The vast majority of civil lawsuits in the United States are filed in state courts. Two aspects of civil lawsuits are common to all state courts:
A court exercising a trial function has original jurisdiction— that is, jurisdiction to determine the facts of the case and apply the law to them.
A court that hears appeals from the trial court is said to have appellate jurisdiction, meaning it must accept the facts as determined by the trial court and limit its review to the lower court’s theory of the applicable law. Jury trials only occur in trial courts.
In most large urban states and many smaller states, there are four or five levels of courts.
1a. Limited Jurisdiction Courts
The lowest level is that of the limited jurisdiction courts. These are usually county or municipal courts with original jurisdiction to hear minor criminal cases (petty assaults, traffic offenses, and breach of peace, among others) and civil cases involving monetary amounts up to a fixed ceiling (typically $3,000-$12,000, varying by state).
Most disputes that wind up in court are handled in the 18,000-plus limited jurisdiction courts, which are estimated to hear more than 80 percent of all cases.
1b. General Jurisdiction Courts
All other civil and criminal cases are heard in the general trial courts, or courts of general jurisdiction. These go by a variety of names:
These are the courts in which people seek redress for incidents such as automobile accidents and injuries or breach of contract. These state courts also prosecute those accused of murder, rape, robbery, and other serious crimes.
The fact-finder in these general jurisdiction courts can be a judge or jury unless a jury trial is not available, as is most often the case in family law matters. Even where a jury trial is allowed, parties may waive their right to a jury trial and have a judge decide their case if they elect to do so.
Although courts of general jurisdiction can hear all types of cases, in most states more than half involve family matters (divorce, child custody disputes, and the like). A third are commercial cases, and slightly over 10 percent are devoted to car accident cases and other torts.)
Most states have specialized courts that hear only a certain type of case, such as landlord-tenant disputes or probate of wills.
1c. Appellate Courts
The losing party in a general jurisdiction court can almost always appeal to either one or two higher courts. These intermediate appellate courts - usually called courts of appeal - have been established in forty-one states.
They do not retry the evidence, but rather determine whether the trial was conducted in a procedurally correct manner and whether the appropriate law was applied.
The appellant (the losing party who appeals) might complain that the judge wrongly instructed the jury on the meaning of the law, or improperly allowed testimony of a particular witness, or misconstrued the law in question. The appellee (who won in the lower court) will ask that the appellant be denied. Usually, this means that the appellee wants the lower-court judgment affirmed. The appellate court has quite a few choices: it can affirm, modify, reverse, or reverse and remand (return the case to the lower court for retrial).
The last type of appeal within the state courts system is to the highest court - the State Supreme Court - which is composed of a single panel of between five and nine judges and is usually located in the state capital. The intermediate appellate courts are usually composed of panels of three judges and are situated in various locations around the state.
In a few states, the highest court goes by a different name.
EXAMPLEIn New York, it is known as the Court of Appeals.
In certain cases, appellants to the highest court in a state have the right to have their appeals heard, but more often the Supreme Court selects the cases it wishes to hear. For most litigants, the ruling of the State Supreme Court is final.
In a relatively small class of cases - those in which federal constitutional claims are made - appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a writ of certiorari remains a possibility. The Supreme Court does not accept all cases by writ of certiorari, but does accept selected cases.
Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "The Courts and the Legal Process" tutorial.