As Americans, we have a civic duty to understand how our government, which represents us, is organized. We should also understand the functions of the various branches of government and their different parts. The structure and functions of the judicial branches of our state and federal governments are no exception to that rule. Generally speaking, the court systems in the United States are divided into three levels: trial courts, courts of appeals, and courts of last resort. This is true of both the federal and state judiciaries.

Level 1. Trial Courts

Trial courts are the courts where virtually all lawsuits are filed. They go by many different names, like district courts or county courts, but they serve similar functions. Trial courts are the first courts to deal with a lawsuit. As the name suggests, they are courts where trials are conducted. Parties file pleadings with the trial court to initiate a lawsuit, and discovery is conducted under the supervision of the trial-court judge. The trial court will also make rulings on what evidence will be admitted in the case, and will often submit any factual disputes between the parties to a jury for them to determine which side is right. The judgment of the trial court is subject to appeal, most often to a court of appeals, but in rare cases, directly to the court of last resort.

Level 2. Courts of Appeals

If a party to a lawsuit is unhappy with the outcome in the trial court, he or she can appeal to the second level of courts, a court of appeals. At the federal level and in some states, there are multiple different courts of appeals with jurisdiction over specified geographical areas. Some states have just one court of appeals that covers the entire state. However structured, courts of appeals review the proceedings in and judgments of trial courts to make sure that they were conducted properly and no legal errors were made. Courts of appeals normally do not accept evidence. Instead, the parties file legal briefs explaining where they think the trial court went wrong, or explaining why they think the trial court was right. The parties may then appear for oral argument before the court of appeals, where the judges will ask them questions about the basis for their appeal. The legal rulings of a court of appeals are binding on any trial courts within that court of appeals’ geographic jurisdiction. The decisions of a court of appeals are subject to further review by the court of last resort.

Level 3. Courts of Last Resort

The court of last resort in a judicial system is usually known as the Supreme Court. For example, the United States Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the federal judiciary. Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, actually have two different courts of last resort, one with jurisdiction over civil lawsuits, and one with jurisdiction in criminal cases. Confusingly, New York calls its state court of last resort the New York Court of Appeals. New York’s supreme courts are actually trial courts. In any event, the court or courts of last resort in a judicial system are the system’s highest judicial authority. Once they decide a legal question, there is no other court to appeal to, except in cases where a state court of last resort decides a question of federal law. Like courts of appeals, a court of last resort does not conduct trials. The parties will submit briefs containing their arguments, and may be asked to give oral arguments before the judges or justices. The decisions of a court of last resort are called “opinions,” and explain the court’s reasoning in deciding the case as it did.

picture of the supreme court

These days, very few cases actually go to trial in a trial court, let alone work their way up through the entire court structure to the court of last resort. But understanding the court system is still an important part of being an American citizen. The courts are one branch of the governments that represent us, so we should at least have a basic familiarity with their structure and functions. For more on this, you can visit the the Justice.gov article on the federal court system.

The Three Levels of Courts in the US