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Although their titles may vary, the court system of every state in the country is divided into three separate divisions: trial court, appellate court, and the state supreme court. 

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Trial Courts

Depending on your state, the trial court may be called the Superior Court, the Chancery Court, the District Court, or (in the case of New York) the Supreme Court.  These are the courtrooms we see on TV.  They are where jurors are chosen and trials take place.   There are two types of trial courts in most states: special jurisdiction and general jurisdiction. Courts of general jurisdiction decide serious civil and criminal cases.  Special jurisdiction courts deal strictly with the following types of cases: (1) Cases involving juveniles (a.k.a. “Juvenile Court”); (2) Small claims  (a.k.a. “Small Claims Court”); and (3)  Traffic-related cases (a.k.a. “Traffic Court”)  To learn more about trial courts, click here. 

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Appellate Courts

Appellate Court (often called a Court of Appeals) is a higher court that hears appeals that a party files based on an action that took place in a trial court.  Appellate courts are very different in how they operate.  For instance, there are no juries- instead, appeals are heard and decided by a panel of judges (a number ranging from three to nine).    Appellate courts examine the what took place in the trial court to determine whether the judge misinterpreted the law or made some other legal error that affected the outcome of the case.  Criminal defendants can appeal, and either side can appeal in a civil case.  Whoever files the appeal is called the appellant, and the party on the other side is called the appellee. There is no trial at the appellate level.  Instead, each side files a written document called an appellate brief.  Afterwards, the parties present their case to the panel of judges, in a proceeding called an oral argument.  It is important to keep in mind that the appellate court bases its decision entirely upon the record of the case and does not consider new evidence.  If the court grants the appeal, the case is sent back to the trial court for a retrial. If the appeal is denied, the loser can appeal the matter to the Supreme Court of their state. To learn more about Appellate courts, click here.  

Supreme Courts

The Supreme Court is the highest level of the state court system, and it is the one you turn to when you’re seeking an appeal of a decision made by the Court of Appeals. An appeal to the Supreme Court is called a  Writ of Certiorari.  The Supreme Court is not required to accept an appeal, and often denies them when the matter is routine.  However, if multiple appellate courts have interpreted the law differently, if an important legal principle is at stake or if the case presents an issue relating to how the Constitution is interpreted. or if multiple appellate courts have interpreted the law differently. The only way to appeal the decision of a Supreme Court is to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the only way to do that is if the case involves a constitutional issue.  Supreme Courts operate just like Superior Courts- cases are decided by a panel of judges.  To learn more about how the state Supreme Court works, click here.