Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

State Court Cases: How To Determine Where Your Suit Will Be Heard

State courts hear more than 60 million cases each year. Most cases begin in the lower courts, and a few may go to the courts of appeal or higher. State courts mirror federal courts in their structure, but state courts only enforce state laws. Federal courts are separate from the state system and rule on federal laws and regulations.

This article reviews trial courts. Most cases occur in lower courts and seldom reach the higher levels of review. How do you know where to file your court case? There are two considerations: where you are and why you're going to court.


Jurisdiction is the authority a court has to interpret and apply the law to participants in a trial. Not all courts have jurisdiction over all cases. For instance, a traffic court can't hear bankruptcy cases. The state's constitution establishes the court system and creates primary jurisdiction.

The types of cases heard in each court define the court's jurisdiction.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the types of cases heard in a court. A "limited jurisdiction" court hears one type of case or cases below a certain dollar value. If the court takes all cases or cases above a set dollar amount, it has "unlimited jurisdiction" or "general jurisdiction."

In most states, courts of general jurisdiction are rare. Unlimited civil courts are separate from criminal courts for reasons we'll discuss later. Each state court system is different. So, litigants should check with their state website for court rules.

Limited Jurisdiction

A judge hears and rules on the entire case in limited jurisdiction trial courts. Limited jurisdiction cases involve narrow issues of law or routine cases a judge can handle quickly. Typical limited jurisdiction courts are listed below.

Probate Court

Probate involves the execution and administration of estates. If someone dies without a will (intestate), the estate goes through the probate court for distribution according to state law. If the person had a will, the judge ensures the decedent followed the formalities in writing and witnessing the will.

Most states have strict laws about writing, signing, and witnessing wills. Laws are very specific about who inherits property, what minor children and spouses must receive, and what to do about missing heirs. For these reasons, it's more efficient to have probate courts and judges and attorneys specializing in probate.

Family Court

Everything family-related falls under the umbrella of family court. Divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, adoptions, domestic violence, and child abuse are all heard in family court. Family law is a specialized practice area. Since whatever happens involves the entire family unit, attorneys and judges must work with child protective services, guardians ad litem, sometimes therapists, and probation officers.

Keeping these issues within a smaller court system helps protect the participants (especially small children). It also moves cases along more quickly than if they had to compete with all other cases on the court docket.

Small Claims Court

In most states, small claims courts can only take cases below a certain amount of money, usually quite small. Most states limit small claims to $10,000 or less, although the amount may be higher in different states.

A few states have intermediate courts, known as limited civil or city civil courts (in New York City). These courts can hear cases for claims higher than the small claims limit, but they still have a cap, usually $50,000. If you're suing for a larger figure, you must go to an unlimited civil court.

Courts have separate small claims courts for scheduling purposes because so many cases are self-represented. Many cases involve neighbor disputes or small business claims, and judges can resolve them in a few hours. To save everyone time and money, especially the litigants, having a separate small claims court for these cases makes more sense.

General Jurisdiction

A court of general jurisdiction is a court that takes all cases and has no dollar limit. These courts may hear civil and criminal cases and adjudicate claims of any amount. In practice, larger cities usually have criminal courts and civil courts to keep their schedules open, but any general court may hear any case.

Courts of general jurisdiction hear class action suits and high-dollar-value civil suits. If a party requests a jury trial, the trial goes to a general jurisdiction court. Most limited jurisdiction courts need to be set up for such trials.

Depending on the state, lower courts are called circuit courts or superior courts. New York's trial courts are called supreme courts.


Jurisdiction is the type of court that may hear your case. The venue is where the case is heard. In most states, the law limits where you may file your case. The plaintiff files the case, but the defendant determines the venue.

Real property cases are generally limited to the location of the property. Otherwise, you may file a case:

  • Where the defendant resides
  • If the defendant is a business, where they locate their principal place of business or their primary business office
  • Where the accident or incident (the "cause of action") occurred
  • Where the contract was executed or performed

The court must have personal jurisdiction over the defendant for the venue to be proper. For individuals, you show this by providing their address or presence in the area where the incident occurred. You must show that companies do business in the area and could expect legal action. If you're trying to sue a business, you should consult an attorney for legal advice.

Forum Shopping and Supplemental Jurisdiction

Sometimes, you may have more than one venue for your case. The defendant may live in one county, but the incident happened in another. This happens frequently. As long as the venue is proper and the court has jurisdiction, you may file wherever you like.

You may "forum shop" anywhere the venue is proper. Some things you should consider include:

  • The distance to the courthouse (if your case will have multiple hearings, you don't want to travel too far)
  • How judges in the county or courthouse tend to view claims like yours (your attorney may know the judges in one county are more lenient towards personal injury cases or lean towards insurance companies)
  • The favorability of possible jurors in one county versus another

Change of Venue

Once you've chosen your venue, the defendant has the option to transfer the case if they can show they cannot get a fair trial otherwise. In criminal cases, they can request a transfer to a different county. In civil cases, state laws may limit you to locations where you could have filed the case.

Reasons for a change of venue include:

  • Pretrial publicity
  • Bias in the court or by the judge
  • Political atmosphere
  • Distance (forum non conveniens)

Civil and Criminal Courts

Another way to divide the court system is by the types of cases each court handles. Criminal courts hear cases involving violations of the state penal codes. These can range from traffic violations and DUIs to homicides. Civil courts hear all other types of disputes.

Civil Courts

Civil courts hear disputes between individuals or entities that the parties can't resolve alone. Judges or juries hear the cases and make decisions based on the facts in the case. Awards in civil cases may be monetary, ordering the losing party to pay the winner a sum of money, or injunctive, requiring the loser to do or refrain from doing something. Civil courts can't order jail or prison time for offenses.

Criminal Courts

Criminal courts handle all cases involving violations of the penal code. Some criminal courts have limited jurisdiction for convenience and in the interests of justice.

Juvenile courts hear cases involving delinquent minors. Unless the crime is unusually heinous (such as murder or sexual assault) or the minor is over a certain age (16 in most states), courts may not try juveniles as adults. Some states have "youthful offender" laws that allow juveniles between 16 and 18 to petition for different treatment if courts charge them as adults for their crimes.

DUI and traffic courts handle infractions and misdemeanors, which are punishable by fines and license suspensions.

Appealing a Court Decision

All cases from any court may be appealed to the next court. If a state system has municipal courts, the party may appeal to the district or superior court. From there, appeals go to the appellate court.

The "court of last resort" for all cases is the state supreme court (New York calls its highest court the "Court of Appeals." The lowest court is the "supreme court" because New York is New York). Once you appeal to the state supreme court, you've exhausted your appeals unless you have a federal cause for appeal.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Step Search and Browse

Contact a qualified attorney.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select
Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options