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State Courts


As a practical matter, most civil disputes are resolved in state courts: including child-custody and divorce disputes, probate, inheritance and juvenile matters. State courts generally also resolve most real estate cases, contract disputes, personal injury and traffic violation disputes. Like the federal system, state courts are structured upon a three-tiered general trial, appellate and high court model, but some states have additional jurisdictional divisions at the trial and appellate levels.


Some states have county or local courts with jurisdiction over small claims and misdemeanors. Generally, these courts are very accessible to pro se litigants, with fast schedules and less involved proceedings, but usually without access to jury trials. State court decisions are not binding in other states, but many states consider such decisions carefully in disputes without clearly, established rule of law.


Each state’s courts are established by the constitution of each state and the statutes of that state. They are all a little different but yet they follow the same pattern. A very popular state court administrator in Florida used to say – “ the judges tell me that their court is the best and does things differently, but I can tell you that they do the same thing differently.”


So state courts follow this pattern

                          I.           Supreme Court

                        II.           Intermediate Appellate Court

                      III.           Court of Unlimited Trial Jurisdiction

                      IV.           Court of Limited Trial Jurisdiction



For example in Maryland, the courts of unlimited trial jurisdiction are the Circuit Courts operating in eight geographic regions and the City of Baltimore. The Circuit Court is a court of general jurisdiction and wields authority over the most serious criminal and civil matters as well as some District Court appeals and agency originated disputes. The Circuit Court is where jury trials are held. Judges are appointed by the Governor and then must stand for election. They are elected to 15 year terms.


The trial courts of limited jurisdiction are District Courts divided into 12 geographic regions and presiding mostly over minor criminal , civil cases, traffic cases and all landlord / tenant claims. No jury trials are conducted in the District Court. Judges are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate to ten year terms.


The appellate and high court responsibilities in Maryland are vested in the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals, respectively. The Court of Special Appeals is the appellate-level tribunal empowered to decide virtually all civil and criminal issues, except death-penalty cases; the great many of them appeals from the lower Circuit Court. The governor appoints the 13 judges of the Court of Special Appeal and they are confrimed in a retention election to ten-year terms.


The Court of Appeals in Maryland is the highest tribunal in the state and its seven judges are appointed to ten-year terms. The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals is the constitutional head of the state’s judicial system. Like the US Supreme Court the Maryland Court of Appeals is almost  a certiorari court, allowing it to selectively review the cases covering the most important and far-reaching issues. The Governor appoints the 7 judges of the Court of Appeals and they are confirmed to 10 year terms in a retention election.


Each state has a similar organization although the names of the courts are different for each state and the method of appointment and election also differs. The National Center for State Courts, in Williamsburg, Virginia has compiled a chart of the courts of each state – click here.

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