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Introduction to the Court System  

Last Updated: Jan 20, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Print Legal Dictionaries

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Ballentine's Legal Dictionary/Thesaurus - Jonathon Lynton
Call Number: KF156 .L9 1995
ISBN: 0827365268
Publication Date: 1994-12-29

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Black's Law Dictionary, Standard Ninth Edition - Bryan A. Garner
Call Number: KF156 .B53 2009
ISBN: 0314199497
Publication Date: 2009-06-25
Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) is the most frequently used U.S. legal dictionary.

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A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage - Bryan A. Garner
Call Number: KF156 .G367 1995
ISBN: 0195077695
Publication Date: 1995-09-14
Offers guidance for writers (and speakers) who want to use language well.



This guide is a general introduction to resources available in print and online for conducting research on the Federal and New York State court systems. A bibliography of relevant titles offering information on the structure and organizations of American courts is included in this guide.

Additionally, this guide includes a general information chart on the paths that a civil action and a criminal proceeding take through the New York State court system. 

The majority of the resources listed on this guide are freely available to the public; the research databases listed on this guide are available only to SU College of Law faculty, staff and students.

For more detailed coverage of law library resources, please consult the Law Library Libguides and our reference librarians.

General Court System

Generally speaking, court systems in the United States are divided into three levels. Legal proceedings begin in trial courts. The appeals of decisions made in those trial courts are heard by intermediate appellate courts. Finally, the appeals from the intermediate courts are decided by courts of last resort. For a diagram of this general process see the charts included in the Appendix to this guide.

A court of last resort is the highest court in a system. In the state court systems these courts are typically called the supreme court. In New York it is called the Court of Appeals. In Massachusetts it is called the Supreme Judicial court. They are the highest authority regarding questions of state law. On the federal level The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest authority on questions of federal law. The courts of last resort accept appeals primarily from intermediate appellate courts. The scope of review is limited to issues of law only. The court will accept briefs prepared by the parties and hear oral arguments. The written opinions of these courts are published.
See: Roy M. Mersky & Donald J. Dunn, Legal Research Illustrated 4 (8th ed. 2002).

The Federal court system and, many states, have intermediate appellate courts that stand between the lower level trial courts and the courts of last resort. These intermediate appellate courts have authority over lower courts within their jurisdiction. While these courts can review both the facts and the law of a case, review is generally limited to claimed errors. In order to make a determination these courts will review the trial record, the briefs prepared by the parties and listen to oral arguments. Roy M. Mersky & Donald J. Dunn, Legal Research Illustrated 4 (8th ed. 2002).

Trial courts are courts of general or original jurisdiction. These courts may make determinations of law and fact. Often juries will be entrusted to make the determinations of fact. During the course of proceedings in these courts the parties file pleadings, motions and other documents. The trial court (based on the courts findings) will then issue a judgment or decision. Decisions from these courts may be appealed to the intermediate appellate court and in some cases to the court of last resort.
See: Roy M. Mersky & Donald J. Dunn, Legal Research Illustrated 3 (8th ed. 2002).


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