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The Structure of the U.S. Court System

The U.S. Court System, much like the legislative system, provides for several checks and balances in the form of appeals to higher courts. Jurisdictions between state and federal courts are sometimes unclear, and may even rely on case law to determine the correct court in which a case should be presented. Furthermore, each court is designated to hear specific types of cases that may be of a civil or criminal matter, but the appeals process can always result in a hearing at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court—the highest court available in the entire country.

The State and Local Court Systems

The U.S. Constitution provided allowances for each state to exercise control over matters within their own boundaries, which typically include family and divorce matters, juvenile cases, traffic courts and probate. Every state in the U.S. has adopted its own unique court system that may include courts not found in other states, or assign specific responsibilities that differ between similar courts across state lines. For example, one state may have a dedicated traffic court, but another may not. One state could have a circuit court that hears probate, tort and family court cases while another state leaves that responsibility to the county court only. The important thing to remember is that every state is different, and you’ll want to educate yourself about your local system before trying to navigate it.

Appellate vs. Trial Level Courts

Each state court system also designates between levels of courts. Many states have what are known as town, city or municipal courts, then county courts and special jurisdiction courts such as small claims, traffic or family courts. These local-level courts are considered “limited jurisdiction courts,” and are at the trial level. 

The next level of trial courts are called “general jurisdiction courts,” and will also hear appeals from the lower, limited jurisdiction courts. These courts could include circuit courts or state superior courts. Once a case has reached this level, it may only go up to the Court of Appeals, which is considered an “intermediate appellate court.” This highest state-level court represents the end of the state court system. If a case is to continue to be appealed, it will go on to the U.S. Supreme Court, or the “court of last resort.”

U.S. Federal Court System

Totally separate from the state court systems is their federal counterpart. Federal courts preside over both civil and criminal cases which fall outside of a specific state’s jurisdiction.  There are 94 federal district courts which are trial courts that hear these cases. In fact, many Americans serve as jurors in these courts. 

Bankruptcy courts are separate from these district courts, but are still federal. Filing bankruptcy can only take place in your respective federal district and not the state court system. In addition, certain courts hear nationwide cases on a federal level. These courts include the Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The U.S. Federal Court of Appeals hears cases from the federal district courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear cases from the Court of Appeals, highest State Appeals Court, and Court of Military Appeals, in addition to the Court of International Trade and Court of Claims.

Understanding how the U.S. court system operates and the relationship between your state’s courts and the federal high courts is essential when trying to navigate the system or search for information. If you find that you are party to a civil or criminal case or need to appeal a case you’ve recently been a part of, understanding where your case may go or needs to be heard can help you achieve the results you desire and exercise your full rights as an American citizen.


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