A Guide to Understanding Courts

A court is an institution that has the authority to hear and settle disputes of a legal matter between different parties. It is considered by many as a part of the government and is normally presided over by at least one judge. A decision, known as a verdict, is made and handed out by the court to resolve the dispute or matter at hand. In some instances, depending on the type of case, a punishment is also decided and meted out. In the United States, there are several types of courts and each serves a different function. Further, the types of courts can also be classified based on jurisdiction – whether state or federal.

Appellate Court

The appellate court, also referred to as the court of appeals, hears the appeal of cases that has passed a trial court or other lower courts. Normally, the appellate court has limited powers of review in the sense that they can only examine the correctness of a verdict based on the facts presented during the first trial. No new evidence or theory can be presented here. However, there have been several instances where appellate courts have found errors with the judgment of lower courts and have reversed the verdict.

Trial Court

A trial court of general jurisdiction can hear cases that are not exclusive to certain types of court. Trial courts of general jurisdiction can be further divided according to state or federal jurisdiction. District courts handle cases of general jurisdiction on a federal level, while state courts handle cases on a state level.

Here, evidences, testimonies and theories are presented by both parties based on the rules of evidence. Findings are then made by the court. In a jury trial, the jury serves as trier of fact (meaning, they decide on the truthfulness of the claim at hand) while a judge interprets the law. For bench trials, the judge or a panel of judges function as triers of fact and the law.

Small Claims Court

A small claims court only hears civil cases between private parties where disputes involve an amount below $5,000. This court is presided over by a judge. Further, there are certain disputes that are not allowed to be heard in small claims court, such as family issues.

Family Court

Matters involving family law, such as annulment, divorce, adoption, domestic relations, and child custody are heard in a family court.

Supreme Court

Also known as the court of last resort, the Supreme Court is the highest court. It hears appeals on cases that have already passed the trial court and the court of appeals. Its decision is final and is not subject to an appeal in another court.



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