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Law Library

Sources of Law and Types of Authority: Judiciary

Tri-Level Court System

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Tri-Level - Summary

Court systems in America all follow a basic tri-level vertical pattern

  • Trial Court: Finds facts & Applies the Law
  • Appellate Court: Makes Sure the Law is Applied Correctly
  • Court of Last Resort: Last level of appeal


  • Larger states may have separate criminal and civil tracks
  • Smaller states may bypass intermediate level (Nebraska until recently).
  • On some issues, the middle level is skipped and it goes to highest court.

Don’t go by the name of the court as an indicator of where it rests in this hierarchy

  • New York’s highest court is the “Court of Appeals” and the trial court is known as the “Supreme Court.”
  • You may have already noticed this if you watch “Law and Order

Local Courts (County/City)

  • Municipal Magistrate
  • Appeals usually go into the the State system