The Jurisdiction of a State Court

Jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear and decide a case. The power of a state court to hear a particular case comes from the constitution and laws of that state. For a court’s decision to be legally binding, the court must have both subject matter jurisdiction (authority to hear a case involving the type of legal matter at issue, such as a contract or a personal injury) and personal jurisdiction (authority over the parties to the suit).

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

State courts generally have authority to hear cases involving transactions that happened within the state or the particular geographical area, such as a county, in which the court is located. However, there are a few types of cases over which the federal courts have sole or exclusive jurisdiction. These include bankruptcy and admiralty cases.

The subject matter jurisdiction of a state court is usually widespread and includes everything from real estate questions to state tax disputes. Most states have special courts or divisions within a court set up to hear a specific type of case. Housing courts, family courts, and probate courts are examples of special state courts. If there is a county probate court, for example, that court would have power to hear all cases involving probate matters, such as contested wills, within the county.

Personal Jurisdiction

A court must have personal jurisdiction over the individuals and companies involved in a lawsuit for a decision to be legally binding on the parties to the suit. Generally, if an individual lives within a state, the state courts will have power to decide a lawsuit involving that individual. The same is true for a company. If the company is located within the state or does business within the state, a state court will have power to decide a lawsuit involving that company. Even if a company is not located within the state, a state court might still have jurisdiction over the company if the company sent mail order catalogs into the state or has other “minimum contacts” with the state. All states have laws allowing a suit against an individual who does not live in a state but who caused a traffic accident while driving through the state.

Service of Process

Personal jurisdiction over an individual or a company is obtained by service of process, which means giving notice of the lawsuit to the individual or the company. Notice of a lawsuit may be given in several ways, depending on what state statutes provide. For example, proper service may include serving the individual or a company officer with a notice in person, by mailing a notice to the individual or company, or by publishing a notice in the newspaper.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

Appeal of a State Court Judgment

The losing party in a civil lawsuit can file an appeal after the state trial court enters a final judgment in the case. Generally, a notice of appeal has to be filed within 30 days after a judgment. The person who files the appeal is called the appellant, and the other party is called the appellee.

Appeals to Intermediate Appellate Courts

In most states, there is a two-tier system for appellate review of a judgment. The appeal is first filed in an intermediate appellate court or court of appeals. Most appellate courts or courts of appeal have a panel of between 9 and 15 judges. After the appellate court reviews the judgment, a further appeal is possible to a court of last resort, usually called the state supreme court. In several states, there is no intermediate appellate court, and all appeals from a trial court’s judgment go directly to the state supreme court.

Records on Appeal

Once a notice of appeal is filed, a record of the trial court proceedings is prepared and filed with the appellate court clerk. The record includes the pleadings in the case and any exhibits introduced in evidence. It also includes a transcript of the trial, which is a written record of every word that was spoken in the trial. An appeal is decided based on the record in the case. In almost all instances, no additional evidence can be submitted to the appellate court and no additional witnesses can be questioned before the appellate court.


Both sides in the appeal submit written briefs to the appellate court. A brief is a memorandum that contains a summary of the questions presented on appeal. An appellant’s brief discusses legal principles showing why the appellate court should reverse or overturn the trial court’s judgment. The appellee’s brief presents legal arguments showing why the trial court’s judgment was correct. The briefs contain references or citations to laws or previous court decisions supporting the legal principles. Most appellate courts have rules that specify the content and format for briefs.

Oral Argument

Generally, the attorneys for both sides present oral arguments to a panel of judges of the appellate court. The appellate judges usually question each attorney during his or her oral presentation. After oral argument, the appellate court issues an order or opinion with the panel’s decision. Some appeals are submitted on the briefs without oral argument. In such instances, the appellate court makes its decision based solely on the arguments presented in the parties’ briefs.

Standards of Review

The appellate court reviews the trial court’s decision to consider whether the trial judge correctly interpreted and applied the law to the facts in the case. The appellate court also considers whether the trial court committed any procedural mistakes or errors in the way it conducted the case. If the appellate court finds no error in the trial judge’s handling of the trial and in his or her interpretation and application of the law, the court affirms the judgment. If the appellate court finds error, it reverses or overturns the judgment. The appellate court can then either order entry of a new judgment or remand (send) the case back to the trial judge for further proceedings.

Appeals to Highest State Courts

A state supreme court typically consists of a panel of up to nine judges or justices. Generally, a state supreme court chooses which appeals it will hear and it may refuse to hear an appeal if an intermediate appellate court has already heard the case. Even in some states that do not have an intermediate appellate court, a state supreme court can decide not to hear an appeal.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.