State Courts

Courts interpret constitutions and laws.  But often people criticize the courts and judges for being too activist, that is courts are sometimes seen as making policy instead of just interpreting laws. Also, courts produce win-lose decisions so people who have lost their case are critical of courts.

Many issues that affect daily lives are resolved, in whole or in part, by state courts. These issues include school financing, family law (divorce and child custody), inheritance law, property law, and the overwhelming majority of criminal cases.

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Sources of law include the United States and state constitutions; U.S. and state statutes (laws); administrative rules and regulations; and previous court decisions on a topic (precedents). All state laws and court decisions are subject to the supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution.

Individual courts have jurisdiction, the legal authority to hear and decide specific types of cases. The types of jurisdiction are:

  • geographic jurisdiction:  the United States Supreme Court has jurisdiction for the entire country while all state courts can only hear cases from their own states.
  • original or appellate jurisdiction:  original jurisdiction courts are trial courts where cases must first begin.  They have a judge and most of the time a jury.   If trial court decisions are appealed, appellate jurisdiction courts review the decisions made by the original jurisdiction courts.  Some appellate jurisdiction cases are heard en banc (by all court members) or can be heard by a panel (usually 3 members).
  • general or limited jurisdiction:  general jurisdiction courts can hear cases on many different legal issues while limited jurisdiction courts can hear cases dealing with  specific types of law (e.g., traffic courts)
  • mandatory or discretionary jurisdiction:  mandatory jurisdiction courts are obligated by law to hear certain cases while discretionary courts can decide what cases to hear

What court one goes to depends upon what laws are involved.  Basically, there is the federal court system, which hears cases based upon the federal constitution plus federal laws, and the 50 state court systems, which hear cases based upon state law.

Both the federal court system and each state court system follow the same basic pattern even though individual states use many different names for their courts.
*Nearly all states have specialized, limited jurisdiction courts, and so does the federal government (e.g., U.S. Tax Court).  Both the 50 states and the federal government have original jurisdiction (trial) courts that cover a broad range of issues.
*Many, but not all, states and the federal government have intermediate appellate courts to which a party can appeal a lower court decision.
*Finally, all states and the federal government have top appellate jurisdiction courts, courts of last resort,” which have the final word in a particular case.

Note:  people who lose at the state top court level may appeal to the United States courts if, and only if, they can claim the state violated the U.S. Constitution.

Note:  at the lowest level in state courts many times there can be a bench trial, a trial in which the judge hears the case (both sides) and then makes a decision without a jury present.  In federal District Courts there is generally is a jury although the parties can also opt for a bench trial.

Texas Court system: Texas has two top appellate courts (Oklahoma has the same system).  The other 48 states have a single highest appellate court, usually called the supreme court. Texas has the Supreme Court (with nine justices) for civil and juvenile cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals (also with nine judges) for criminal cases.

The state’s intermediate appellate courts are the 14 Courts of Appeal, which hear cases from the 456 District Courts.  In the case of death penalty decisions, all such cases go directly to the Court of Criminal Appeals, bypassing a Court of Appeals.

Below the District Courts are County Trial Courts of limited jurisdiction. Finally there are local trial courts: Justice Courts and Municipal Courts. As with all court systems, the Texas court system is complex and more detailed information can be found on the website:

Judicial selection: there are several different ways states select their judgesIn contrast, all federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Regardless of selection method, politics (and ideology) has a major impact on the process. State judicial selection methods include:

*Gubernatorial appointment: governor appoints, senate/legislature confirms; similar to federal system.
*Legislative selection: State legislatures choose judges.  This method is used in only a few states.
*Partisan election: used in many states, especially in the south and in Texas. Candidates from different political parties oppose one another for the same position.
*Nonpartisan election: similar to partisan election but without partisan labels for candidates on the ballot; in some states, partisan endorsement does occur.
*Merit selection/Missouri Plan – merit commissions nominate candidates for openings and then the governor appoints; the public later gets a voice in retention elections (elections about whether to keep or remove a judge); the idea of this method is to combine the features of appointive and elective systems.  About half of the states use this system.

Civil and criminal law:   Criminal law covers wrongdoing against the state and the public (although specific criminal acts are usually against an individual or group) while civil law deals with disputes between two private parties.

Criminal court procedures: arrest, specific charge by grand jury (indictment), plea bargains (occur often); pretrial motions, jury selection, witnesses for both sides, evidence, arguments, and if there is a conviction, sentencing.
*grand jury:  a group of 16 to 23 citizens which decides if a case should go to trial
*indictment:  a formal criminal charge
*felony versus misdemeanor charges: in felonies, or serious crimes, the possible imprisonment is more than a year; if convicted of a misdemeanor, the punishment is less serious.  Many defendants’ rights and rights of the convicted are guaranteed by the U. S. Supreme Court interpretations of the U. S. Constitution.  Meeting these guarantees has raised the complexities and costs for states.
*Many states have created victims’ rights provisions.  Since in criminal cases, the victim and/or family have traditionally been left out of the process, provisions for serving as a trial witness, the courts’ allowing of victims’ impact statements in court, and attendance at all phases, including sentencing, have become state law.
*Depending upon state law, a convicted individual may appeal the court decision to the state’s appellate courts.

Civil cases involve filing of complaint by a plaintiff but otherwise the court procedures are similar to those for criminal cases. Important differences include burden of proof:  in civil cases, the burden is preponderance of the evidence.

In criminal cases, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt (a higher standard).  In a civil case the losing party usually pays money to the winner while in a criminal case the convicted person may go to prison.

The slowness of the whole process has led to things like streamlining processes or granting other local officials the ability to make judicial decisions in limited situations.  Also states have experimented with alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods in which a mediator presides over a meeting between two parties (sides) and helps them come to their own agreement or an arbitrator hears both sides and then makes a recommendation to the court.  ADR methods can resolve many cases without resorting to a courtroom.

Terms and Ideas

Activist courts/judges
Relationship of state laws and constitutions to the U. S. Constitution
Jurisdiction /Geographic jurisdiction
Original jurisdiction courts (trial courts) / Appellate jurisdiction courts
General and limited jurisdiction / Mandatory and discretionary jurisdiction
Federal and state court system similarities
State top courts-“courts of last resort”
Bench trials and jury trials
Characteristics of the Texas court system
Judicial selection:  gubernatorial appointment; legislative selection; partisan election; nonpartisan election, merit system (Missouri Plan)
Civil law and criminal law
Differences between civil and criminal court procedures
Victim’s rights protections
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods


Texas Courts Online – Gives a diagram on Texas courts (other court systems will be different)

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