Special Courts

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Special Courts

Bodies within the judicial branch of government that generally address only one area of law or have specifically defined powers.

The best-known courts are courts of general jurisdiction, which have unlimited trial jurisdiction, both civil and criminal, within their jurisdictional area. At the federal level, these are called district courts. At the state level, these courts have many different titles, including district court, trial court, county court, circuit court, municipal court, and superior court. Appellate courts of general jurisdiction review the decisions of inferior courts and are typically called either courts of appeal or supreme courts.

The bulk of U.S. courts, however, are special courts, which include all courts of limited and specialized jurisdiction that are not courts of general jurisdiction or appellate courts. A special court generally addresses only one or a few areas of law or has only specifically defined powers.

Special courts in the United States developed out of the English custom of handling different kinds of cases by establishing many different special courts. Many of the special courts established in the United States during colonial times and shortly after the Constitution was adopted have been abolished, but new special courts continue to be created, especially at the state and local level. Special courts now handle the vast majority of all cases brought in the United States. The majority of all cases brought in any particular state jurisdiction go to special courts.

Special courts exist for both civil and criminal disputes. Cases tried in special, limited-jurisdiction criminal courts, such as traffic court or misdemeanor court, may be reheard in a general-jurisdiction trial court without an appeal upon the request of the parties.

Special courts do not include the many administrative law courts that exist at both the federal and state government level; administrative courts are considered part of the Executive Branch, rather than the judicial branch. However, a general-jurisdiction court that hears only specific kinds of cases, such as a landlord-tenant branch of a general-jurisdiction trial court, is usually considered a special court.

Special courts differ from general-jurisdiction courts in several other respects besides having a more limited jurisdiction. Cases are more likely to be disposed of without trial in special courts, and if there is a trial or hearing, it is usually heard more rapidly than in a court of general jurisdiction. Special courts usually do not follow the same procedural rules that general-jurisdiction courts follow; often special courts proceed without the benefit or expense of attorneys or even law-trained judges.

The judges who serve in special courts are as varied as the special courts themselves. Most special court judges obtain their positions through election, rather than through the merit selection system common in general-jurisdiction courts. In addition, the majority of special court judges are not lawyers. In North v. Russell, 427 U.S. 328, 96 S. Ct. 2709, 49 L. Ed. 2d 534 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of nonlawyer judges in special courts as constitutional as long as a trial de novo (a new trial) in a court of general jurisdiction with a lawyer-judge is given upon the request of the parties.

State and Local Special Courts

The states and localities have created many special courts. Juvenile courts are special courts that have jurisdiction over delinquent, dependent, and neglected children. Juvenile courts have special rules to protect the privacy of the juveniles before them, such as requiring that only the initials and not the full names of juveniles be used in court paperwork so that their identities are not revealed to the public. Juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, and generally the records are sealed.

Probate courts are special courts of limited jurisdiction that generally have powers over the probate of wills and the administration of estates. In some states probate courts are empowered to appoint guardians or approve the Adoption of minors.

Small-claims courts, called conciliation courts in some states, provide expeditious, informal, and inexpensive adjudication of small claims. The jurisdiction of small-claims courts is usually limited to the collection of small debts and accounts. In most states parties are allowed to represent themselves in small-claims court, and some states prohibit lawyers from representing the parties.

Many states have also established family courts that typically have jurisdiction over several types of cases, including Child Abuse and neglect proceedings, child and spousal support proceedings, Paternity determinations, Child Custody proceedings, juvenile delinquency proceedings, and marital dissolutions.

Several states have established tax courts that have jurisdiction to hear appeals in all tax cases and have the power to modify or change any valuation, assessment, classification, tax, or final order. Massachusetts is unique in that it has a land court with exclusive jurisdiction over all applications for registration of title to land within the commonwealth, writs of entry and various petitions for clearing title to real estate, petitions for determining the validity and extent of municipal Zoning ordinances and regulations, and all proceedings for foreclosure.

Some states still have justice's courts, inferior tribunals of limited jurisdiction presided over by justices of the peace. These courts are the primary legacy of the special courts of colonial times. Most states, however, have abolished justice's courts and transferred their powers and duties to courts of general jurisdiction.

Some cities have established mayor's courts in which the mayor sits with the powers of a police judge or magistrate with respect to offenses committed within the city, such as traffic or ordinance violations. In other states these courts are called police courts and are not presided over by the mayor.

Federal Special Courts

Congress has established several special courts to adjudicate federal matters. admiralty courts are federal district courts that have jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime actions pursuant to federal statute (28 U.S.C.A. § 1333). Bankruptcy courts are federal courts that are concerned exclusively with the administration of bankruptcy proceedings; they were also created pursuant to federal statute (28 U.S.C.A. § 1334). The u.s. tax court tries and adjudicates controversies involving deficiencies or overpayments in income, estate, and gift taxes. U.S. magistrates try misdemeanor cases and conduct preliminary proceedings in civil and criminal proceedings.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims was created in 1988 to review decisions of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, which hears cases involving benefit programs for veterans and their dependents. Cases appealed from the Court of Veterans Appeals are heard by the U.S. court of appeals for the applicable federal circuit.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims was created in 1982 to replace the former Court of Claims. Its powers are mandated by federal statute (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1491 et seq.). The Claims Court has jurisdiction to render money judgments upon any claim against the United States based on the Constitution, a federal statute, or a federal regulation; any claim based on an express or implied contract with the United States; or any claim for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort (not involving torts).

The Court of International Trade has jurisdiction over any civil action against the United States arising from federal laws governing import transactions. It also has jurisdiction to review determinations as to the eligibility of workers, firms, and communities for adjustment assistance under the Trade Act of 1974 (19 U.S.C.A. §§ 2101 et seq.). Insular courts are special courts created by Congress with jurisdiction over insular possessions (island territories) of the United States, such as Puerto Rico.

Military courts include courts-martial, courts of military review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the Military Court of Inquiry, These courts are designed to deal exclusively with issues arising under Military Law, which governs the armed forces. Courts-martial are ad hoc military courts, convened under authority of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (10 U.S.C.A. §§ 801 et seq.) to try and punish violations of military law committed by persons subject to that law. The courts of military review are intermediate appellate criminal courts, established by the Military Justice Act of 1968 (10 U.S.C.A. § 866) to review Court-Martial convictions of members of their respective Armed Services in which the punishment imposed extends to death, dismissal or punitive discharge, or confinement for one year or more. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (USCAAF), formerly known as the Court of Military Appeals, which was created by Congress in 1950 (10 U.S.C.A. § 867), functions as the primary civilian appellate tribunal responsible for reviewing court-martial convictions of all the services. Cases heard by the Courts of Military Review may be appealed to the USCAAF; any appeals from that court are heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Military Court of Inquiry is a court of special and limited jurisdiction, convened to investigate specific matters and advise whether further proceedings should be pursued.

A Court for the Trial of Impeachments is a tribunal empowered to try any officer of government or other person brought to its bar by the process of Impeachment. At the national level, the Senate is the Court for the Trial of Impeachments of federal officers, and in most states the upper house of the legislature is the Court for the Trial of Impeachments of state officers.

Further readings

Bamberger, Phylis Skloot. 2003. "Specialized Courts: Not a Cure-All." Fordham Urban Law Journal 30 (March).

Davis, Wendy N. 2003. "Special Problems for Specialty Courts." ABA Journal 89 (February).

Kozlowski, Mark, and Anthony Lewis. 2003. The Myth of the Imperial Judiciary: Why the Right is Wrong About the Courts. New York: New York Univ. Press.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces Website. Available online at <www.armfor.uscourts.gov> (accessed September 30, 2003).

Wheeler, Russell R. 1987. "Courts of Limited and Specialized Jurisdiction." In Encyclopedia of the American Judicial System. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert J. Janosik. New York: Scribner's.


Federal Courts; Jurisdiction; Judiciary; Juvenile Law; Military Law; State Courts.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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