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State Court Cases

State courts hear most civil and criminal cases, from personal injury and contract disputes to major felonies and speeding tickets. They also help people obtain marriage licenses and with the probate process, among other things. Generally, the only types of cases state courts don't deal with are immigration, bankruptcy, patents, copyrights, and federal criminal cases.

FindLaw's section on state court cases provides a general primer on state courts, as well as links to articles covering the following:

  • Determining a proper venue for your civil case
  • Knowing the key differences between federal and state courts
  • Learning other related information

This section also provides information and links to state probate and family courts.

Differences Between Federal and State Courts

The main difference between federal and state courts is jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the types of cases a particular court can hear and decide.

State courts generally have broader jurisdiction than federal courts. State trial courts are usually courts of general jurisdiction. This means they have the authority to hear most legal disputes that other courts can't. For example, state courts generally can hear the following types of cases:

The jurisdiction of federal courts, on the other hand, is limited to cases specified by the United States Constitution and Congress. The types of cases that federal courts hear are as follows:

In addition, if a civil case involves a plaintiff and a defendant who are citizens of different states, and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000, the federal court can hear it. If both state and federal courts have jurisdiction, a plaintiff may choose to file their lawsuit in either court.

Determining Where to File Your Case: Venue

Although state court systems vary from state to state, they usually divide their cases based on their subject matter. Generally, state courts usually set up two sets of trial courts as follows:

  • Courts with limited jurisdiction
  • Courts with general jurisdiction

As noted above, most trial courts are courts of general jurisdiction. Some states have created courts of limited jurisdiction. This means they can only hear cases within their specific jurisdiction. For example, in New York state, County Courts may only hear civil disputes that do not exceed $25,000. Other common courts of limited jurisdiction include the following:

Courts with general jurisdiction hear cases that don't fall within a limited jurisdiction category.

Court Systems

Each state has set up its own court system, which has led to variation between state court systems. Generally, you begin your case by filing a complaint at the trial court level. If you appeal from the trial court, you likely will file it with an intermediate appellate court in your state. If you appeal from the appellate court, you will probably file the appeal with your state's highest court, usually called a supreme court.

If you file a case in federal court, you'll likely first file it in a U.S. District Court in your state. If you appeal, you'll file your appeal with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If you appeal from the Court of Appeals, you must file a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.

FindLaw's Court Directories article lists all 50 states' state and federal courts. The links provide information about court rules, court administration, and court forms. For more information, consider contacting the clerk's office at your local courthouse. The court clerk can provide general case information and procedural help but can't provide legal advice.

Hiring an Attorney

Some legal matters don't necessarily require the help of an attorney. But it's in your best interest to hire one if your matter involves — or potentially may involve — a trial.

For instance, consider hiring a criminal defense attorney if the government charges you with a crime. The United States Constitution guarantees all defendants facing jail time the right to counsel. If defendants can't afford an attorney, they can request that the court appoint one for free.

Although civil cases don't result in jail time, they can involve complex questions of fact and law and result in monetary loss. Usually, if you want to sue someone (or someone has sued you), hiring or at least contacting a litigation attorney to discuss your case is worth the money.

Overall, you should consult with an attorney whenever you have questions about legal matters. This could save you time, money, and trouble down the road.

Learn About State Court Cases

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