State Courts: Different Courts Hear Different Types of Cases

States assign cases to different courts by subject matter and the amount of money (or other remedy) requested.

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If your case involves an issue for the state courts to decide, you must find the proper state court in which to file your case. (For help deciding between federal and state court, see Nolo's article Subject Matter Jurisdiction: Should I File in Federal or State Court?)

Finding the Proper State Court

The issues you must consider are:

  • Does the state have a specialized court to hear your type of case? Most states divide up their trial courts' business according to the case's subject matter and the amount of money (or other remedy) requested. This article helps to answer this question.

  • Which judicial district within a state is the proper place for your case? Lawyers call this determining "venue." (For help determining the proper venue, see Nolo's article State Courts: "Venue" Rules Govern Where You Can File Your Lawsuit.)

Subject Matter

Some courts specialize in hearing certain types of cases -- regardless of the dollar amount of the case. Specialization by subject matter allows judges and other court personnel to build expertise and quickly handle a certain type of case. For example, a particular state may have specialized courts such as:

  • family law courts, which hear cases on divorce, child support, and related matters

  • probate or surrogate courts, which hear cases on guardianship, wills and trusts, and how to distribute the property of deceased persons

  • landlord-tenant courts, which hear disputes between landlord and tenants (in only a few states).

If a state has set up a specialized court to hear your type of case, that is the court to which it will be assigned regardless of how much money you seek.

Amount of Money or Type of Remedy Involved

States often divide up their trial courts' business according to the amount of money the plaintiff is seeking and the type of remedy a plaintiff seeks. For example, a court may have the power only to award monetary damages up to $5,000.

Or a court may have the power to only award monetary damages but not to issue a non-monetary remedy, such as an order that a defendant tear down a fence that encroaches on the plaintiff's property. (Court orders like this are called "equitable remedies" or "extraordinary remedies.")

The following divisions are typical:

  • Small claims courts hear cases involving claims for a limited amount of money, usually up to $2,500-$10,000. Small claims courts cannot usually order equitable remedies.

  • Courts for medium-sized claims are often limited to cases involving up to $25,000. These courts cannot usually order equitable remedies.

  • Courts for all types of cases, including those involving higher amounts of money or requests for injunctions or other non-monetary remedies.

Terminology for the different court divisions varies from one state to another. For example, a few states refer to their highest level trial courts as "supreme courts," while other states refer to them as "superior," "district," or "county" courts. Check your state's court rules if you are uncertain about which level of court has the power to hear your case.

For detailed information on the latest rules and court procedures, see Represent Yourself in Court, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo).

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