Have questions about the legal definition and meaning of the word court?

Read this legal glossary FAQ guide to learn about the definition of each type of court, how they work with judges and juries in the United States legal system, and much more!

What Is a Court?

A court is a governmental institution with the authority to adjudicate legal disputes and administer justice. It is typically established as part of the judicial branch of a country’s government and operates according to a system of laws and procedures.

Courts and their judges preside over legal proceedings and are responsible for interpreting and applying the law, resolving disputes, and delivering fair and impartial judgments or verdicts.

They may handle various cases, including civil, criminal, constitutional, administrative, and specialized matters. Courts play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law and ensuring access to justice for all individuals.

What Are the Types of Courts In the U.S.?

In the United States, there are several types of courts that serve different functions and jurisdictions. The following are the main types of the U.S. courts:

Supreme Court:

The highest court in the country, consisting of nine justices who interpret the Constitution and make final judgments on critical legal issues.

Federal Courts:

These courts handle cases involving federal laws, state disputes, bankruptcy, and certain other matters. They include:

  • U.S. District Courts: Trial courts where most federal cases begin.
  • U.S. Courts of Appeals: Also known as Circuit Courts, they hear appeals from the district courts.
  • U.S. Court of International Trade: Handles customs laws and international trade disputes.
  • U.S. Court of Federal Claims: Hears claims against the federal government for money damages.

State Courts:

Each state has its court system, which may vary in structure and organization. The main types of state courts include:

  • State Supreme Court: The highest court in the state, usually responsible for hearing appeals.
  • Appellate Courts: Intermediate courts that review decisions from trial courts.
  • Trial Courts: Also known as Superior, Circuit, or District Courts, they handle various cases, including civil and criminal matters.

County and Municipal Courts:

These local courts handle cases within specific jurisdictions, such as traffic violations, small claims, and misdemeanor offenses.

Court Legal Definition and Meaning

How Many Courts Are There In the USA?

The United States has a federal court system and individual state court systems. The federal court system is divided into three main levels: the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Courts of Appeals (also known as Circuit Courts), and the United States District Courts.

  • Supreme Court of the United States: This is the highest court in the federal system and consists of nine justices.
  • United States Courts of Appeals: There are 13 circuit courts, each covering a specific geographical region, with an additional Federal Circuit that handles specific cases.
  • United States District Courts: There are 94 federal judicial districts across the country, each containing at least one district court.

In addition to the federal court system, each of the 50 states has its own court system, with its trial and appellate court structure.

What Is the Difference Between Federal and State Courts?

Federal and state courts are separate systems within the United States judicial system. Here are some key differences between the two:

  1. Jurisdiction: Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving federal laws, the U.S. Constitution, and disputes between parties from different states or countries. On the other hand, state courts have jurisdiction over cases involving state laws, local ordinances, and disputes between parties within the same state.
  2. Subject Matter: Federal courts handle cases related to federal crimes, bankruptcy, patent law, copyright law, antitrust law, and constitutional law, among others. State courts handle various cases, including criminal offenses, family law matters, contract disputes, personal injury cases, and property disputes.
  3. Judges: Federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, serving lifetime appointments. State court judges are typically elected by the public or appointed by state governors, and their terms vary depending on state laws.
  4. Structure: The federal court system is hierarchical, with the Supreme Court at the top, followed by appellate courts (Circuit Courts of Appeals), and then district courts. State court systems vary by state but generally have trial courts at the lowest level, intermediate appellate courts, and a state supreme court at the highest level.
  5. Appeals: Appeals from federal courts go to the U.S. Supreme Court or the appropriate Circuit Court of Appeals. Appeals from state courts usually go to the state appellate courts and, in some cases, to the state supreme court.
  6. Jury: In both federal and state courts, a jury of peers can decide civil and criminal cases. However, the number of jurors and the specific procedures may vary between federal and state courts.

How Are Courts Established and Structured?

Courts are typically established and structured through legislation and constitutional provisions. In many countries, courts are created through laws enacted by the legislative body of government. These laws define the jurisdiction, powers, and organization of the courts.

The structure of courts usually involves a hierarchy, with different levels of courts, such as trial courts, appellate courts, and supreme courts. Each level has its specific role and jurisdiction.

The structure may also include specialized courts, such as family or administrative courts, which handle particular cases. In many countries, the highest court has the power to interpret their respective national constitutions and make final decisions on legal matters.

What Types of Cases Are Heard In Various Courts?

Various types of cases are heard in different courts, depending on the jurisdiction and the level of the court system. Here are some common types of cases heard in different courts:

  1. Small Claims Court: These courts handle civil cases involving small amounts of money, typically up to a specific limit set by law. Examples include disputes over unpaid debts, property damage, or breach of contract.
  2. Family Court: Deal with family and domestic issues. This may include divorce, child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, adoption, and domestic violence cases.
  3. Criminal Court: Handles cases involving violations of criminal law. These can range from minor offenses such as traffic violations to serious crimes like assault, theft, or murder.
  4. Civil Court: Handles non-criminal cases between individuals, organizations, or government entities. Common types of civil cases include personal injury claims, contract disputes, property disputes, and employment disputes.
  5. Appellate Court: Hears appeals from lower courts. They review decisions made in trial courts to determine if any legal errors were made or if the law was correctly applied. Appellate courts do not reexamine the facts of the case.
  6. Supreme Court: The highest in the jurisdiction and generally has discretionary jurisdiction, meaning it can choose which cases to hear. The U.S. Supreme Court primarily deals with important constitutional and legal issues that have national significance.

What Is the Jurisdiction of Federal and State Courts?

The jurisdiction of federal courts and state courts in the United States is as follows:

Federal Courts:

  • Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving federal laws, the U.S. Constitution, treaties, and disputes between parties from different states (diversity jurisdiction).
  • They also have jurisdiction over cases involving bankruptcy, maritime law, patent and copyright law, and certain other specialized areas.

State Courts:

  • State courts have jurisdiction over cases involving state laws, including criminal cases, civil disputes, family law matters, probate, and traffic violations.
  • They also have jurisdiction over cases involving disputes between parties within the same state (intra-state disputes).

Can Cases Be Transferred Between State and Federal Courts?

Yes, cases can be transferred between state and federal courts under certain circumstances. The process of transferring a case from one court system to another is known as “removal” or “transfer.”


Generally, a case can be transferred from state court to federal court if the plaintiff could have been chosen to file it in federal court from the outset, which means the case involves a federal question, such as a violation of federal law or the United States Constitution.

Additionally, if the parties involved in the case are from different states and the amount in controversy exceeds a certain threshold (currently $75,000), the case may be eligible for removal to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction.

Defendants in personal injury cases often use this as a tactic to increase the difficulty for the plaintiff’s attorney, as the number of jurors differs between state and federal courts.


On the other hand, a case can be transferred from federal court to state court through a process called “remand.” This can occur if the federal court determines that it does not have jurisdiction over the case.

Either party (plaintiff and defendant) can file a motion for remand to transfer it back to state court.

What Is the Role of a Jury In the U.S. Court System?

The role of a jury in the U.S. court system is to serve as a group of impartial individuals responsible for determining a case’s facts and reaching a verdict based on those facts. Juries are typically made up of a panel of randomly selected citizens who are expected to represent a cross-section of the community where the trial is taking place.

The primary function of a jury is to listen to the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense during a trial.

Jurors are required to be attentive, evaluate the credibility of witnesses, consider the arguments made by both sides, and apply the law as instructed by the judge.

After hearing all the evidence and deliberating together, the jury must reach a unanimous or majority decision, depending on the jurisdiction and the type of trial.

Juries play a crucial role in upholding the right to a fair trial and ensuring that the accused receives an honest and unbiased judgment. They act as a safeguard against potential abuses of power by the government and provide a mechanism for citizen participation in the justice system.

The jury system is considered an essential feature of the U.S. legal system, particularly in criminal trials.

What Is the Role of Appellate Courts In the Legal System?

Appellate courts play a crucial role in the legal system by reviewing decisions made by lower courts. Their primary function is to hear appeals filed by parties dissatisfied with their case’s outcome in a trial. The role of appellate courts is to ensure that the trial court correctly applies the law and follows proper legal procedures.

When an appeal is filed, appellate courts do not conduct a retrial or reexamine the case facts. Instead, they focus on reviewing the legal issues raised by the parties.

Appellate judges carefully examine the trial court’s decision and the arguments presented by both parties to determine if any errors were made.

These errors could include misinterpretation or misapplication of the law, procedural mistakes, or violations of constitutional rights.

Through their review, appellate courts allow parties to have their case reviewed for legal errors and ensure that justice is served. They can affirm the lower court’s decision, reverse it, or remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The decisions made by appellate courts often set legal precedents that guide future cases and shape the development of the law.

How Do I Determine Which Court Has Jurisdiction Over My Legal Matter?

To determine which court has jurisdiction over your legal matter, you need to consider a few factors, which include:

  1. You should identify the type of legal issue you are facing, such as a criminal case, civil dispute, or family matter. Each type of case has specific courts that handle them.
  2. You should determine the geographic location where the incident occurred or where the parties involved reside. This will help you identify the appropriate local, state, or federal court.
  3. You may need to consider the case’s monetary value, as some courts have jurisdictional limits based on the amount of money involved.

It is always recommended to consult with a lawyer and research local laws to further guide you in determining the correct type of court for your case.

What Is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court refers to behavior that disrespects or opposes a court’s authority, dignity, or proceedings. Colloquially referred to as “contempt,” it’s legal definition can include actions such as disobeying a court order, disrupting court proceedings, disrespecting the judge, attorneys, or witnesses, or any behavior that obstructs the administration of justice.

Contempt of court is serious and can be classified as civil or criminal contempt, with potential sanctions and penalties including fines, imprisonment, or both, depending on the jurisdiction and seriousness of the offense.

Written by Aaron R. Winston
Last Updated: November 30, 2023 4:32pm CST