State Court System: Structure & Overview

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

Many state court systems are structured like the federal court system including a lower court, a court of appeals, and a supreme court. Both appellate and supreme courts only hear cases based on questions of law, and not of facts. Learn more about the structure of state court systems and how operations vary in different states. Updated: 08/30/2021

State Court System Compared to Federal Court System

To better understand the state court system and its similarities to the federal court system, let's take a brief look at the federal court system. In the federal court system, there are three distinct courts. Each of the federal courts levies judgment on different types of cases.

The U.S. District Court hears cases that involve:

  • Issues between states
  • Issues between parties who reside in different states and the remedy is over $75,000
  • Issues of national attention
  • Issues where the United States is a party

Whereas, the U.S. Court of Appeals hears cases that involve:

  • Appeals from a lower court, like state court
  • Appeals from administrative courts
  • Appeals from specialized courts, like patent court

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court deals with cases that move up from a lower federal court and involve a violation of constitutional law. However, this court considers a limited number of cases.

The state court system works in a similar way in that there are, in most states, three distinct and separate courts that decide on different cases. The main difference between the state and federal court systems is in the kind of cases that are heard.

This is known as jurisdiction or the power a court has over a case. State courts have a broad jurisdiction over cases.

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State Court System and Jurisdiction

State courts have jurisdiction to hear just about any case. For example, state court cases may involve:

  • Criminal cases
  • Contract proceedings
  • Tort issues
  • Family disputes
  • Probate or estate law

The three primary courts in the state court system are superior court, intermediate court of appeals and state supreme court.

Superior court deals with serious cases and most cases are heard in this court. There are also special courts under this umbrella, like family court and juvenile court.

Once a case is heard by superior court, either party to the case may appeal the decision of the court to the intermediate court of appeals in the forum state. The intermediate appellate court works similarly to the U.S. Appellate Court in that it has jurisdiction to hear a case from a lower court. But it does not consider the facts of the case in order to make a judgment. Only the application of law is considered. This means that if a case is brought to appellate court, the litigants cannot introduce evidence about the specific case. It can only challenge the judgment of the lower court based on whether the state law had been properly applied when rendering a judgment.

State supreme court is similar to U.S. Supreme Court in that it hears cases that question the application of law. This court hears cases where state law may be improperly applied, and the judgment is considered final. Unfortunately, the buck stops here as there is no higher state court to appeal to and is considered the court of last resort as it applies to questioning state law violations.

State Court Systems Do Not Operate the Same Way

We mapped out the similarities between the federal court system and the state court system.

However, it is important to note that although there is a generic system in place for a trial, an appeal and a judicial review of the application of law, each state has the power to exercise jurisdiction over specific types of cases as they see fit. For example, if a married couple were to get divorced in Hawaii, the proceedings would be held in family court, while a couple seeking the same dissolution of marriage in New York would duke it out in superior court.

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