The State Court Systems
State court systems are often similar to the federal model. The particular structure of a state court system is often a matter of historical anomaly, with courts bearing odd-sounding names that belie their actual function. Regardless of the names of these courts, however, the basic functions are the same.
Courts of Limited, Original Jurisdiction
Most states have a two-part structure to their trial courts. At the lower level are courts of limited, original jurisdiction. These courts are established to hear specific types of cases, usually involving limited amounts of money or a specific area of the law. In some states, these courts are called municipal courts or magistrate courts; these courts are also called Justice of the Peace Courts or Courts of Common Pleas. Other states establish special courts to hear disputes in housing, domestic relations, or probate matters.
Courts of General, Original Jurisdiction
All states have trial courts of general, original jurisdiction. In some states, these courts are superior to courts of limited jurisdiction and handle matters involving serious crimes and civil disputes. In other states, there are no courts of limited jurisdiction and the trial courts of general jurisdiction hear all legal disputes. Trial courts of general, original jurisdiction are usually called district courts, circuit courts, or superior courts.
Intermediate Courts of Appeal
Many states have established intermediate courts of appeal to hear appeals from the courts of general, original jurisdiction. In these states, the volume of appeals overwhelmed the state supreme court. The solution was to create an intermediate court of appeals to correct the errors of the trial courts. Intermediate courts of appeal usually have a significant number of judges who sit in panels of three to decide appeals.
Some states extend the concept of specialty courts to the level of the intermediate courts of appeal and establish a specialty intermediate court of appeals. For example, a state might establish a court of appeal for the specific purpose of hearing appeals from a specialty tax court.
State Supreme Courts
All states have a high court, a court that is the last step in the appeal process. This court is commonly called the supreme court of the state and is a court of general, appellate jurisdiction. It is the last step in the state court hierarchy; the only appeal from a state supreme court is to the U.S. Supreme Court. This type of appeal is strictly limited. The only allowable grounds for such an appeal is that the decision of the state supreme court is in conflict with the provisions of the Constitution, or where there is a question of interpretation of a federal statute.