Civil courts are the forum in which non-criminal legal disputes are resolved, when the parties to the dispute cannot come to a resolution amongst themselves.
Traditionally, civil courts were completely separate from criminal courts, and they operated under different rules and were sometimes staffed by completely different judges. However, over time, the trend, in most states, has been for courts to handle both civil and criminal cases.
Courts are usually divided into civil and criminal "divisions," so, as a practical matter, the civil and criminal justice systems of most states are still somewhat separate.
In general, the civil courts of most states are divided into 3 basic levels: the trial court, the intermediate appellate court, and the highest appellate court. However, it is up to individual states to decide how they want to structure their court system, and there are significant differences from state to state.
Details of the Three Basic Civil Court Divisions
Generally, the lowest level of the court system is the trial court. The trial courts go by many different names depending on the state they are in. Common names for trial courts are "Superior Court," "District Court," "Municipal Court," and others. However, a few states refer to their lowest trial court as the "Supreme Court," which is what the vast majority of states call their highest appeals court.
Trial courts are almost always the first place a person seeks legal recourse. They are the courts that first hear a civil case, and make the initial factual findings, and legal rulings.
A civil trial is a procedure involving a judge and often a jury. It occurs when a court is asked to make a factual determination. In most states, civil cases make up a large percentage of the jury trials.
This means that one person believes that another has committed a legal wrong against them, and has filed a lawsuit against them. Assuming the case does not settle, or is not dismissed, it will usually be heard by a jury, though sometimes just a judge will preside over a trial. This is known as a bench trial.
Once the attorneys for both sides have presented all of their evidence, the jury or judge will give its findings on the factual questions raised in the case. These findings are known as the verdict. In a civil case, a verdict ultimately comes down to whether or not the jury believes that the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff's injuries.
If either side believes that the verdict is unacceptable, they can file an appeal. Appeals are first filed at an intermediate appeals court, usually simply called a court of appeals, appeals court, appellate court, or appellate division. It's important to note that, in general, appeals courts can only review the legal conclusions of the judge at the trial court, and cannot overturn a jury's factual findings.
Once the appeals court issues its ruling, the losing party can usually appeal to the state's highest court, which is almost always referred to as the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of a state is also an appeals court. Therefore, it can only review the legal conclusions of lower courts, and can almost never overturn a jury's factual findings. For this reason, the benefits of an appeal are often limited, unless the lawyer for the losing side can show that the judge at the lower court made a legal error at some point during the trial, which affected the outcome of the case.
If you are dealing with a civil litigation issue, you are going to have to deal with the civil courts of your state. To someone outside the legal profession, the civil courts can seem like an impossible maze. For that reason, you may need to hire an experienced civil litigation attorney.
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