Judicial tribunals established by each of the fifty states.
Each of the fifty state court systems in the United States operates independently under the constitution and the laws of the particular state. The character and names of the courts vary from state to state, but they have common structural elements.
State governments create state courts through the enactment of statutes or by constitutional provisions for the purpose of enforcing state law. Like the federal court system, the judicial branch of each state is an independent entity, often called "the third branch" of government (the other two being the executive and legislative branches). Though independent, state courts are dependent on the state legislatures for the appropriation of money to run the judicial system. Legislatures also authorize court systems to establish rules of procedure and sometimes direct the courts to investigate problems in the legal system.
Most states have a multilevel court structure, including a trial court, an intermediate court of appeals, and a supreme court. Only eight states have a two-tiered system consisting of a trial court and a supreme court. Apart from this general structure, the organization of state courts and their personnel are determined by the laws that created the court system and by the court's own rules.
State courts are designed to adjudicate civil and criminal cases. At the trial level, there are courts of limited and general jurisdiction. Limited jurisdiction courts, sometimes called inferior courts, handle minor civil cases, such as small claims or conciliation matters, and lesser crimes that are classified as misdemeanors. The persons who judge these cases may be part-time judges, and some states still allow persons not trained in the law to hear these cases. A Justice of the Peace falls within this category and handles typically minor matters such as traffic violations. Courts of general jurisdiction, also known as superior courts, handle major civil matters and more serious crimes, called felonies.
Some states have a large number of trial courts. They can include small claims, municipal, county, and district courts. Since the 1980s, some states have simplified their systems, creating a unified trial court that hears all matters of limited and general jurisdiction.
Intermediate courts of appeal consider routine appeals brought by losing parties in the trial courts below. These are "error correcting" courts, which review the trial court proceedings to determine if the trial made errors in procedure or law that resulted in an incorrect decision. If the court determines that an error was made (and it was not a Harmless Error), it reverses the decision and sends it back to the trial court for another proceeding. Intermediate courts of appeal are supposed to interpret the precedents of the state's supreme court. However, in every state there are many areas of law in which its supreme court has not ruled, leaving the appellate courts free to make decisions on what the law should be. These courts process thousands of cases a year, and losing parties generally have a right to appeal to these courts, no matter how dubious the merits of the appeal.
The supreme court of a state fulfills a role similar to the U.S. Supreme Court. A state supreme court interprets the state constitution, the statutes enacted by the state legislature, and the body of state Common Law. A supreme court is a precedential court: its rulings govern the interpretation of the law by the trial and appellate courts. A supreme court also administers the entire state court system, and the chief justice of the court is the spokesperson for the judiciary. In New York and Maryland, the highest court is called the court of appeals. In New York, the trial court is called the supreme court. These and other names for courts are based on historical circumstances but do not alter the substance of the work these courts perform.
The supreme court also establishes rules of procedure for all state courts. These rules govern civil, criminal, and juvenile court procedure, as well as the admission of evidence. State supreme courts also promulgate codes of professional responsibility for lawyers.
State courts have become highly organized systems. Beginning in the late 1960s, federal money helped states rethink how they deliver services. All states have a professional state court administrator, who administers and supervises all facets of the state court system, in consultation with the trial, appellate, and supreme courts. Research and planning functions are now common, and state courts rely heavily on computers for record keeping and statistical analysis.
At the county level, court administrators, previously known as clerks of court, oversee the operations of the trial courts. Court clerks, officers, bailiffs, and other personnel are called upon to make the system work. Judges have court reporters, who record trial proceedings either stenographically or electronically, using audio or video recording devices.
State court judges, unlike federal judges, are not appointed for life. Most states require judges to stand for election every six to ten years. An election may be a contest between rival candidates, or it may be a "retention election," which asks the voters whether or not a judge should be retained.