What Sorts of Cases Do State Courts Decide?
Many people understand that the courts help decide and interpret the laws that legislatures put on the books. However, most people do not realize that most cases are decided through state courts, and not by courts under the U.S. government, known as federal courts. If you think you need to go to court, chances are good that you will have to file your case in a state court.
Civil and Criminal Courts
Just like the federal court system, most state courts have two separate court systems, one for criminal cases and another for civil cases. In our system, criminal courts are for cases in which someone is accused of a crime, and civil courts are for when individuals or corporations have a legal disagreement with each other that can not be resolved on its own. Criminal and civil courts have different rules of procedure and usually have very little overlap.
General and Special Jurisdiction Courts
Although each state is different, most states have "special jurisdiction courts," or courts that only handle one type of case. For criminal cases, there may be special courts that only hear traffic cases, or cases with youthful offenders. For civil cases, there may be special housing courts, which hear landlord-tenant cases, or family courts, which hear divorce or custody cases, amongst others. Nearly every state has "probate courts" which determine issues relating to wills and inheritances, and sometimes decide guardianship issues in the event someone's caretaker is incapacitated.
Perhaps the most famous type of special jurisdiction court is "small claims court," which hears cases where the amount in question is relatively small. Most states make the procedure in small claims court easy to understand so that people can handle these cases quickly and without a lawyer. Look up your state's small claims system to see how you can begin a small claims suit.
Courts of general jurisdiction hear every other type of case. For civil courts, this can include personal injury cases, like medical malpractice or car accidents; disputes over real estate, or business litigation. For criminal courts, this includes more serious or unusual crimes that do not have a special court.
See FindLaw's section on Courtroom Proceedings and Criminal Law to learn more about going to court.