Common Misconceptions about the US Court System
The United States Court System is organized to ensure that each and every case brought to one of its branches is given proper and appropriate consideration. Because this calls for a highly specific method of organization, there are a number of different branches to deal with a number of different types of court cases.
With some types of cases, it is obvious which courts deal with which. Civil cases, for example, will always be held in civil courts. Others, however, are more difficult to place, and therefore are commonly misunderstood. For your convenience, we've compiled a list of the most common misconceptions about the US court system based on some of the most commonly misunderstood terms:
The term "police court" has come to be understood as a court with jurisdiction limited to minor offences - usually the type of violation where a police order will summon an individual to court . These courts are colloquially referred to as "police court" because they usually refer to minor breaches of municipal ordinances, and are often held before a judge but with no jury. Other names for this type of court include: magistrate's court, justice's court, and municipal court.
The common misconception here is that the term "police court," is a widely accepted alternative for the more universally recognized "municipal court." For more information on the types of cases you can expect to find in this type of court, please see our overview of "police courts."
The term "judge court" is commonly misused when attempting to refer to "justice court." Sometimes the words "judge" and "justice" are interchangeable (as in, for example "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg.") However, in this case, the words cannot be confused.
The term "justice court" refers to cases that are heard by a justice of the peace. These courts hear very specific types of court cases including preliminary hearings for felony cases and civil cases with a dollar amount less than $10,000. For more information on these types of courts, please see our overview of the commonly misunderstood justice court, or "judge court."
The term "decision court" is misleading because it implies that not all courts are decision courts. All courts make decisions on a case by case basis, and with the exception of cases that result in a mistrial, all cases will end with some type of decision. If you have heard people mistakenly refer to "decision court," there are a number of things they might be referring tofrom a police court to a judge or justice court. For more information, please see our page dedicated to the common misconceptions concerning the term "decision court."
Unlike some of the other common misconceptions about the US court system highlighted here, misunderstanding the term "docket court" comes less from confusing colloquialisms (like police court or judge court) and more from a misreading of the term. All cases are summarized in a court docket, so it's not any one type of case that a "docket court" will hear. Rather, the term refers to these documents called "court dockets." These documents will be an integral piece of your court records search. For more information, please see our page dedicated to docket courts.
You may come across the term "legal court" in the course of your court records search. One common misconception upon coming across this term is that a "legal court" is a type of stand-alone court - however, by definition, all US courts are legal courts as they enforce legislation. Look closely the next time you see this term. It may be referring to legal court briefs, which are briefs pertaining to specific cases that are available to the public.
You may hear people refer to "city court" when they are describing a case that happened in a particular city. This may lead you to attempt to search for court records in a city court; however, courts are not divided by cities but municipalities. Therefore, this term can be misleading.
Subscribing to this common misconception can lead you to attempt to search for records in a court that does not actually exist. You'll no doubt get the run-around as you attempt to determine which court you should actually be searching. For more information, please see our informational page on "city courts."