US Courts Systems
When seeking information from the courts on a particular topic or case, it's important to know which court to make your inquiries with; this will save you a lot of time and aggravation. First, there are 2 types of court systems in the United States: State and Federal. These 2 main systems are divided into categories and then further divided into subcategories and territories, which is where the issue of jurisdiction comes into play. This page hopes to provide you some insight into which courts might be best to place your inquiries with.
Headed by the US Supreme Court, the Federal Court System is the Judicial Branch of the US Government and is comprised of 9 different types of courts, 94 districts and 12 regional circuits plus several supporting agencies. For more Federal Court specific information, see our page relating to the Federal Judicial Branch.
It's important to remember that no two State Court Systems are exactly alike. Most are comprised of 3 main types of court: trial, intermediate appellate and the highest state court. Because each state's court system is designed by their respective states, this basic structure might not apply to all 50 and the territories. For more specific information on the structure of individual state court systems, please see the court page under that specific state.
Different Types of State Courts
As stated above, there are 3 main types of state courts: trial, intermediate appellate and the highest state court. In this context, 'trial court' refers to the fact that it would be the first court to hear a specific case, whether criminal or civil. The intermediate appellate type court would be the second court to hear the case, and would generally only consider whether the law was upheld by the first judgment and whether the laws were followed in the pursuit of it (evidence protocols, warrants, just cause, etc). The state's highest courts (aka the court of last resort) are generally reserved as a final venue for appeals as well as the first court for matters regarding the state constitution, matters effecting the entire state or state bodies, elections and so forth. Cases can move from the state system into the federal system if there are grounds for it.
The most important thing to know here is that there are 2 types of 'trial' court: general jurisdiction and limited jurisdiction. The courts of limited jurisdiction were most likely created to alleviate the case loads for the general courts as well as to create a venue specialized in the type of law they deal with. It is very likely that the limited jurisdiction courts are housed in or near the general courts buildings, but this is not always the case.
Courts of limited jurisdiction include:
- Probate court: This court handles matters concerning the estate of a person who has died (decedent). This court either sees that the wishes expressed in the decedent's will are carried out or that the decedent's property is distributed according to state law if there was no will (intestate).
- Family court: Matters concerning marriage, adoption, annulments, divorce, alimony, custody, child support, domestic disputes, etc would be handled by this court.
- Traffic court: This court usually handles minor violations of traffic laws.
- Juvenile court: This court usually handles cases where the defendant is legally considered to be a minor (under aged 18 or 21), except in cases where that minor can be tried as an adult (as in the case of aggravated assault/rape, homicide, etc) in which case the proceedings would occur in the court of general jurisdiction.
- Small claims court: This is the court litigants would use to settle disputes involving small sums of money usually below $5,000.
- Municipal court: This court usually handles cases involving offenses against city ordinances such as noise violations, parking, public intoxication/ disturbing the peace, etc.
Other Areas adjudicated by the state courts:
Remember--States have jurisdiction over everything that does not fall expressly under the jurisdiction of the federal courts.
Tort and personal injury law—Civil cases involving injury to person, property or reputation, where restitution may be sought in the form of damages (monetary compensation).
Contract law—Agreements between two or more parties creating obligations that are either enforceable or otherwise recognized as law.
Sale of goods- this is the area of law that deals with consumer protections on purchase of moveable objects.
Corporations and business organization—Regarding the establishment, dissolution, and asset distribution of corporations, partnerships, limited partnerships, limited liability companies, etc.
Election issues— voter registration, voting in general, legislative reapportionment, etc.
Municipal/zoning ordinances—The law involving municipal ordinances, including zoning ordinances that set aside certain areas for residential, commercial, industrial, or other development.
Real property—Land and anything growing on, attached to, or erected on it, excluding anything that may be severed without injury to the land.
The jurisdiction of the federal courts is defined in Article III, Section 2, of the United States Constitution. Federal courts can only hear 2 main types of cases:
1. Diversity of Citizenship
Federal courts can have jurisdiction over civil cases where the parties are residents of different states and the amount in question exceeds legal limit set forth by federal law (currently $75,000). The courts are generally required to apply the state laws when dealing with these cases since the issues concern matters of state law.
2. Federal Question
Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases that arise under the U.S. Constitution, the laws of the United States, and the treaties made under the authority of the United States. These issues are the sole prerogative of the federal courts and include the following types of cases:
- Suits between states
- Cases involving ambassadors and other high-ranking public figures
- Federal crimes and all cases involving federal statues and/or the Constitution
- Patent, copyright, and trademark cases.
- Patent—The exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a specified period (usually 17 years), granted by the federal government to the inventor if the device or process is novel, useful, and non-obvious.
- Copyright—The body of law relating to a property right in an original work of authorship (such as a literary, musical, artistic, photographic, or film work) fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.
- Trademark—A word, phrase, logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.
- Admiralty—relating to all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.
- Antitrust—to protect trade and commerce from restraining monopolies, price fixing, and price discrimination.
- Securities and banking regulation—regulations pertaining to the registration, offering, and trading of securities and the regulation of banking practices.
In addition, the federal courts have jurisdiction over cases relating to civil rights, labor relations, and environmental cases. Depending on their laws, states may also have jurisdiction here.