How Courts Work

In California, the courts are divided into 2 systems: federal and state. There is also the system of tribal courts, which are part of the Native American reservation system. And there is a system of administrative hearings to help resolve disputes when a local or state government agency takes an action against an individual or business. This section explains the different types of courts in California and gives you an overview of how court cases work.

State Courts in California

California has 2 types of state courts, trial courts (also called “superior courts”) and appellate courts, made up of the Courts of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. The California Constitution also establishes the Judicial Council, which is the governing body of the California courts and is chaired by the California Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Trial Courts

Trial courts are also called "superior courts." In the trial or superior court, a judge, and sometimes a jury, hears testimony and evidence and decides a case by applying the law to the facts of the case.

Superior courts handle:

  • All civil cases (family law, probate, juvenile, and other civil cases);
  • All criminal cases (felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions, like traffic tickets);
  • Small claims cases and appeals of small claims cases;
  • Appeals of civil cases involving $25,000 or less; and 
  • Appeals of infraction (like traffic) and misdemeanor cases.

There are 58 superior courts, 1 in each county. Some counties may have several courthouses in different cities, but they are all part of the same superior court for that county.

Superior court judges are elected by voters of the county on a non-partisan ballot at a general election. (Vacancies are filled by appointment of the Governor.) The term of office for a trial judge in California is 6 years. A superior court judge must have been an attorney admitted to practice law in California or have served as a judge of a court of record in this state for at least 10 years immediately preceding election or appointment. Click to find a particular California trial court judge.

Finding the Superior Court in Your County:
All superior courts have websites that list the address and phone number of the court. These sites generally also:

  • Give driving and transit directions;
  • Provide local court rules;
  • Provide the forms you will need;
  • Tell the days and times the court is open; and
  • Provide very helpful self-help legal information or resources for you to get help in your court and your county.
  • Your court’s website can be a very helpful resource for you, so check it out! Click for the superior court website for your county.

     

    Appellate Courts

    There are 2 types of appellate courts:

    • Courts of Appeal
    • California Supreme Court

    Courts of Appeal

    People who lose a case or part of a case in the trial court can ask a higher court (called an "appellate court") to review the trial court’s decision.  Appeals of family law cases, probate cases, juvenile cases, felony cases, and civil cases for more than $25,000 are heard in the Court of Appeal.

    In each Court of Appeal, a panel of 3 judges, called "justices," decides appeals from trial courts. Each district (or division, in the case of the First, Second, and Fourth Appellate Districts) has a presiding justice and 2 or more associate justices. Appellate justices are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. The same rules that govern the selection of Supreme Court justices apply to those serving on the Courts of Appeal. Click for information about the justices on each Court of Appeal. Click on the Court of Appeal district for which you want the information.

    The role of the Courts of Appeal is not to give new trials, but to review the record in the trial court case to decide if a legal mistake was made and if that mistake affected the final outcome of the trial court case. The Courts of Appeal cannot review death penalty cases.

    The courts’ decisions are called opinions. The opinions are public and are posted on the California Courts Web site. Not all opinions are published but those that are published may be helpful for you as you do research on your case.  Click to search for a California Court of Appeal decision online.

    Click for more information about appeals and help filing an appeal.


    Finding your Court of Appeal
    There are 6 Courts of Appeals, and they each cover a number of counties in California. District headquarters for the Courts of Appeal are located in:

    First Appellate District:

    San Francisco
    Second Appellate District: Los Angeles
    Third Appellate District:  Sacramento
    Fourth Appellate District: San Diego                    
    Fifth Appellate District:  Fresno
    Sixth Appellate District: San Jose
     

    The Courts of Appeal have websites that list the address and phone number for each court, and give you information on their local rules, forms, published opinions, mediation programs, and help that may be available.  Click to find your Court of Appeal’s website.

     

    California Supreme Court

    The Supreme Court is the state's highest court. It can review cases decided by the Courts of Appeal.

    Also, certain kinds of cases go directly to the Supreme Court and are not heard first in a Court of Appeal, such as:

    • Death penalty appeals, and
    • Disciplinary cases involving judges.

    There are 7 judges (called “justices”) on the Supreme Court, and at least 4 must agree to come to a decision. The 7 justices, 1 Chief Justice and 6 associate justices, are appointed by the Governor, confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, and confirmed by the public at the next general election. A justice also comes before the voters at the end of his or her 12-year term. To be eligible for appointment, a person must have been a member of the State Bar of California or a judge of a court in this state for at least 10 years. Click for information about the Supreme Court's 7 sitting justices.

    A decision of the Supreme Court must be followed by all other state courts in California. Decisions of the Supreme Court are published in the California Official Reports, which can be found on the California Courts website. Click to search for a California Supreme Court decision online.

    Finding the California Supreme Court

    Click for the Supreme Court’s website.

     

    California Judicial Council

    The Judicial Council is the governing body of the California courts. It is chaired by the California Supreme Court Chief Justice.

    The California Constitution directs the Judicial Council to provide policy guidelines to the courts, make recommendations annually to the Governor and Legislature, and adopt and revise California Rules of Court in the areas of court administration, practice, and procedure. The council performs its constitutional and other functions with the support of its staff.

    New judicial members of the council and its committees are selected through a nominating procedure intended to attract applicants from throughout the legal system and to result in a membership that is diverse in experience, gender, ethnic background, and geography.

    The council has 21 voting  members, who include 14 judges appointed by the Chief Justice, 4 attorneys appointed by the State Bar Board of Governors, and 1 member from each house of the Legislature. The council also has about 11 advisory members, including court executives or administrators, the chair of the council's Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, and the president of the California Judges Association. The council performs most of its work through internal committees and advisory committees and task forces.

    Federal Courts

    In addition to the state courts, there are also federal courts that handle federal cases that take place in California. The federal courts are similar in structure to state courts in California. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in our country.

    There are 3 levels of federal courts:

    • The U.S. district courts (the trial courts),
    • The U.S. courts of appeals (the appellate courts), and
    • The U.S. Supreme Court.

    United States District Courts

    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 federal judicial districts in the United States and its territories. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court. Some states, like Alaska, have only 1 district for the whole state. Others, like California, have several.

    There are also 2 special federal trial courts that hear certain kinds of cases from anywhere in the country:

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

    United States Courts of Appeals

    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 for the Federal 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.

    United States Supreme Court

    The U.S. Supreme Court has a Chief Justice and 8 associate justices. The Supreme Court can choose a limited number of cases from the cases it is asked to decide. Those cases may begin in the federal or state courts. And they usually involve important questions about the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

    Types of cases in federal courts

    The federal courts handle 2 main types of cases. These are cases with:

    • Federal question jurisdiction
      These types of cases have to do with the U.S. government, the U.S. Constitution, or federal laws.

    OR

    • Diversity jurisdiction
      These types of cases happen when the 2 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.

    Usually, they do not deal with cases about:

    • Divorce and child custody,
    • Probate and inheritance,
    • Real estate,
    • Juvenile matters,
    • Criminal charges,
    • Contract disputes,
    • Traffic violations, or
    • Personal injury.

    For more information about the federal court system, go to: http://www.uscourts.gov.

    Tribal Courts in California

    As sovereign entities separate from both the state and federal government, federally recognized tribes may have their own court systems.  There are over 107 federally recognized tribes in California and over 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States.  Currently there are 19 tribal courts operating in California, serving about 40 of California’s tribes.  Each tribal court exercises the jurisdiction granted to it under the codes and constitution of the particular tribe.  Each tribal court has its own rules of practice and procedure and forms. 

    The kinds of cases heard in tribal court differ from court to court and can change over time.  Currently tribal courts in California deal with a wide range of issues including child welfare, guardianship, civil disputes, violation of tribal ordinances and restraining orders.

    Click for more information on tribal courts in California.

    Administrative Hearings

    In California, when an individual or business disagrees with a government agency’s action, that action can be challenged.  This is done by asking for an administrative hearing.   Administrative law hearings are less formal than courtroom trials.  Administrative law judges run the hearings.  They are neutral judicial officers that conduct hearings and settlement conferences.  If you do not win, you can ask a superior court to review the hearing decision.  This is called a "writ of mandate."  You may contact the agency that you are having a problem with and ask how to review the agency’s action.   Click for a list of agencies and their websites.  Some agencies have information about their hearings on their websites.

    Some California administrative agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Social Services, run their own hearings and have their own procedures.  Other agencies have independent appeals boards.  For example, the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (CUIAB) is independent from the Employment Development Department (EDD), the agency that runs the unemployment and disability benefits programs. 

    Other state and local agencies have the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) handle their appeals.  OAH runs administrative hearings for over 1,400 state and local government agencies. OAH also has alternative dispute resolution and mediation services, which work to find a settlement agreeable to both sides. Click to find out more about the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).  This website also has a link to the Administrative Procedure Act (part of the Government Code) that provides rules for hearings run by the OAH.  

    How Court Cases Work

    Every court case is different, and you can get detailed information about how a specific type of case starts and moves through the court by going to the type of case you are interested in on our home page. 

    But there is some general information about how court cases work that can help you get an idea of what your case will be like too.

    The court system is set up to resolve disputes, called “cases,” “lawsuits,” or “actions.”  To resolve a dispute, a court must do 2 things:

    • It must “find the facts” of the dispute (decide what actually happened), and
    • It must apply the appropriate law to the facts.

    Once they get to court, cases are usually resolved or decided in 1 of 2 ways:

    • By a trial: A public hearing in which each side presents evidence backing its version of the facts and provides legal arguments to the judge about which laws apply to the case. The jury (or the judge if there is no jury) decides the facts, and the judge decides which laws apply to these facts.

    OR

    • By settlement. About 80 percent of cases filed in superior courts are resolved before they get to a trial. In civil cases, both sides of a case often agree to settle their disagreement and reach a compromise to avoid the expense of a trial or the risk of losing at a trial. In criminal cases, prosecutors often offer defendants the chance to avoid a trial by pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Settlements can happen at any stage of a case, from before the case is filed in court all the way to a minute before the trial. Sometimes there are even settlements after a trial, to avoid the time and expense of an appeal or to work out a payment plan for the court’s judgment.

    Generally, cases (if they go all the way through trial) have the same basic steps:

    1. Pre-filing, which starts when a dispute arises. There are a lot of things to do to get ready before you file a lawsuit.
    2. Filing, which starts when 1side fills out and files papers to start a court action, and the other side files a response.
    3. Discovery, which is when you and the other side exchange information and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
    4. Pretrial, which is when you get ready for the trial. If you cannot settle your case, pretrial starts about 90 days before your trial. You must make decisions (like if you need an expert witness), get all your evidence ready for trial, and have settlement conferences with the judge.
    5. Trial, which can last 1 day or many months depending on how complicated the case is.  Depending on the type of case, the trial can be before either a judge alone or a judge and a jury.
    6. Posttrial, which is the period after the trial and can include things like appeals or efforts by the winning side to collect the judgment.

    Learn more about how to prepare for going to court.

    Inside the Courtroom

    Many things happen in courtrooms:

    • Trials and hearings take place.
    • People meet with a judge to discuss settling their case without a trial.
    • Judges tell defendants about crimes they are charged with (called "arraignment").
    • People have hearings on certain issues before their trial.

    There are several people in a courtroom. Many are court employees. Some work for other agencies, like the local sheriff’s department. In most courtrooms, you will find these court employees and staff:

    1. A judicial officer
    Every courtroom has a judicial officer, the person who makes the decisions about the problem that people came to court about. He or she wears a black robe and sits at the front of the courtroom facing everyone else. Judicial officers are guided by the California Code of Judicial Ethics. Click for the Code of Judicial Ethics. A judicial officer can be:

    a. A judge. Superior court judges are elected by voters of the county on a non-partisan ballot at a general election.(Vacancies are filled by appointment of the Governor.)
    b. A commissioner. A commissioner is a person chosen by the court and given the power to hear and make decisions in certain kinds of legal matters.
    c. A temporary judge. A temporary juge is a lawyer who volunteers his or her time to hear and decide cases. Also called a "judge pro tem."
    d. A referre. A referree is a type of master appointed by a court to assist with certain proceedings.

    2.  A clerk of the court
    Every courtroom has a clerk who helps the judge manage cases, keeps court records, deals with financial matters, and gives other administrative support to the judge and the court as a whole.

    3.  A bailiff
    Most courtrooms will have a bailiff in charge of security in the court. Usually, bailiffs are picked by sheriffs or marshals.

    4.  A court reporter
    Many courtrooms have a court reporter, who writes down, word for word, what is said during the proceedings. They generally use a stenographic machine, shorthand, or a recording device. People can ask for a copy of this official record, called the “transcript,” but they usually have to pay for it.  Small claims and some other courtrooms do not have court reporters so there is no transcript of the trial.

    5.  A court interpreter
    When 1 of the parties or witnesses in a case does not speak English well, there usually is a court interpreter (who speaks English and the non-English speaker’s primary language) to help the non-English speaker understand what is going on. In some cases (such as criminal cases), the interpreter is paid for by the court and may be a court employee. Often, as in most civil cases, the person needing the interpreter must get and pay for his or her own interpreter or get a friend to help interpret.  Click for more information on court interpreters.

    If you are deaf or hard-of-hearing, the court will appoint a sign language interpreter for you, paid for by the court. Get information about services for persons with disabilties and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinators as well as a form to ask the court for an accommodation.


    To truly find out what goes on in a courtroom, go and watch. Most hearings and trials are open to the public.  Courtroom activities change from day to day and from one courtroom to another.  If you have a case with a particular judge, go watch how that judge handles cases like yours. That way you will have an idea of what to expect and how to prepare.

    Site Map | Careers | Contact Us | Accessibility | Public Access to Records | Terms of Use | Privacy