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Courts of General Jurisdiction: Definition & Trial Process

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

Courts of general jurisdiction are the entry point for many cases in the American legal system. In this lesson, we will learn about the structure and function of these courts as well as review how a case moves through criminal and civil court.

Courts of General Jurisdiction

The United States allows each state to establish its own court system to hear cases related to state law. They follow a hierarchy starting from courts of limited jurisdiction, then on to courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeals, and finally courts of last resort (which have the highest authority at the state level). State courts make decisions on criminal and civil matters of state law. The federal government has its own hierarchy, too, with courts of general jurisdiction, district courts (general jurisdiction), courts of appeals, and finally the Supreme Court.

Many cases begin with courts of general jurisdiction. Very minor issues (marriage and family disputes, traffic violations, small claims, and minor misdemeanors) will originate with courts of limited jurisdiction. All other cases will go to the state's court of general jurisdiction. For example, courts of general jurisdiction will hear:

  • Felonies (serious crimes including assault, murder, and crimes committed with a deadly weapon)
  • Serious misdemeanors (first-time drug offenses, assault without a deadly weapon, etc.)
  • Fraud, bankruptcy, and other so-called ''white collar crimes.''

Courts of general jurisdiction also hear cases from courts of limited jurisdiction on appeal. These cases are heard from the beginning again (referred to as a trial de novo), by calling witnesses and presenting evidence as if they were brand new cases. All other levels of appeal after the court of general jurisdiction are heard without recalling witnesses or examining new evidence.

Process of Trial

Courts of general jurisdiction hear cases that are more serious than courts of limited jurisdiction. It can be a very slow process to bring a case to trial. The vast majority of cases are settled outside of court before they are ever heard by a judge. Often the accused will plead guilty before trial and be sentenced, or reach a civil settlement to award monetary damages, without a full trial.

Cases that do go to trial are often decided by a jury (all criminal cases, and most higher cost civil cases). There are several steps to the process of hearing a case before these courts. At any point in this process, a case can stop moving forward if the defense pleads guilty. At that time, the case would move directly to sentencing. The process is slightly different for criminal and civil cases, initially. Let's look at both:

Criminal Cases:

  1. A crime is committed; police investigate and make arrest.
  2. First appearance made in court; defendant is formally accused of crime.
  3. Preliminary hearing is held to identify elements of crime and establish bail.
  4. Pre-trial depositions (interviews) of witnesses, pre-trial motions, and a plea of guilt or innocence are entered.
  5. If going to trial, then the the jury is paneled (process called voir dire).
  6. If the defendant is pleading innocent, then trial begins; opening statements, prosecution presentation of witnesses and evidence, defense cross-examination of witnesses, presentation of defense's case, and closing statements follow.
  7. The jury retires, deliberates, and makes decision.
  8. If found guilty, sentencing is decided; the defendant must immediately begin to serve the sentence.

Civil Cases:

  1. A civil infraction is committed; a lawsuit is brought forward by the plaintiff with a formal complaint.
  2. Defense responds to complaint.
  3. Any replies or counterclaims (additional elements to the lawsuit by either side) are then filed.
  4. Trial process follows that of criminal case: jury paneled (or in bench trials, judge will decide); followed by opening statements, plaintiff's case, defense's case, closing statements, jury deliberation (or judge decision), and sentencing
  5. After trial, there is often another appearance before a judge to determine the amount of compensation to be paid and how to enforce it.

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