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State Court Cases: How to Determine Where Your Suit Will Be Heard

No two state court systems are exactly the same, but in some form all of them divide their caseloads by subject matter. The general structure of most state courts, from the highest appellate level to the lowest trial level, is as follows:

  • Supreme court
  • Appellate court
  • Trial courts--divided into two types, limited jurisdiction and general jurisdiction, see below.
  • Municipal or local courts which hear minor infraction-type cases, and cases involving only claims for money below a certain amount (usually between $2,000 and $5,000).

This article is concerned with the lowest two court levels, where the vast majority of the average person's court experience will occur. Once you determine that a state court is the appropriate venue for your case (as opposed to a federal court), you will then need to establish in what specific state court you should file.

There are two considerations in state courts. First is the subject matter of the dispute, and second is the proper venue, or location within the state.

Subject Matter

Most state courts are set up with two sets of trial courts--courts of limited jurisdiction (probate, family, traffic, etc.) and courts of general jurisdiction (main trial-level cases). You will first have to determine whether your state has specialized courts that handle specific subject matter. Find information on your state's court system here or visit www.ncsc.org.

Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

Trial courts of limited jurisdictions are courts that hear only specific types of cases. In these courts, a single judge presides and adjudicates the entire issue. Some examples of courts of limited jurisdiction are:

  • probate court--handles the estate administration for deceased persons. If the deceased had a will the court will make sure it is executed properly, and if the person died intestate (without a will) the court will distribute the estate according to the law.
  • family court--handles divorce, child support, child custody, adoptions, etc.
  • juvenile court--hears cases involving delinquent minors.
  • traffic court--generally for minor traffic violations.
  • small claims court--technically these are courts of limited jurisdictions, though some people consider it a separate, lower tier of the court system. Generally, if your dispute is under a certain amount (e.g., $5,000), you are automatically shuffled to small claims court. But if your state has a court that specializes in the subject matter of the dispute, the case will be heard by that court regardless of the amount in controversy.

Courts of General Jurisdiction

If the subject matter of your dispute does not fall into one of your state's specialized categories and the amount in controversy is more than the small claims court amount, your case will be heard in a court of general jurisdiction. These courts hear both civil and criminal cases and are the types of courts that most people associate with the law. A judge hears the case, and there is often a jury which determines the winning party.

Depending on the state you live in, these courts are often referred to as circuit courts or superior courts; in New York, these trial courts are called supreme courts.

Venue

After determining what type of court should hear your case, you will need to determine a proper venue in which to file. Venue simply means the best place to try a case, and it is generally where the defendant resides, though it may be where the plaintiff lives in certain cases. If there is property involved, the best place to file may be in the city or county that contains the property.

No matter where you file, the other party may object to the venue. Ultimately, a court will decide if the venue is proper.

Remedies

Assuming your case doesn't fall into a specialized category, other factors that determine the proper court are the amount which is in dispute and the type of remedy that you request.

If you're seeking a small sum of money, say $500, and nothing else, then your case clearly belongs in small claims court. However, if you're also seeking a court order forcing your landlord to fix your plumbing, the case will need to be heard in a general jurisdiction court because small claims courts lack the power to grant "equitable remedies". In other words, a small claims court can't order a party to do, or not do, something.

The general rule is that courts which try cases under a certain amount lack the power to grant equitable remedies. If you seek an equitable remedy or injunction, no matter how much money you seek, your case will likely be heard by a court of general jurisdiction.

Make sure to check your state's dollar limits for different trial courts as well as what remedies the court is empowered to award.

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