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The Different Court Types
This article is my opinion, and not legal advice. I am a judgment broker, and am not a lawyer. If you ever need any legal advice or a strategy to use, please contact a lawyer.
Appeals courts are higher-level courts where defendants can get a chance to undo or modify a civil or criminal judgment, if they can persuade the appeals court judge(s) that the lower court made an error.
Chancery courts are equity courts based on the historical English system where the chancellor acted as the "King's conscience". Chancery courts handle a variety of issues including lawsuits, contract disputes, applications for injunctions, and name changes. Matters such as divorces, adoptions, and workers' compensation, can be heard in either chancery or circuit courts.
Circuit courts are general purpose courts that hear civil and criminal cases; and some consider appellate decisions on lower court rulings. The jurisdiction of circuit courts sometimes overlaps with the chancery court system.
Criminal courts handle cases when crimes have been committed, and may be either state or federal. Unlike civil courts, laws in court are enforced by police, and defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. Criminal courts can order a restitution payment to the victim, although recovery attempts often must be through the civil courts.
Federal civil courts usually limit themselves to lawsuits against the United States, violations of federal or constitutional laws, copyright, antitrust, bankruptcy, patent, most maritime cases, and when parties are in different states and the amount in dispute exceeds $75,000 (this is called diversity jurisdiction).
Magistrate courts usually handle cases where bail has been, or needs to be set, or search warrants are needed. Some magistrate courts handle small to medium-sized civil lawsuits, and in some states, the magistrate courts are also known as small claims courts.
Municipal courts are state courts dedicated to a specific city or county. These courts handle minor criminal cases and traffic tickets, and sometimes landlord/tenant lawsuits, etc.
Probate courts are often on a county-by-county level, and have jurisdiction over wills, the administration of estates, the appointment of guardians, conservatorships, and involuntary hospitalizations. Some probate courts also issue marriage licenses.
Small claims courts are for limited disputes over (smaller) amounts of money. Lawyers are usually not allowed to represent parties in small claims courts.
State courts are any courts within a state that are not part of the federal court system. State civil courts vary much, depending on their location. State courts usually hear cases involving theft, traffic tickets, contract disputes, common fraud, small claims, and family-related disputes.
Superior courts hear and decide cases where the amount in dispute is large, and cases of felony crimes, divorces, and disputes involving title or rights to land; and some make appellate rulings on decisions from lower courts.
Supreme courts are higher level appeal courts that hear and decide important cases, for example reviewing decisions made in lower appeals courts, and cases that involve state statutes, and death penalty cases.
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