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Descriptions of the Courts

The US system of law contains checks and balances known as the appellate court. It is the right of anyone to seek a review of their case before the Court of Appeal after a lower court trial or hearing. The state and local venues (courts) vary in what types of cases can be heard. As a rule, the majority of cases that are heard are handled by the state district appellate courts, or, by a federal district appellate court. With each rise in the level of appeal, the issues being presented must be commensurate with that court. Supreme Courts, both State and Federal, reserve hearing only cases that address the most important and fundamental issues of law.


State Superior Court

The trial courts in California are divided into two systems:
the California Superior Court and the Federal District Court. Cases involving claims arising under California law are heard in the California superior courts, while those involving federal claims or questions are heard in the federal district court.

There are 58 superior courts in California, one for each county.
Each county may have one or more branches of the superior court.
Superior Courts handle:

• All criminal cases (felonies, misdemeanors, and traffic tickets)
• All civil cases (family law, probate, juvenile, and other civil cases)
• Appeals of small claims cases and other civil cases worth $25,000 or less
• Appeals of misdemeanor cases


State Appellate Court

The California Court of Appeal is the state’s intermediate appellate court. Unlike the state supreme court, the Courts of Appeal have mandatory review jurisdiction under the informal legal tradition in common law countries that all litigants are entitled to at least one appeal. However, not every adverse trial court ruling can be appealed.

The right to appeal is strictly governed by statute. In practice, this works out to about 13,000-15,000 appeals per year (15% to 20% of all cases), resulting in 12,000 opinions (not all appeals are pursued properly or are meritorious enough to justify an opinion).

Appellate review can also occur by extraordinary writ such as mandamus (which command the superior court to take some action), prohibition (which prohibits the superior court from taking some action), and habeas corpus (which commands the jail or prison to produce the prisoner)
when there is no right to appeal or an appeal would be an inadequate remedy. Writs are less common than appeals, and most are summarily denied without an opinion. The Courts of Appeal handle about 8,000 extraordinary writ petitions every year.

The state is divided into six appellate districts based on geography. The published decisions of the Court of Appeal are binding on all trial courts. Only about 7 percent of the decisions of the Court of Appeal are selected for publication and become part of California law. Decisions by a Court of Appeal panel are not binding on other panels. A panel consists of three justices, and two must agree in order to reach a decision.

District headquarters for the Courts of Appeal are located in:

First District: San Francisco (Divisions 1-5)
Counties in the First Appellate District
Alameda, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa,
San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano, Sonoma

Second District: Los Angeles (Divisions 1-5, 7-8)
Ventura (Division 6)
Division 6 handles appeals from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and
Ventura counties. The remaining divisions handle cases from
Los Angeles County.

Third District: Sacramento
The Third District includes these 23 counties:
Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lassen,
Modoc, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Plumas. Sacramento, San Joaquin,
Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo, Yuba

Fourth District: San Diego (Division One), Riverside (Division 2),
Santa Ana (Division Three)
The Fourth District includes these 6 counties:
Inyo, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial, Orange

Fifth District: Fresno
The Fifth Appellate District covers nine counties located in
central California:
Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus, Tulare, Tuolumne

Sixth District: San Jose
The Sixth District includes these four counties:
Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz


State Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the state's highest court. It can review cases decided by the Courts of Appeal in what is called discretionary review when necessary to secure uniformity of decision or to settle an important question of law. As a policy matter, the Supreme Court will not consider an issue that was not raised in the Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court also has original jurisdiction in proceedings for extraordinary relief in the nature of mandamus, certiorari, and prohibition. The court also has original jurisdiction in habeas corpus proceedings (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 10). However, appellate review normally commences in the Court of Appeal so petitions for extraordinary relief are first brought in the Court of Appeal before they will be considered by the Supreme Court.

Also, certain kinds of cases go directly to the Supreme Court and are not heard first in the Court of Appeal:
• Death penalty appeals
• Disciplinary cases involving judges or lawyers
• Certain administrative utilities decisions

The Court conducts regular sessions in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. Sometimes, the Court holds special sessions in other cities in California.

There is a Chief Justice, and six Associate Justices on the Supreme Court, and at least four must agree on the final decision. All other State courts in California must follow a decision made in the Supreme Court. All decisions of the Supreme Court are published in the California Official Reports, which can be found on the California Courts website at

The justices are appointed by the Governor then confirmed by the voters at the next general election. After the end of their 12-year term, they must be confirmed by the voters again.


Federal District Court

The U.S. District Courts are the Trial Courts of the Federal court system.
The District Courts can hear most Federal cases, including civil and criminal cases.

There are 94 U.S. District Courts in the U.S. and U.S. territories. Each district includes a
United States bankruptcy court. Some states, like Alaska have only one District Court for the whole state. California has four district courts (northern, southern, central and eastern), and there is more than one district office for each of these districts except for the southern district in San Diego.

There are also two special Trial Courts that hear certain kinds of cases anywhere in the country:

• The Court of International Trade hears cases about international trade and custom issues.

• The U.S. Court of Federal Claims hears cases about claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, unlawful "takings" of private property by the federal government, and other claims against the United States.

The Federal courts handle two main types of cases. These are cases with: “Federal question” jurisdiction and “Diversity” jurisdiction.

Federal question jurisdiction
These types of cases have to do with the United States government, the United States Constitution, or federal laws.

Diversity jurisdiction
These types of cases happen when the two parties are from different states or different countries. Any diversity jurisdiction case can be filed in State court instead of Federal court. But, if the case is worth less than $75,000, you must file it in State court.

Federal courts also handle all bankruptcy cases.


Federal Court of Appeal

The U.S. District Courts are organized into 12 regional circuits and each has a U.S. Court of Appeals.

There is also one Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit called the D.C. Circuit. This court has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, like patent law cases and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

A Court of Appeals hears appeals from the district courts in its circuit.
It can also hear appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. The U.S. Court of Appeal that handles federal cases arising out of California is called the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit is by far the largest of the thirteen courts of appeals, with 28 active judgeships.

The panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals is comprised of three justices, and two must agree on the decision. A decision of a three judge panel may be reviewed “en banc” if a majority of the active members of the circuit court believe that en banc review is necessary to secure uniformity of the circuit’s opinions or the case presents an exceptional question. A party may petition the court for en banc review. En banc courts are normally composed of all active circuit judges, plus (depending on the rules of the particular court) any senior judges who took part in the original panel decision.

By contrast, in the Ninth Circuit it is impractical for twenty-eight or more judges to take part in a single oral argument and deliberate on a decision en masse. The court thus provides for a “limited en banc” review of a decision by the Chief Judge of the Circuit and a randomly-selected
10 judge panel.


United States Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States, and has the final word on the meaning of the federal constitution and all federal laws. The Court has a Chief Justice and eight associate justices, with jurisdiction that is almost entirely discretionary.

All nine justices of the Supreme Court participate in each of the court's decisions unless one or more are disqualified because of a personal interest in the case. Five justices must concur in the decision of the court for the decision to be a binding precedent on the lower courts.

Those cases may begin in the Federal or State courts. Parties interested in having the Supreme Court review a case file what is called a petition for writ of certiorari (or "cert", from the Latin "to be informed"), by which the Court directs an inferior court to certify and transmit for review the record of a particular case. It requires at least four of the justices to grant this petition. The Court considers only cases of "gravity and general importance" involving principles of wide public or governmental interest, and they usually involve important questions about the Constitution or federal law.

Petitioners have submitted and paid the filing fee in connection with an average of 1,825 petitions. Of these, an average of 80, or roughly four percent, have been granted. At the same time, more than 6,000 in forma pauperis [in the form of a pauper], petitions (petitions by persons who cannot afford to pay the filing fee, primarily prisoners) have been filed. On average, only five of these are granted annually.