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Federal Court v. State Court - Part II

Mecklenburg County North Carolina Courthouse

In Federal Court v. State Court - Part I, we discussed the basic workings of the federal court systems. In this article we will turn to the functioning of the state court system, and particularly to the North Carolina State Court System. 

State Court System 

Like federal courts, it is a state’s constitution and its laws that give courts jurisdiction to interpret the state constitution and laws, and to hear disputes regarding both. 

Each state has their own state court system and you might be surprised to learn that they vary widely from state to state. For example, some states have a local court system as part of their state court system. Local courts include county, city and municipality courts. North Carolina does not have local courts, they only have state courts; the majority of cases that are brought in court in North Carolina are brought in state court, not federal

North Carolina has three state court divisions:

District Court Division. District courts are trial courts. It is at this level that judges and juries hear cases. District courts are triers of fact. They hear the facts of the case and then apply the Constitution or laws to the facts of the case to render a decision. They are the lowest level of courts in the North Carolina court system. District courts hear both criminal and civil cases. However, they hear less serious criminal cases, those involving misdemeanors and infractions. They also hear civil cases (typically divorce, child custody, child support) where the amount in controversy (i.e., damages) is under $25,000.

District court judges are elected officials. They must be attorneys, live in the district over which they preside and are elected by the constituents of that district. Unlike federal district judges who are appointed and serve life terms, district judges serve 4 year terms in North Carolina. They can be re-elected. 

District court’s also have magistrates who are appointed officials. Unlike judges, magistrates do not have to be attorneys though they do need to meet some educational and/or work experience requirements. Typically in North Carolina, magistrates hear cases where the damages are less than $10,000. In other jurisdictions, this type of court is referred to as “small claims court.” Interestingly, magistrates are the only civil officials in North Carolina who can legally perform marriages. 

Superior Court Division. Like the district court division, the superior court division holds trials. In addition, as the middle level court, it also hears appeals from the district court level. Like the district court, the superior court hears both criminal and civil cases. Criminal cases heard include misdemeanors and all felony cases. Civil cases heard include personal injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death, and the amount in controversy must exceed $25,000.  

There are 5 Superior Court divisions throughout the state and 48 districts within those 5 divisions. Charlotte for example, is located in District 26. Like district court judges, superior court judges are elected officials who must live in the district to which they are elected. Unlike the District Court division, superior court judges rotate among the districts in their division every six months. North Carolina’s constitution requires the rotation of judges in an effort to minimize any conflicts of interest that may arise. Superior Court judges must be attorneys. Although, like for all judges, they are not permitted to practice law while employed as a judge. 

Appellate Division. This is the highest division of state court in North Carolina. The Appellate Division is comprised of two different courts - the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court is the higher of the two courts in the Appellate Division, and therefore the highest state court in the North Carolina court system. Supreme Court cases are heard on appeal from lower level courts and the justices (like in federal court, Supreme Court judges are referred to as justices) only hear cases involving questions of law. They do not look at the facts of the case, only whether there were any mistakes made in legal procedure at the lower level or whether the lower court improperly interpreted the law in a particular case. The Supreme Court is also composed of a panel of, in this case 7, justices. 

The Court of Appeals, like the Supreme Court, hears only cases on appeals and only decides questions of law. Like federal Courts of Appeals, cases are heard by a panel, or group, of three judges. The Court of Appeals did not always exist in North Carolina but was set up to take some of the burden off of the Supreme Court, which has a very heavy caseload. 

The Court of Appeals hears the majority of appeals from lower level cases however there are appeal cases that can only be heard by the Supreme Court. They include murder cases where the death penalty has been imposed and appeals from some of North Carolina’s administrative agencies. 

Should I Choose State or Federal Court?

There are some cases in which state and federal law overlap. For example there are both federal and state laws that make it illegal to discriminate against individuals during the course of their employment. In an employment law situation, the plaintiff could choose to bring their case in state or federal court. Oftentimes in employment law, the remedies under state and federal law vary and a plaintiff might choose the forum in which he/she thinks the damages would be greater. In addition, as mentioned in Part I, you may be able to choose which court applies if there is diversity jurisdiction. In either case, an attorney can help you decide which forum is most advantageous to your case.

Personal injury cases are governed by state law and in the majority of cases, the parties are from the same state. Therefore in the majority of personal injury cases, claims must be brought in state court.

Let Our Charlotte Attorneys Review Your Case

The Charlotte, North Carolina based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC  are experienced attorneys. They can advise you if your case can be filed in state or federal court, and discuss the pros and cons of where to file based on the facts of your case. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation.

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