Courts case records in the United States include both federal and state courts which can also include county courts, municipal courts and town courts.. Each system is separate from the other. In addition, the 50 state court systems are maintained separately with their own record systems. Each court handles different types of cases or has a different function, and keeps different records. Although not as common as many people think, some legal cases that start in a state court system do end in a federal court as a result of the appeals process.
The laws of each state, including state Constitutions, govern each of the 50 state courts. The highest level of state court is usually the state Supreme Court, also known as the “court of last resort.” Some states do not refer to their highest level of court as “Supreme Court,” or they have separate court systems for civil and criminal cases extending to the highest level. For example, in Oklahoma and Texas, the “court of last resort” for criminal cases is called the Court of Criminal Appeals, while the same level for civil cases is the state Supreme Court.
Below this highest level in each state are courts and systems dealing with civil matters, criminal matters, and intermediate courts of appeals.
The most basic level of courts in the state system are trial courts. The courts where civil and criminal cases are heard are divided between limited jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the type of cases the court will consider. Each court and system maintains its own records.
Limited jurisdiction trial courts are the ones most people are familiar with. Some of these include:
Municipal court or magistrates, which usually cover minor criminal cases (misdemeanors), traffic violations, and sometimes minor civil cases, like small claims court. Justice of the Peace courts also fall under the municipal court category.
County courts may also be called Superior Courts. They consider more serious criminal cases and civil cases involving larger sums of money than municipal courts.
Specific trial courts include probate court (wills and trusts), traffic court, juvenile court, and family court (divorce, support and custody).
States also have varying appeals or appellate court systems. Appeals courts may be organized regionally or by jurisdiction. These courts do not directly conduct trials. Instead, they review the decisions and procedures of lower courts, and may modify financial awards in a civil case or order a retrial in a criminal matter.
Each court system at the state level maintains its own records.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest U.S. court, but it hears very few cases. Below this level are the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, 94 U.S. District Courts, the Court of International Trade, Court of Claims, Tax Court, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and Bankruptcy Court.
Each state has at least one federal District, and states with a larger population have one; for example, Texas has four federal district courts. Cases that are appealed from one of the lower federal courts will be heard by the Court of Appeals in the circuit that covers the lower court’s district.
Constitutional law matters
Legal matters between residents of different states
Legal matters involving U.S. citizens and foreign nationals
Issues impacting both state and federal law
Some court or legal records are confidential because the court has ordered the matter to be sealed. Other types of records, such as juvenile court proceedings, or court matters that include personal information such as bank account or social security numbers, are always confidential, and do not require any court order to maintain confidentiality. Court records regarding mental health treatment and other health-related matters are also generally kept confidential.
Public records are not confidential, and can include court dockets, case rulings, decisions, and records of marriages, births, divorces, judgments and awards. These types of records are all kept by their own court systems and able to be accessed as a matter of public record, whether they are federal or state court matters. Other examples of courts that make their records available include probate and bankruptcy court.
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