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Special Courts - State And Local Special Courts, Federal Special Courts, Further Readings

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Bodies within the judicial branch of government that generally address only one area of law or have specifically defined powers.

The best-known courts are courts of general jurisdiction, which have unlimited trial jurisdiction, both civil and criminal, within their jurisdictional area. At the federal level, these are called district courts. At the state level, these courts have many different titles, including district court, trial court, county court, circuit court, municipal court, and superior court. Appellate courts of general jurisdiction review the decisions of inferior courts and are typically called either courts of appeal or supreme courts.

The bulk of U.S. courts, however, are special courts, which include all courts of limited and specialized jurisdiction that are not courts of general jurisdiction or appellate courts. A special court generally addresses only one or a few areas of law or has only specifically defined powers.

Special courts in the United States developed out of the English custom of handling different kinds of cases by establishing many different special courts. Many of the special courts established in the United States during colonial times and shortly after the Constitution was adopted have been abolished, but new special courts continue to be created, especially at the state and local level. Special courts now handle the vast majority of all cases brought in the United States. The majority of all cases brought in any particular state jurisdiction go to special courts.

Special courts exist for both civil and criminal disputes. Cases tried in special, limited-jurisdiction criminal courts, such as traffic court or misdemeanor court, may be reheard in a general-jurisdiction trial court without an appeal upon the request of the parties.

Special courts do not include the many ADMINISTRATIVE LAW courts that exist at both the federal and state government level; administrative courts are considered part of the EXECUTIVE BRANCH, rather than the judicial branch. However, a general-jurisdiction court that hears only specific kinds of cases, such as a landlord-tenant branch of a general-jurisdiction trial court, is usually considered a special court.

Special courts differ from general-jurisdiction courts in several other respects besides having a more limited jurisdiction. Cases are more likely to be disposed of without trial in special courts, and if there is a trial or hearing, it is usually heard more rapidly than in a court of general jurisdiction. Special courts usually do not follow the same procedural rules that general-jurisdiction courts follow; often special courts proceed without the benefit or expense of attorneys or even law-trained judges.

The judges who serve in special courts are as varied as the special courts themselves. Most special court judges obtain their positions through election, rather than through the merit selection system common in general-jurisdiction courts. In addition, the majority of special court judges are not lawyers. In North v. Russell, 427 U.S. 328, 96 S. Ct. 2709, 49 L. Ed. 2d 534 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of nonlawyer judges in special courts as constitutional as long as a trial de novo (a new trial) in a court of general jurisdiction with a lawyer-judge is given upon the request of the parties.

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