The American judicial system is made up of thousands of courts that function at all levels of government. This tiered system is designed to expedite the legal process and to help people get closure and justice in the timeliest manner possible.
Superior courts exist near the top of this tiered system and have rank over courts that are lower than them. Superior courts fall just below the U.S. Supreme Court, or SCOTUS, which is itself the most superior court in the country.
Superior courts can be found in hundreds of jurisdictions in the U.S. and are capable of hearing and deciding a plethora of legal cases. Learn more about what a superior court is and how you can find a superior court near me if or when you need to file a case that qualifies for the court’s docket.
What is a Superior Court?
A superior court is a court that is literally higher or more superior than the courts that function lower in the judicial tiered system. The superior court definition varies in each state. However, most states define a superior court as a state trial court that hears and decides civil, criminal, and administrative actions that are not already assigned to or qualify for being heard in lower state or municipal courts.
A superior court may also be known as a common appeals court, circuit court, district court, or state supreme court depending on the state in which it is located. When you consider what is superior court boundaries, you may be surprised to learn that a superior court has an almost unlimited authority that is not and cannot legally be wielded by lower courts. Superior courts are only kept in check by SCOTUS, in fact.
The superior court definition in use today also means that these courts can hear an almost unlimited variety of cases each year. Unlike municipal courts, which typically cannot hear probate or trial cases, or lower state courts that cannot hear federal cases, a superior court can hear and render decisions on these and any other legal matter that is appealed to or filed originally at that level. A superior court clerk can assign a number and court date to cases involving:
- criminal offenses
- traffic violations
- civil lawsuits
- family and domestic matters
- administrative issues
- probate matters
Superior courts are also equipped to hear and decide jury trials. The superior court clerk handles the summoning of and swearing in of juries in these instances.
Also when considering what is superior court functions in your state, you may wonder where the superior court near me is located. A superior court is typically located in a state’s largest cities that may also serve as the county seat or center of commerce and state and federal government offices. SCOTUS is located in Washington, D.C., of course.
The location of a superior court is designed to make this level of justice accessible to everyone in the state. It also aims to make available legal resources that may not be available to residents in rural and lesser populated areas. If your case is appealed to the superior court level, you and your lawyer may need to travel to that city or have your case assigned to another attorney who can either take it over or act as co-counsel while your case goes through the superior court process.
Superior Court Staffing
Superior courts are only open during regular business hours throughout the workweek. They open around 8:00 in the morning and stay open until 4:00 or 5:00 in the evening. A superior court will not be open to the public during the weekends but may operate on a limited basis to attend to administrative tasks.
Superior courts are staffed by a variety of people starting with the judges. Most superior courts have at least two superior court justices assigned to them. Courts in larger urban areas may have as many as 10 to 12 judges presiding over cases on a daily basis.
Superior court judges are elected by the citizens of the state that they serve. Judges serve four to six year terms and can be reelected as often as they remain in favor of the voters. They are not bound by term limits.
If an unexpected vacancy arises in the court, the state governor may appoint a superior court judge to take that position. The judge would fulfill the remainder of the original judge’s term and may run for office during the next election cycle.
Judges serving in superior courts are expected to have a substantial amount of legal and judicial experience and expertise. They ideally should have graduated from an accredited law school and worked as a private or public lawyer. They also should have served as a lower court judge before running for superior court office.
They can be recalled or ousted during extreme instances of judicial misbehavior or negligence. They can also be voted out of office if the voters believe they are not doing their job appropriately.
Judges in superior courts are assisted each day by court clerks. Each court has its own court clerk who acts as a historian and supervisor of the court’s proceedings. The clerk performs important duties like:
- recording and keeping minutes of court proceedings
- assigning cases to the court docket
- summoning and swearing in plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses
- summoning and swearing in juries
- sending notifications of upcoming court dates or trials
Superior court clerks are likewise elected to office for terms lasting four years on average. They are expected to have a certain level of experience and expertise in law, business, or other professions.
Clerks of the court are themselves assisted by court reporters, who record the actual goings-on inside the courtroom during proceedings. Bailiffs assist the clerk and judge in keeping courtroom order and quiet during hearings and trials. They also protect people in the courtroom from threats like angry defendants or armed people in the gallery.
Security for the court is also provided by law enforcement or security guards posted throughout the courthouse as well as at the entrances and exits of the building. Because superior courts are often the site of high-profile cases, they attract media and high interest from the public. Courthouses in many parts of the U.S. have received death or bomb threats, prompting many governors to order that these locations be fully guarded by police officers or armed guards.
People coming into the building are screened for weapons, which are seized at the door if they are found. People who are found to be a threat to the judges, courthouse staff, plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, or anyone else in the courtroom are subject to removal and arrest.
Superior courts get their name because they are literally superior to municipal and lower state courts. They can hear cases of all natures without boundaries and render decisions that influence the decisions and functions of lower courts. They are only outranked by the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Superior courts are found in county seats and major urban areas in every state and are presided over by elected judges who are assisted by clerks who themselves must be elected into office by the public.