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The State Court System of the United States: Definition & Structure

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  • 0:02 State Court System
  • 1:45 Lower State Courts
  • 3:34 State Appellate Courts
  • 4:38 State Supreme Courts
  • 5:45 Jurisdiction of State Courts
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The United States has two separate court systems: the federal and the state. Each state has its own set of state courts. This lesson explains state courts, including the structure and jurisdiction of state court systems.

State Court System

The United States has two separate court systems, which are the federal and the state, because the U.S. Constitution created federalism. Federalism means that governmental powers are shared between the federal government and state governments.

Our constitution specifically grants certain powers to the federal government. For example, bankruptcy is specifically governed by federal law. Powers not specifically designated to the federal government fall to the individual state governments. This means that each state is responsible for making its own laws and can, therefore, make those laws that are important to that particular state. However, federalism dictates that state laws cannot conflict with or violate the U.S. Constitution. For this reason, state laws cannot govern federal powers, like bankruptcy.

Because states are responsible for their own laws, state courts are individually responsible for interpreting and deciding matters of their state constitutions. Conversely, federal courts interpret the U.S. Constitution and hear matters of federal law.

Though the two systems operate almost completely separately, they operate somewhat similarly. Both are organized as a hierarchy, with lower courts, appellate courts and a court of last resort. Let's take a closer look at the structure of state courts.

Lower State Courts

State court systems vary by state. This is because the state's constitution and laws establish the state's court system. In other words, Florida establishes the state court system of Florida, and Missouri establishes the state court system of Missouri.

All state court systems have the same tiers, or general levels. Each state has lower courts, which are sometimes known as courts of general jurisdiction. Jurisdiction means that the court has the legal authority to hear that type of case. So, these lower courts have the authority to hear a broad array of cases.

The state lower courts usually operate on a county level, though different states call these courts by different names. State lower courts are sometimes known as district courts, circuit courts, county courts, trial courts or even as superior courts. The state lower courts are the busiest courts in the entire American legal system. In the state of New York alone, state courts handle approximately four million cases a year.

These lower courts are busy because they hear both civil and criminal cases, though different courts are often designated to hear only a certain type of case. For example, District Court Number 1 might be designated to hear only felony criminal cases, while District Court Number 2 might be designated to hear only large civil claims. Also, most states have additional lower courts that are designated to handle only a specific topic or claim, such as 'probate courts' and 'family courts.'

State Appellate Courts

If a defendant loses in a lower court, he or she can sometimes appeal the case to the state appellate court. These are intermediate courts that review questions of legal procedure or matters of law arising from the lower court decisions. These courts are usually divided by appellate division, with one appeals court designated to hear the appeals arising out of several different lower state courts. For example, district court numbers one through five might feed into Appellate Division Eight. Note that appellate courts hear far fewer cases than the lower courts.

Where lower courts often utilize juries to make a decision in a case, appellate courts use a panel of judges to review only a particular point or issue. The appellate judges will not rehear the entire case and can even choose whether or not to accept the appeal at all. If accepted, the panel votes on the issue, and the majority rules.

State Supreme Courts

No matter the decision of the appellate court, either party can appeal an issue to the State Supreme Court. This court is the court of last resort or highest court for the state. There is usually only one highest court per state, though Texas, for example, has two. Texas uses the 'Texas Supreme Court' to hear civil cases and the 'Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' to hear criminal cases.

Keep in mind that the different states call the state highest court by different names. In most states, the highest court is known as the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals.

Like the intermediate court of appeals, the state's highest court operates using a panel of judges. These judges are usually known as justices. Also like the intermediate courts, the justices may choose whether or not to hear an issue, and the majority decision on an issue rules. A state's highest court has the final say regarding that state's laws and the state constitution.

Jurisdiction of State Courts

Now let's take a moment to look at the types of cases heard in a state court system. As a reminder, the state court systems hear any legal issues that the U.S. Constitution did not grant to the federal government.

Accordingly, state courts hear approximately 90% of all cases. This includes cases involving:

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