How is the Court System Structured?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
The United States Court system is an overlapping network of different courts which can, at first glance, seem confusing. However, a closer look reveals a relatively simple pattern to the way courts are structured. Each state and federal court system is divided into several layers, as described below.
Courts of Special Jurisdiction
These courts are set up just to hear specific types of cases. The federal system has bankruptcy and tax courts, most state systems have probate, which handles wills; family court, which oversees divorce, custody, and other related proceedings, and several others. Many of these courts have simplified rules of evidence or procedure designed to speed the process, and many of the judges, lawyers, and administrative staff have training and experience in that particular area of law.
Trial courts are generally where cases start. There are two types of trial courts: criminal and civil, and although the procedures are different, the general structure is the same. Each side in a case has the opportunity to learn or discover as many facts about the case as possible before trial. At the trial, the parties will present their evidence in order to convince a judge or jury that the facts are favorable to their side. The judge and the jury will reach their decision, or verdict, which is the end for most cases.
If the judge made a mistake in the law or the trial procedure, the parties can appeal the case to the appellate court. It is important to note that courts of appeal are not set up to re-hear cases in their entirety. Instead, courts of appeal typically address whether a lower court made serious mistakes of law. Additionally, an appellate court can usually take cases from courts of special jurisdiction as well.
This is the highest court in any jurisdiction. If an appellate court makes an error, or if the parties think the law as it stands is unjust, they can appeal from the appellate court to the supreme court. Sometimes, if a trial court case has a particularly interesting question of law, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide to skip the appellate court and bring itself the case directly. After a supreme court makes its decision, this is typically the end of the road for a particular case. One exception would be if a case was before a state supreme court, addressed a federal issue, and a party wishes to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The federal courts and most state courts are structured in this general order, although states sometimes choose to have different names for the different levels of courts. Notably, however, state and federal courts do decide different types of cases. Federal courts only decide cases with issues of federal law (such as constitutional rights, tax, intellectual property, and federal crimes), or cases between residents of two different states or countries. State courts are also allowed to decide some federal matters brought to them, and on top of that, will decide all other matters of state law. These would include the most common reasons people interact with the law, such as cases dealing with wills and trusts, divorce, or traffic court. As a result, the vast majority of cases in the United States are heard by state, as opposed to federal, courts.
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