How Many Courts?

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Here at CourtReference, we’ve quite familiar with the court systems in every state. Unless you have business with courts in many different states, you may not be aware of how different court systems can be from state to state.

The basic structure is not so different; each state usually has a trial court in which the parties argue both the facts and the law in front of a judge or jury. The judge decides how to apply the law, and the judge or jury decides which facts are true and which are not – in other words, which party is telling the truth.

If one party is not satisfied with the outcome of the case in the trial court, they can appeal to a higher level court. Many states have another level, usually called the state Supreme Court, to which a decision of the intermediate appellate court can be appealed.

That’s the basic structure in each state: a trial court and one or more levels of courts of appeal. Since the great majority of cases are heard in the trial court, and very few people who encounter the court system end up in a court of appeals, CourtReference only provides contact information for trial courts, links to trial court websites, and links to online resources related to trial courts.

Although the trial court is the first and usually the only court you will encounter in each state, there is usually more than one type of trial court in each state. We explored some examples from California, Michigan, and Texas in our post Which Court Do I Go To? To summarize that post, we noted that California has a single type of trial court (Superior Court) in each county, Michigan has four types (Circuit, District, Probate, Municipal), with each hearing different types of cases. Although California has a single Superior Court in each county, that court is organized into specialized Divisions in most counties. Although each Texas county has several trial court types (see below), we only mentioned District Courts in Texas because many Texas counties have multiple District Courts that hear different types of cases.

Confused yet? Just wait, there’s more! There are two very basic types of trial courts: trial courts “of record” and trial courts that are not of record. “Of record” means that the court proceedings are recorded and a transcript can be obtained. On appeal from a court of record, the facts of the case are not re-tried; they’re in the transcript, and the judge’s decisions about the law are the only parts of the trial that may be challenged. On appeal from a court that is not of record, there is no record of the facts and arguments, so the whole case is tried over again. Courts that are not of record are mostly Municipal Courts, which have jurisdiction over a limited geographical area and very specific types of cases.

As an experiment, we decided to compare the court systems in each state to see which states and the most – and least – number of trial court types. We only counted general trial courts; we did not count specialized courts that only hear one type of case, such as Tax Courts, Water Courts, or Workers’ Compensation Courts. We also skipped courts that only exist in a single county or city, such as Denver Probate Court, Philadelphia Municipal Court, New Orleans Traffic Court, Marion County (Indiana) Small Claims Court, and St. Joseph County (Indiana) Probate Court. Finally, we skipped “Specialty Courts” such as Drug Courts and Mental Health Courts, which are generally not separate courts but are special divisions of an actual court.

Just how different are the number? Many states have only one or two types of trial courts: Alaska, Arkansas, California (one Superior Court, but with separate Divisions), Connecticut, District of Columbia (one Superior Court, but with separate Divisions), Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire (Superior Court, plus Circuit Court with separate Divisions), North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

Most of the rest have three or four. A few have five or six. Who’s the winner? New York has nine different types of trial courts! We could ignore those that only exist in New York City proper (Civil Courts of the City of New York, Criminal Courts of the City of New York), but that still leaves seven: Supreme Court (which is actually a trial court in New York; the higher courts are Appellate Division and Court of Appeals), Family Court, Surrogate’s Court, County Court, District Court, City Court and Town and Village Courts.

If we ignore those two New York City courts, then Georgia is the winner with eight types of trial courts: Superior Court, State Court, Juvenile Court, Probate Court, Magistrate Court, Civil Court, Municipal Court, and Recorder’s Court. Not far behind are Tennessee and Texas, each with seven different types of trial courts.

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