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How Do State Courts Work?

If you ever go to court, you probably go to a state court. The majority of civil and criminal cases involve state laws. State judges handle these cases. Everything from routine traffic tickets and civil cases to major felonies and class action lawsuits is the responsibility of the states.

The U.S. Constitution established the Supreme Court and granted it the ability to designate lower courts. Each state's constitution creates a judicial system that mirrors the federal courts. Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has authority over all lower courts.

Most people have little to do with the Supreme Court. State law and state courts affect the average person's life more.

Powers of the State Courts

Laws differ in different states, but in general, state courts have authority or jurisdiction over all citizens and residents of the state. A state's constitution establishes this personal jurisdiction by extending the laws of the state over everyone who lives or does business there.

In other words, if you live or work in New York, you can sue or be sued in New York. The laws of New York protect your civil rights if you get arrested. If you move to another state, that state's laws apply to you. You don't have to go back to New York to file a lawsuit against a resident of that state. States have personal jurisdiction over everyone in their borders.

Powers of Individual Courts

Not all courts hear all cases. To streamline the court process and separate different types of cases, most courts have limited jurisdiction, meaning they only hear certain cases. If the limit involves the nature of the case, it is subject matter jurisdiction.

Subject matter court jurisdiction often includes:

  • Family law cases: Divorce, child custody, adoptions, and related legal issues
  • Probate court: Validates wills, handles intestate estates, and some real property issues related to estate management
  • Small claims courts: Hear civil cases below a statutory amount

Some states, such as California, have limited jurisdiction civil courts that take civil cases between small claims and high-value (or “unlimited") civil cases. State courts handle almost all criminal cases because crimes are violations of state statutes. Everything from civil infractions to homicides are matters for state courts.

Design of the State Court System

In general, the state court system mirrors the federal system. There is a “court of last resort" at the highest level, an appellate court that reviews the lower courts' decisions, and lower courts. Each state has its own designations for the courts. For instance, the state of Massachusetts has:

  • Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
  • Massachusetts Appeals Court
  • Massachusetts Trial Courts--Second Level: consisting of the Superior Court, which hears civil matters where over $25,000 is at issue and handles most felony cases; the Housing Court; and the Land Court.
  • Massachusetts Trial Courts--First Level: consisting of the District Court, which hears civil matters where under $25,000 is at issue, handles all criminal misdemeanors and certain lower-level felonies including small claims and traffic courts; the Juvenile Court; and the Probate and Family Court.

In New York, the lowest court is the New York Supreme Court, and the highest court is the New York Court of Appeals. Florida has county courts at the lowest level and circuit courts, which have appellate review over the county courts.

Who Hears Your Case?

All state cases begin in a lower court. A lower court decision must be made before the case can proceed to a higher state court. If a party disagrees with the lower court, it can appeal to the state's appellate court.

Courthouse locations depend on the population in your area. Large counties, like New York and Los Angeles, have many courthouses with multiple courtrooms for each type of case. In smaller states, courthouses may be fewer and farther apart. Every county has at least one courthouse.

State courts do not have jurisdiction to hear federal matters unless the state has concurrent jurisdiction. For instance, bank robbery is a state crime, but it can also be a federal crime since federal law covers bank insurance.

Federal Court Jurisdiction

Federal district courts hear cases within the states where the United States has original jurisdiction. These include:

  • Bankruptcy
  • Immigration
  • Patents and copyrights
  • Violations of federal criminal laws where the federal law was the primary crime. For instance, in a bank robbery case, a strong-arm robbery would more likely be a state crime, whereas a securities theft would be a federal crime.

Find out more about your state court system at FindLaw's court directory.

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