The United States Court System

The United States court system represents the judicial branch of our government. The U.S. Constitution established the federal courts. Each individual state’s Constitution created the state courts and they vary widely in structure and jurisdiction. The U.S. court system is highly complex, with many levels, differing rules, procedures, and processes. Each state has a judicial system website, but there is very little consistency with the quality or quantity of content. Most include a listing of the courts within each region so that residents can locate the one they need. Other resources available on each website vary from state to state.

The Basic U.S. Court Structure

The basic court structure in America is a pyramid model with trial courts at the bottom, usually quite a few of them, each with specific jurisdiction based on judicial region or types of cases. Then there are appellate courts to handle appeals from these trial courts, then the top-level which is usually a Supreme Court and the court of last resort. Trial courts use both juries and bench trials, where the judge makes the verdict. Appellate courts use panels of judges to review the original case, read briefs, and hear oral arguments to decide if the law was correctly applied to the initial trial. The hierarchy typically looks like the following:

  • The Supreme Court
  • Appellate Courts
  • Criminal Appeals
  • Civil Appeals
  • Trial Courts

U.S. Federal Courts

The federal court system is tiered with three distinct levels. First, the District Courts, which are the trial courts that hear federal cases. Then the next level is the intermediate Circuit Courts of Appeal, which hear appeals from District Courts. Then finally, at the top of the pyramid is the Supreme Court which hears appeals from the Court of Appeals and is the final and court of last resort in the country. Federal courts can only hear certain types of cases involving federal laws and the Constitution. The United States has 94 federal District Courts, 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal and one Supreme Court. The United States is split up into Circuits for the Courts of Appeal with a few states per circuit.

The Supreme Court has one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. They sit in panels of four to hear cases. Occasionally, the entire court sits to hear a case, and this called an “en banc” appeal.

Federal court judges are selected and appointed by the President of the United States and then confirmed by the Senate. They are given lifelong terms unless they engage in some sort of misconduct then they may be impeached and removed from their position. To date, fourteen federal judges have been removed from the bench due to bad behavior.

Federal courts can only hear cases that involve the constitutionality of a law, cases that include treaties and U.S. ambassadors and public ministers, disputes between two or more U.S. states and cases that fall under maritime law.

The federal government has also established special courts to deal with things like bankruptcy, veterans’ claims, armed forces appeals, and tax issues.

The federal Supreme Court receives 7,000 requests per year but hears only about 1% of those cases. In most cases, the Circuit Court of Appeals verdict is final.

Court Rules 

US court system overview

U.S. State Courts

The state-level court system is the most complex with subtle and stark differences from state to state. Each state has a different structure, modeled loosely after the federal court system. Most states have a Supreme Court, which is the highest court and the court of last resort. In a few select states, however, the Court of Appeals is the highest court, and in other states, the Supreme Court is the only court of appeals and handles all reviews and court records coming from the trial courts.

State Trial Courts

All fifty states have some form of trial courts which may be a comprised of a combination of the types list below. Although jurisdiction varies from state to state, typically these courts handle the types of cases listed next to each.

  • Superior Courts – handles civil cases of up to a specific dollar amount, criminal issues, domestic cases, juvenile cases, and sometimes probate matters and small claims.
  • District Courts – typically handle both civil and criminal matters, sometimes felonies and most often misdemeanors along with family matters, probate issues, juvenile cases, and civil lawsuits.
  • Circuit Courts – depending on where this court falls in the chain of command, they may handle civil cases of a specific dollar amount, criminal cases (usually less serious matters), small claims, domestic relations cases, juvenile cases, and traffic issues.
  • Municipal Courts – generally have jurisdiction over local ordinance violations, traffic issues, and petty crimes. Sometimes these courts have small claims divisions.
  • Town & City Courts – these courts handle local ordinance violations, lots of traffic matters, and also small misdemeanors and sometimes marriages. Indiana, Louisiana and New York are the only three states with these types of courts.
  • Town and Village Courts – these are only found in New York City and handle petty crimes and small civil matters.
  • County Courts – handle mostly local county ordinance violations, petty crimes and sometimes civil lawsuits, small claims, domestic cases, and marriages.
  • Courts of Common Pleas – found only in the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, these courts handle all major crime cases, contract disputes, probate cases, juvenile matters, domestic relations cases and appeals from lower courts.
  • Magistrate Courts – are usually presided over by a magistrate who may or may not be a lawyer. They can handle smaller criminal trials, civil cases of a certain amount, and traffic offenses. They can also often set bail, hold preliminary hearings and issue search and arrest warrants. Georgia, Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia have Magistrate Courts.
  • Probate Courts – can generally only handle probate cases for wills, trusts, conservatorships, and sometimes adoptions.
  • Family Courts – a specific type of court that focuses on divorces, child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, adoptions, and other domestic and family issues.
  • Juvenile Courts – these courts are specialized in handling cases pertaining to minors such as child abuse or neglect and child delinquency.
  • Chancery Courts – have jurisdiction over equity matters like wills, trusts, estates and contract issues, guardianships and involuntary commitments of mentally ill people. Delaware, Mississippi, and Tennessee are the only states with Chancery Courts.
  • Land Courts – are a limited jurisdiction court that can only handle cases regarding land disputes. The only states with Land Courts are Massachusetts and Hawaii.
  • Water Courts – only found in Colorado, water courts are specifically designed to handle cases regarding natural waterways and protecting them and who has access to them.
  • Housing Courts – another type of specialized court with limited jurisdiction over disputes between landlords and tenants (only found in Massachusetts).
  • Justice of the Peace Courts – a few states have these courts which handle mostly local ordinance violations, petty crimes, and minor civil actions. Arizona and Delaware have these types of courts.
  • Parish Courts – Louisiana is the only state with Parish Courts, and they handle misdemeanors, city ordinance violations, and civil cases of less than $20,000.
  • Workers’ Compensation Courts – these limited jurisdiction courts handle only workers’ compensation claims between employees and the companies that employ them.
  • Drug Court – another specialized court designed to offer rehabilitation and program to assist repeat offenders with drug and alcohol addictions.
  • Veterans’ Court – limited jurisdiction courts that aid veterans who have legal issues due to consequences from war.
  • Mayor’s Courts – found only in Ohio Court System, Mayor’s courts are presided over by the city mayor and can only process cases that relate to city ordinance violations or traffic claims.
  • Court of Claims – this court has sole jurisdiction and deals with cases where someone is suiting the state or its agencies.
  • Tax Courts – Hawaii and Oregon both have Tax Courts that hear all cases related to tax issues, including timber tax and cigarette tax, and property tax cases.
  • Bankruptcy Courts – these limited jurisdiction courts handle only bankruptcy cases (although every state has one, this a federal-level court).
  • Traffic Tribunal Courts – only Rhode Island has this type of court, and it handles only traffic-related cases, fines, tickets, and parking issues.
  • General Sessions Courts – Tennessee has this type of court to process cases related to tort cases, landlord/tenant disputes, domestic relations cases, juvenile cases, and other petty crimes.
  • Surrogate’s Courts – work the same as probate courts and handle matters of trust, estates, wills, and adoptions. Some of the most unusual courts are water courts that protect the state’s waterways and who controls them.

Other courts of interest are Mayor’s Courts. These courts are presided over by a town mayor who does not even need to be a lawyer or judge. Specialty courts like Drug Court, Veterans Court, and Juvenile Courts are created to help solve problems with repeat offenders. They don’t just serve justice but also offer programs to help rehabilitate and treat the problem, not only the consequences. One additional type of trial court that is interesting is the Court of Claims. This court was explicitly devised to handle any lawsuits against the state or state agencies.

State trial court judges are often elected into positions, but sometimes they are appointed by state, city or county government officials.

State Appellate Courts

All U.S. states have at least one appellate court. The most common structure is one Court of Appeals and then a Supreme Court that oversees the entire court system. However, some states like Maryland and Washington D.C. do not even have a Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals acts as the court of last resort. In other states, like West Virginia, there is no Court of Appeals, just a Supreme Court to handle all appeals. Then in other states like New York, Texas, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, they have two or more Courts of Appeal to handle different types of appeals.

Interesting Facts About U.S. Courts

  1. John Marshall Harlan served on the Supreme Court from 1877 to 1911. Years later, his grandson John Marshall Harlan II, served on the Supreme Court from 1955 to 1971.
  2. Up until 1891, Supreme Court justices “rode the circuit” meaning they traveled the entire country to hear cases. Now, they are stationed in Washington, D.C., and don’t travel that much.
  3. The U.S. judicial system was established on September 24, 1789, and Congress passed the act that created the Supreme Court and other courts around the country.
  4. Seven Supreme Court Justices originally clerked for the court in their younger days.
  5. Both Texas and Oklahoma have two Supreme Courts rather than just one.
    Thirty-two of the fifty states mandate that judges retire by the age of 70 or 75.
  6. Maryland and Washington D.C. do not even have a Supreme Court.
    New York City has different courts than New York state—they are treated as separate entities in terms of judicial bodies. New York also has the most court types of any state.
  7. Rhode Island has a special court called The Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal (RITT) to handle more than 107,000 traffic violations per year. This court is highly automated using technology to process the various tickets, fines, fees, appeals, and hearings. This single court contributes more than 13 million dollars to the state budget through traffic tickets and penalties paid by offenders.