In most states this is the "lowest" court and it may be the only court many people ever attend. The judge can be a lawyer or a lay magistrate. The issues are usually traffic violations, minor offenses, disputes with neighbors. The local government uses this court to enforce the rules and regulations of the town such as noise, garbage pick up, etc. Many people often think that because it is the "lowest" court it can be ignored. This is wrong, these judges can fine and jail offenders.
Small claims, special civil, district court
These can be a division of the county court or separate ones. In some states these tasks are also done in municipal court. This has the process of law, and is often concerning a dispute over a small amount of money (in comparison with the larger amounts heard in higher courts). In NJ small claims cannot exceed $3,000 and special civil cannot exceed $15,000. The more vigorous discovery rules are relaxed and many times the courts send the matter to alternate dispute resolution for a quick decision.
County Courts--Criminal and Civil
Traditionally the county court house is the place where the major matters are heard. The court is called one of "general jurisdiction" since it hears all matters of dispute. There are criminal cases, which entails arraignment, bail hearing, indictment, prosecution, defense and sentencing. The civil section hears cases on breach of contract, commercial litigation, and personal injury such as automobile, slip and fall, and medical malpractice. This court has a more demanding discovery regime, and the cases are often heard by a jury.
These courts handle special matters once done by Church officials. These are judge only courts, no jury is involved. The courts include: family, probate, guardian, surrogate, and chancery. Family courts hear issues on divorce, alimony and child support . Probate courts normally deal with contested estate matters. Guardian courts deal with the sick, mentally ill, and elderly who may need legal care to function in society. Surrogate courts normally handle uncontested wills and trusts. Chancery can vary from state to state but is usually used for injunctions and certain real estate matters. In NJ there is also a state tax court to hear complaints about state property and income taxes.
These are courts which are not trial courts, but act as the first reviewer of disputes on matters handled by certain agencies. Workers compensation for injuries received while working; labor and union disputes, workers grievances against state, county and municipal agencies are often done in these courts. There is usually an appeal process to one of the trial courts and/or one of the appeal courts.
Each state has an appellate court. This court normally consist of an odd number of judges who review legal errors made by trial courts and/or administrative courts. Appellate courts are NOT trial courts, they do not hear evidence and they do not rule on the "justice" of what was decided below. Their role is to determine if a trial court and/or administrative hearing followed the procedures of the law. If they find the trial and/or hearing was handled properly, they sustain the verdict. If they do not, they can overturn the trial decision and/or send it back to the lower court for another attempt at resolving the issue.
The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals etc.
The highest court is the one which governs all aspects of the law. It has the right to admit and discharge attorneys, it sets the rules for court procedures (usually in conjunction with the legislature and governor). It oversees the behavior of all state judges. Finally, it can review decisions made by the appellate court and/or a lower trial court. Again, its role is to provide a decision on whether or not the proper procedure was followed below. It does not retry cases and it does not hear evidence.
They handle disputes between citizens of different states, disputes between states, and disputes involving federal agencies. Normally a dispute must exceed $150,000 for the court to accept jurisdiction, and/or the issue must involve a federal agency such as the post office.
Types of Federal Courts
Bankruptcy courts handle financial insolvency--either individual or company. Social Security has administrative hearings to determine eligibility for benefits. District Courts are the trial courts in the federal system. There are district judges and magistrates. Magistrates assist the district judges with trial and case management. Federal courts have both a criminal and civil division. There are also appellate divisions: The Circuit court acts as the appellate court for the federal district courts and bankruptcy courts. The Supreme Court of the United States hears appeals from the lower federal courts. It also has the power to review the decisions of state courts.
Where am I and why?
You can wind up in any one of these courts for many reasons. A plaintiff or a petitioner is someone who comes to court to seek help with a problem. A defendant is someone who is brought to court because someone claims they caused a problem or committed a crime. People often ask the question: do I need a lawyer? The response depends on why you are there: if the local town is suing you for a $100 for not putting lids on your garbage cans, you probably can handle it pro se. If the federal government is charging you with treason, it would be really smart to have legal representation.
Additional resources provided by the author
Read An Introduction to the Courts and Judicial Process by Merlin Lewis, Warren Bundy and James Hague (Prentice Hall, 1978).