Introduction to State Courts by Grace Bird | Basics of Court Group | April 25, 2016


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Introduction to State Courts by Grace Bird

by Basics of Court Group Show/Hide

“You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” James Madison, Federalist No. 51 1788

State courts are designed to diffuse power at a national level. While federal laws apply throughout the United States, state laws are applicable to individuals who live or work in a particular state, commonwealth, territory, country, city, or town. Each state has its own system that rules on criminal, marital, welfare, real estate, and personal issues, among others. State and federal laws often conflict, and their relationship is often ambiguous.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution decided the federal government’s power should be carefully managed, and thus, enforced state-by-state law enforcement. State courts act as courts of “general jurisdiction,” meaning they are subjected to all cases not specifically selected for federal courts. Just as the federal courts interpret federal laws, state courts interpret state laws. Each state makes and interprets its own laws. Alabama is one of 31 other states that observes capital punishment, for example – an controversial decision that many not-for-profits are currently campaigning against. Each state is able to create its own law to ensure power is dispersed.

The Constitution’s text and structure are contradictory regarding the function of the state courts. According to Frost, in her dissertation for the Vanderbilt Law Review: “Remarkably, this significant question about the interplay between the state and federal judicial systems lingers unresolved more than two-hundred years after the Constitution’s ratification.” It is widely accepted that state courts are not obligated to abide by lower federal court paradigms. However, although state courts are theoretically equal with federal courts, technically, the former is inferior to the latter. The benefits remain unclear.

One example of a state law that is conflicting on a federal level, is in Virginia. Virginia continued to maintain a law that criminalized sodomy for minors. However, the federal courts in Virginia deemed sodomy legal, and granted habeas relief to defendants convicted in state courts.

Another example is in Texas, where the Court of Appeals held in 2000 that the Fifth Amendment requires law enforcement to inform suspects about their right to counsel before an investigation, yet they are not obligated to include the counsel may attend the investigation. This omission conflicts with the 1968 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — a suspect must be aware of their rights, including their capacity to consult counsel before and during an investigation.

Most laws that affect us are passed by state governments, and thus state courts handle most disputes that govern our daily lives. State courts are responsible for 90% of cases in the U.S.


Inferiority Complex: Should State Courts Follow Lower Federal Court Precedent on the Meaning of Federal Law? 69 (2016): n. pag. Web.


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  1. 2 Show/Hide More Structure of the State Courts
    Original Creator: Basics of Court Group

    The Constitution and laws of each state create parameters for the state courts.

    The Supreme Court is the highest court. Some states have an intermediate Court of Appeals, and below these, are state trial courts, otherwise known as Circuit or District Courts. Most states have a multileveled structure, while eight states have a two-tiered system that consist of a trial court and a supreme court.

    Specific legal matters are delegated to the appropriate court — for example:

    • Probate court (wills and estates)
    • Juvenile court
    • Family court


    Parties dissatisfied with the decision of the immediate trial court may take their case to the intermediate Court of Appeals. Parties are able to ask the highest state court to consider their case. However, only certain cases will be heard by the Supreme Court.


    In the Federal court, judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. State court judges are selected by election and appointed for a certain period, usually 6 to 10 years.

    Types of Cases

    • Most criminal cases: probate (involving wills and estates)
    • Most contract cases, tort cases (personal injuries), family law (marriages, divorces, adoptions, etc

  2. 3 Show/Hide More Video: A Conversation with Michelle A. Rhee
    Michael D. Shear speaks with former commissioner of D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee, at the Democratic National Convention. She is now the C.E.O. of the education reform advocacy group, “StudentsFirst.”
  3. 4 Show/Hide More State Courts Case Study
    Original Creator: Basics of Court Group

    Washington State's Public School Crisis

    “It is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” WASHINGTON STATE CONSTITUTION ARTICLE IX, SECTION 1

    In 2015, Washington state courts enforced proper education reform and appropriate funding, a decision that has impacted the nation. Legally, education is a concern of the state, and it is an area of consistent debate. Of 50 states, 46 have been taken to court for issues related to public education. During the 1970s and 1980s, the states were sued for not evenly distributing resources across the state. Since the 1980s, the argument pertains to whether states have sufficiently funded their education systems. Plantiffs maintain it is the state’s responsibility to ensure all children have access to quality education, however, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a state’s education system. Between 1989 and 2015, 22 state courts have deemed their state’s resources inadequate to provide a quality education. 15 state courts have determined their education system to be sufficient. 15 states are pending in their decision — a symptom of the long, complex nature of these types of cases, as they move up and down the judicial ladder of appeals.

    In 2007, a group of citizens and a statewide coalition of community groups, school districts, and education organizations filed a lawsuit concerning the adequacy of resources for Washington’s public schools. In 2009, it was resolved in favor of the Plantiffs, that a minimum standard of education should be established, with an empirical figure that represents cost to educate per student. An education reform bill was passed accordingly. However, in 2012, it was determined that this bill had not been properly observed. The Washington Supreme Court decided that state funding “consistently failed to provide adequate funding for the program of basic education, including funding for essential operational costs such as utilities and transportation, which resulted in local school districts turning increasingly to local [tax levies] to make up the shortfall.” (p. 77). In 2014, when Washington’s education landscape remained unchanged, the Washington Supreme Court uniquely decided to “(hold) the state in contempt” (p. 77). If results do not change by the 2015 legislative session, the court will reconvene to implement sanctions, among other efforts to for improvement. In June 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ordered the legislature to create a plan to overwrite the current education system in Washington for each grade, to be completed for the 2017 – 2018 school year. The plan, approved by the Supreme Court, plans to ensure fully funded, quality education, implemented in by 2018 in three phases:

    • Phase I: Full state funding of transportation; maintenance, supplies and operating costs; full day kindergarten; and lower class size in grades K–3 (maximum 17 students per teacher)
    • Phase II: Full state funding of the salaries of current educational staff
    • Phase III: State funding for enhanced levels of educational staff and enhanced salaries

    The McCleary vs. Washington case is an example, and a warning, to other states, particularly when most have made reductions to public school funding. The case in Washington exemplifies the time consuming and complex nature of the U.S. legal system, yet its capacity to provoke change regardless.


    Underwood, Julie. “State Education Funding Is in the Legal Spotlight: Washington State Courts Have Boldly Ordered Education Funding and Implementation, a Legal Dispute That Could Have Implications across the Country.” Phi Delta Kappan (2015): n. pag. Web. 

  4. 5 Show/Hide More McCleary v. State of Washington Timeline
    McCleary v. State of Washington Timeline
  5. 6 Show/Hide More McCleary v. State of Washington Breakdown
    A useful infographic breaking down the McCleary v. State of Washington case. 

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April 25, 2016

court structure basics of courts federal courts state courts

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