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State Courts In-Depth

From marriage licenses to divorces, and major felonies to speeding tickets, the vast majority of legal cases in the United States are handled in state courts. Following is an overview of state courts -- their powers, structures, and more.

State Court Jurisdiction

Of cases filed annually in the U.S., about one million cases are filed in federal courts, while more than 30 million are filed in state courts. Most legal cases are handled at the state court level because state courts have power (or"jurisdiction") to hear almost all types of cases involving citizens of that state -- including almost all of the following types of cases:

  • Family law cases (including divorce, child custody cases, and adoptions)
  • Personal injury cases (i.e. lawsuits for injury from car accidents and defective products)
  • Estate planning and probate matters
  • Criminal law matters (including all felonies and misdemeanors that arise from state criminal statutes)
  • Traffic violations

State courts do not have power to hear certain kinds of cases -- including those involving bankruptcy, immigration, patents, copyrights, and violations of federal criminal law. These types of cases are handled exclusively by federal courts.

Structure of State Court Systems

The specific structure of court systems will vary from state to state, but every state court operates on a number of levels, usually differentiated either by the type of matter being heard or the amount of money that is at stake. Using the state of Massachusetts as an example, the structure of its state court system is as follows from highest to lowest level:

  • 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; also includes small claims and traffic courts), the Juvenile Court, and the Probate and Family Court.

In some states, the lower level of a trial court is called the "municipal" or "limited jurisdiction" court, while the higher trial court is called the "superior" or "general jurisdiction" court. Whatever the name given to each court level, almost all state courts function on at least three tiers: trial, intermediate appellate, and high appellate.

To get an idea of what the structure of state courts look like in a few more states, click on the links below:

State Court Locations

State courts do not operate in only one building, or even in only one city, but are located throughout each state -- usually as a county or district branch of the state court.

In larger and more populous states, branches of the state court can be found in literally hundreds of locations throughout the state. For example, the Superior Court of California has separate branches in 58 counties in the state, and the Los Angeles County branch (officially called the Superior Court of California - County of Los Angeles) alone has over 50 different courthouses and related facilities.

Check with the local county/district branch of your state's court, or ask your attorney, to learn more about where your case may be handled. You can find more information on courts in your state here.

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