Supreme Court Rules, Practices, and Traditions
What is the structure of state court systems?
The structure of state court systems varies widely from state to state. The lowest courts are courts of limited jurisdiction—sometimes called inferior courts—that hear only particular types of cases. These are called small claims, general session, municipal, justice-of-the-peace, juvenile, and magistrate courts. For example, a citizen who contests a traffic ticket will likely appear in a general sessions court.
The courts of general jurisdiction are often organized along the same three-tiered pattern found in the federal system of (1) trial courts, (2) intermediate appellate courts, and (3) final appellate courts. For example, Tennessee trial courts consist of circuit courts, chancery courts, probate courts, and criminal courts. The intermediate appellate courts are the Tennessee Court of Appeals and the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, while the final appellate court is the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Some state court systems have only two level of courts. For example, South Dakota has circuit courts and a supreme court. The nomenclature of the courts can also differ quite greatly. In most states, the final appellate court is called the Supreme Court, but in Maryland and New York the highest court is called the Court of Appeals.
The National Center for State Courts provides an excellent overview of the structure of every state’s court system at http://www.ncsconline.org/D_Research/Ct_Struct/.