Chapter 7: State Court Systems

Each state has its own court system. While state court systems differ in many ways, they have some similarities in structure. We will discuss, therefore, the typical state court system. As with the federal court system, the typical state court system has three levels. The three levels are the state trial courts, state appellate courts, and state supreme courts.
7.1      State Trial Courts
Each state has a general trial court. General trial courts usually have subject matter jurisdiction over a wide variety of civil and criminal cases; and they allow for bench (i.e., judge) or jury trials. Bench trials are trials without juries. Common names for general trial courts are circuit, common pleas, county, district, or superior courts. Judges in these courts may be appointed or elected, depending upon the state.
In addition, states typically have courts with limited or specialized subject matter jurisdiction; these courts are considered inferior courts. The names and subject matter jurisdiction of these courts can vary greatly. Limited jurisdiction refers to monetary confines—such as cases under a certain amount (e.g., $5,000); specialized refers to types of cases—such as domestic relations cases or trusts and estates cases. Common names for these limited or specialized courts include family, justice of the peace, municipal, probate, small claims, and traffic courts. In addition, appeals from limited or specialized courts often are to the general trial courts, although this is not uniform throughout the states. These appeals are sometimes de novo, which means that the general trial court will disregard the decision of the limited or specialized court and allow the parties to retry the case.
But because states court systems and court names differ, it is difficult to generalize and occasionally confusing. For example, the common pleas courts in Delaware and the circuit courts in New Hampshire are courts of limited jurisdiction, whereas those names may be used for courts in other states to describe general trial courts.
7.2     State Appellate Courts
Most states have intermediate appellate courts to hear and review appeals from the general trial courts. Some smaller states—such as Delaware and New Hampshire—do not. In those states, a party would appeal directly to the state’s highest court, which is typically the state supreme court. State appellate courts operate similarly to the US Courts of Appeals. That is, they do not conduct trials; parties do not get to retry their cases on appeal. But a losing party in a general trial court will have an automatic right to appeal to the state appellate court.
7.3     State Supreme Courts
Each state has a state supreme court, although a few states use a different name for their highest court (e.g., New York’s highest court is called the Court of Appeals; oddly, in New York, the name “Supreme Court” is used for the general trial courts). State supreme courts are the appellate courts of last resort. A party who is dissatisfied with a state supreme court’s decision has no further appeals unless the case involves a federal question or constitutional issue. In those limited instances (as is frequently the case with many criminal convictions, particularly death-penalty cases), the party may request a writ of certiorari from the US Supreme Court.