Court System & Court Procedure

Chapter 2

Court System & Court Procedure

The court system in the United States is based on the “adversarial system”

Disputing parties present their case to a neutral third party

The judge or jury then determines the truth and resolves the dispute

Before a court may hear a dispute, it must have the power and authority to decide the case and award the decision to the winning party or JURISDICTION

California has both federal and state courts operating within its boundaries

The judiciary is the third branch of both our state and federal governments

I. Types of Courts

  • Trial Courts
  • Appellate Courts
  • Supreme Court

A. Trial Courts

Federal and State

In a trial court, the facts of the case are determined, the appropriate legal rules are applied to resolve the dispute

Bench Trial


Limited Jurisdiction

General Jurisdiction

STANDING means the parties have legally protectable rights in the dispute and a direct stake in the outcome of the case

B. Appellate Courts

Federal and State

If a party is not satisfied with the trial court’s decision, the party may appeal to the intermediate appellate courts alleging an error of law was made

The appellate court’s primary function is to review the trial court’s decision for errors in law, not issues involving determination of facts

B. Appellate Courts (cont.)

APPELLANT is the party making the appeal, the APPELLEE is the party opposing the appeal

No new evidence is permitted in the appellate courts, only what was allowed in the trial court

Appellate courts in California are restricted by 3 general standards of appellate review:

Substantial evidence

Abuse of discretion

Independent appellate review

C. Supreme Court

Federal and State

If a party is not satisfied with the ruling in the intermediate appellate court, he may file a petition for review in the highest appellate court, the Supreme Court

The purpose of the Supreme Court is to decide important legal questions and maintain uniformity of decisions among the lower courts

There is no constitutional or legislative right to a review by the highest appellate court, the Supreme court

II. Court System – Federal Courts

  • Federal Courts
  • U.S. District Courts
  • Specialized Federal Courts
  • Appellate Courts
  • Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts
  • Federal Courts

Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides:

The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish

Types of cases:

  • Constitutional issues
  • Federal laws
  • Treaty provisions
  • Disputes where U.S. is a party
  • Disputes among individual states
  • Citizens of different states disputing more than $75,000 in damages

B. U.S. District Courts

4 in California, 94 total

Northern District: San Francisco, CA

Eastern District: Sacramento, CA

Central District: Los Angeles, CA

Southern District: San Diego, CA

General trial courts

C. Specialized Federal Courts

Established by Congress and have limited jurisdiction


Tax Court

Bankruptcy Courts

Court of International Trade

Court of Federal Claims

Court of Veteran’s Appeals

D. Appellate Courts

13 total national circuits, California in the 9th circuit

Courts of Appeals

Deals with mistakes of law

United States Supreme Court

Has both original and appellate jurisdiction

Primarily serves as the last and final court

An appellant must petition the court for a WRIT OF CERTIORARI

1 Chief Justice and 8 Associate Justices

E. Jurisdiction of the
Federal Courts

U.S. District Courts must have subject matter jurisdiction over a case

Under Article III, Section 2 Federal Courts have limited jurisdiction to hear cases involving:

Federal Questions

Diversity of Citizenship






Federal crimes


Suits against the U.S.

III. Court System – California State Courts

  • Trial Courts
  • Appellate Courts
  • Jurisdiction
  • Venue
  • Choice of Law and Choice of Forum

A. Trial Courts

In California, the trial court is referred to as the “superior court.”


58 county superior courts in California

2 Different Court Sections

General Jurisdiction

Limited Jurisdiction

General Jurisdiction Division

Handles lawsuits involving:


Civil cases over $25,000


Mental capacity

Family law

Juvenile matters

Guardianships of minors

Equitable remedies such as injunctions

Appeals from the limited jurisdiction courts

Limited Jurisdiction Division

Handles lawsuits involving:


Civil cases under $25,000 or less

Preliminary hearings in felony cases

Traffic and vehicle matters

Small claims cases

2. Small Claims Court

Designed as a fast, inexpensive, and fair method of resolving small disputes

Claims are for $5,000 or less for corporations

Claims up to $10,000 for a natural person

Jurisdictional maximum judgment amount of $2,500 up to twice a year

The court may grant equitable relief in lieu of money damages in the form of:

  • Rescission
  • Restitution
  • Reformation
  • Specific performance

a. Small Claims Court Procedure

Plaintiff should have evidence of sending a demand letter for the requested remedy to the defendant

Plaintiff files a claim, under oath with the clerk of small claims court

The claim and order stating when the hearing will be held must be served upon the defendant

Proof of service on the defendant must be filed with the court at least 5 days before hearing

Defendant may counter sue

Actual hearing is informal

Each party has the right to present evidence by witnesses

No party may be represented by an attorney

The court’s decision is final to the plaintiff, the defendant may appeal.

Any appeal to the Superior Court is a new hearing

B. Appellate Courts

Superior Court General Jurisdiction Appellate Division

Handles appeals from small claims court and legal proceedings of the courts in the limited jurisdiction division

Intermediate Appellate Court

Generally handles appeals from the Superior Court

Decisions are published in a set of books called CALIFORNIA APPELLATE REPORTS

All lower, or inferior, courts are bound by higher court decisions

Supreme Court of California

The state’s highest court and last resort for questions of state law

Decisions are published in the CALIFORNIA OFFICIAL REPORTS

C. Jurisdiction

SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION – jurisdiction is referred to as power to hear a case

IN PERSONAM JURISDICTION – is obtained by serving a summons and complaint upon the defendant

LONG-ARM STATUTES – permits the plaintiff to bring and out-of-state defendant back to the state

IN REM JURISDICTION – the property itself must be within the court’s jurisdiction, not necessarily the owner

QUASI IN REM JURISDICTION – is a means to settle a personal claim against a property by seizing the property

D. Venue

VENUE – is a neighborhood; the neighborhood, place, or a county in which an injury is declared to have been done, or fact declared to have happened

PROPER VENUE – means that the lawsuit will be heard by the court with jurisdiction in the geographic location closest to where the injury or event occurred

  • Choice of Law and
    Choice of Forum

CHOICE OF LAW – parties to a contract specify in the contract that the law of a particular state or nation is the law that will apply in the event of a dispute regarding the contract

CHOICE OF FORUM – the contract may also provide that in the event of litigation concerning the contract, such litigation must be filed in a particular court

1. Forum Selection & Online Transactions

Online transactions present a unique challenge

Distances between seller and buyer can be great

Online contracts attempt to include a forum site

A CHOICE OF LAW clause in the contract provides the drafting party with stability and predictability

IV. Court Procedures

  • Pretrial Stage
  • Pretrial Motions
  • Discovery

A. Pretrial Stage

PLEADINGS (Complaint and Answer)

THE COMPLAINT – is filed by the plaintiff who believes he has a legal cause of action against another person (defendant) and with it’s filing, a lawsuit is started

SERVICE OF PROCESS – complaint and summons

THE ANSWER (to the complaint) – contains denials or affirmative defenses to the causes of action alleged in the complaint

FAILURE TO ANSWER (default) – if the defendant fails to answer the complaint, the plaintiff may ask that a default judgment be entered against the defendant

A. Pretrial Stage (cont.)


  • the defendant may cross-complain against the plaintiff to seek affirmative relief against the plaintiff for damages suffered by the defendant
  • the cross-complaint operates much like the original complaint and forces the plaintiff to file an answer

B. Pretrial Motions

DEMURRER – the defendant may file a demurrer to the plaintiff’s complaint instead of filing an answer

The defendant is then objecting to the complaint because there are legal problems with the complaint that appear on the fact of the pleading


  • Motion to quash service of summons
  • Motion challenging the venue
  • Motion to dismiss for inconvenient forum
  • Motion to strike
  • Motion for judgment on the pleadings
  • Motion for summary judgment

C. Discovery

After the pleadings have been completed, the parties start the discovery process

The 7 basic methods of discovery are:



Inspection of documents, tangible things, and places

Physical and mental examinations

Requests for admissions

Exchange of expert trial witness information


V. Trial

  • Jury or Non-Jury Trial
  • Order of Trial
  • Trial Motions
  • Post-Trial Motions
  • Appeals
  • Enforcing the Judgment

A. Jury or Non-Jury Trial

Not all trials need to be in front of a jury, if the parties agree, a court trial may be held without a jury

Juror requirements in California:

  • 18 years or older
  • Be domiciled in California
  • Resident of jurisdiction where court is located
  • No felony convictions where civil rights were not restored
  • Not serving on a grand jury or other trial jury
  • Not be subject to a conservatorship
  • Have sufficient knowledge of the English language

VOIR DIRE – is a process where the court and attorneys ask questions of a potential juror to determine whether the person can be a fair and impartial juror

B. Order of Trial

Opening Statements

Presentation of Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s Cases

Rebuttal Evidence

Closing Arguments

Jury Instructions

Case Goes to the Jury


  • Trial Motions
    (Made During Trial)

Motion for a Nonsuit – attacks the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s evidence and argues that no evidence was presented to support the pleadings

Motion for a Directed Verdict – is granted when no evidence was offered during the trial to support the claims or defenses made by the party opposing the motion

D. Post-Trial Motions

Motion for a New Trial – should only be granted when the error complained of is prejudicial and results in a miscarriage of justice

Motion for a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict – should be granted only if a motion for a directed verdict should have been granted has the motion been previously made

E. Appeals

The purpose of an appeal is to review alleged trial court error

The process begins by filing a NOTICE OF APPEAL with the clerk of the court from which the appeal is being made


Trial court’s record get transferred to appellate court

Attorney’s will present BRIEFS

Appellate court will review the case and either AFFIRM, REVERSE, or REMAND the lower court’s ruling

F. Enforcing the Judgment

A judgment is NOT self-enforcing

Judgments are good for 10 years

Judgments can earn interest at 10% a year until paid

Reasonable court costs are added to the judgment

Primary mechanism for collecting a monetary judgment is a WRIT OF EXECUTION, or order, issued by the court clerk directing the levying officer to seize and sell certain property of the losing party

No physical force or harassment of the losing party is allowed in order to get payment