State Courts

State Courts in the United States

he judicial branch of state government interprets and applies existing law to cases brought before its courts. Many states, such as Massachusetts and Utah, now have unified court systems that include a Supreme Court, courts of appeals, juvenile or family courts, and district or trial courts located throughout a state.

Introduction to State Courts

The vast majority of legal cases in the United States are decided in state courts. In every state the purpose of the courts is the same: to prosecute crimes and settle disputes. However, the states differ broadly in how their court systems are organized. Every state arranges its courts in a hierarchy similar to the federal system. Trial courts try cases, intermediate appellate courts consider appeals from trials, and supreme courts hear further appeals. But in many states the trial court system is not unified-that is, the common law and equity courts have not been merged and a single court cannot provide both common law and equitable remedies. An example of an equitable remedy is an injunction-a court order directing a defendant to act or refrain from acting in a certain way.

Within a state’s court system many different courts, with specialized jurisdiction, present a bewildering maze for lawyers and their clients. For example, New York City has 11 separate trial courts, each operating under different rules but often with overlapping jurisdiction. These include a general trial court to try felony criminal prosecutions and major civil cases, a Family Court, a Surrogate’s Court to administer wills, a Civil Court for cases valued at less than $25,000, and a Housing Court to handle landlord-tenant disputes.

Historically, judges on many state courts-including state supreme courts-have been elected and serve for various terms, some as long as 15 years. In an attempt to reduce the influence of politics on the courts, many states now require the governor to appoint judges. In many states, the initial appointment is for a period of years (ranging from 1 to 14), after which a retention election is held. Beginning in the 1980s, many governors asked panels of attorneys and others to provide lists of candidates from which to make their selections. By longstanding tradition all judges appointed to the federal courts are lawyers, but some judges on smaller, limited-jurisdiction state courts are not. In many states, for example, lay judges serve on rural traffic courts and as justices of the peace.” (1)

State Courts WebSites

The main state judicial site may feature court calendars and procedures, news, biographies of judges, directories, forms, court records, such as opinions and case reports, and information on how to file claims or start a proceeding for a divorce or to settle a financial dispute. There may also be probate courts, small claims courts, information for or about juries, and lists of lawyers. The state’s law library may be included in the main judicial site, or may have a site of its own.

Often county and municipal courts that are not operated by the state are accessible via a state’s judicial website. The State and Local Government on the Net Directory lists only the main state judicial site and law library. See county and city government websites for links to local courts.

Historical Court websites:

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

State Courts: Past, Present, and Future

Chris W. Bonneau and Brent D. Boyea, in the chapter “State Courts: Past, Present, and Future” of the Oxford Handbook of State and Local Government, offers some insight and critically assesses the situation and current state of scholarship on the topic. The following is a summary:This article examines the evolution of literature on state courts with a particular focus on the expansion of the field since the 1990s and the diverse application of theoretical frameworks utilized. The authors argue that studies of state courts have made powerful advances in terms of data and methodology. The increase in available data has made 50-state studies of state courts common, and these studies allow us to better understand the behavior of judges and courts, the role of institutional features on courts and judicial decisions, as well as the influences on state courts by external forces, such as the public, and the influence of courts on state policy.

Further Reading

  • “State Courts: Past, Present, and Future”, The Oxford Handbook of American Politics


Notes and References

Guide to State Courts

In this Section

  • Courts Development
  • Federal Courts
  • District Courts
  • Courts of Appeals
  • Supreme Court
  • Courts of Special Jurisdiction
  • Territorial Courts
  • State Courts
  • Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
  • Courts of General Jurisdiction
  • Intermediate Appellate Courts
  • Supreme Appellate Courts
  • Courts Challanges
  • Courts of Appeals

State Courts: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about State Courts. This part provides references, in relation to State Courts, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about State Courts by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about State Courts and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about State Courts or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to State Courts and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting State Courts. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about State Courts should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to State Courts when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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