts may hear and decide (federal “jurisdiction”).

Article VII of the Constitution declares that “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States … and all Treaties made … under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Later in the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment provides that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The ultimate effect these provisions have upon state courts is to reserve to them the right to hear and decide any legal matter not expressly reserved for the exclusive jurisdiction of federal courts (such as lawsuits between states). This matter mostly involves the “adjudication” of controversies concerning state laws, which impact the daily lives of citizens in a much greater manner than federal laws. State courts may also rule upon certain issues concerning federal law and the federal Constitution.

State legislatures are therefore free to create—and state courts are free to enforce—any law, regulation, or rule that does not conflict with or abridge the guarantees of the federal Constitution (or the state’s own constitution). The wide variance, from state to state, of both structure and procedure within the court systems is precisely due to the preservation of those independent powers to the states by the U.S. Constitution.

The Concept of Jurisdiction

A court’s general authority to hear and/or “adjudicate” a legal matter is referred to as its “jurisdiction.” In the United States, jurisdiction is granted to a court or court system by statute or by constitution. A court is competent to hear and decide only those cases whose subject matter fits within the court’s jurisdiction. A legal decision made by a court that did not have proper jurisdiction is deemed void and nonbinding upon the litigants.

Jurisdiction may be referred to as “exclusive,” “original,” concurrent, general, or limited. Federal court jurisdiction may be “exclusive” over certain matters or parties (to the exclusion of any other forum) or may be “concurrent” and shared with state courts. In matters where both federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction, state courts may hear federal law claims (e.g., violations of civil rights), and parties bringing suit may choose the forum. However, when a plaintiff raises both state and federal claims in a state court, the defendant may be able to “remove” the case to a federal court.

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.

Judges and Administrative Staff

Whereas most federal judges are appointed to their positions, the majority of state trial court judges are elected to their positions by the general populace. Appellate (especially supreme court) justices are often appointed by state governors or legislatures but may also be elected by voters.

What does vary greatly from state to state is whether judicial elections involve partisan politics. In some states, party politics play a direct role in judgeships; in other states, a judicial candidate’s party affiliation is treated as private data (such as religious affiliation) not disclosed in campaign profiles. States also vary greatly in the extent to which they permit judicial candidates to “advertise” their candidacy and/or raise campaign funds.

State courts employ a large number of support staff, who are usually public employees paid by taxpayer funds. Generally, a judge’s staff may include one or more private assistants, law clerks, court reporters, bailiffs and other court officers, and court clerks. The most important administrative office of the courthouse is that of the court clerk. This is the office that stamps and dates all lawsuits filed, serves process (or verifies the parties’ service of process), posts legal notices, subpoenas witnesses, summons and prepares juries, and sends sheriffs or other court officials out to serve writs of execution to collect on unpaid judgments.

Inside State Courts