The Structure of the North Carolina Court System

by | Jan 23, 2016

The North Carolina Court System can be confusing.  What’s the difference between District Court and Superior Court?  How does the Court of Appeals relate to the N.C. Supreme Court?  Why is there a state court system and a federal court system in the same state? Here is a brief overview.  

First, consider this basic graphic of the state court hierarchy:

U.S. Supreme Court

N.C. Supreme Court

N.C. Court of Appeals

County Superior Court —– County District Court

County District Court

Administrative Hearings

This list roughly describes the court system as a ladder, where Administrative Hearings are at the very bottom and the U.S. Supreme Court is at the very top.  

Administrative hearing “courts” are decision-making agencies like the Industrial Commission, which decides Worker’s Compensation appeals.  Some cases start on this bottom rung, and if you lose there, you appeal the decision up the ladder, usually skipping over district court and going straight to superior court.

Some cases — in fact, most cases, do not start on the bottom rung.  They actually begin in the court system, in district or superior court.  District court appears twice because in criminal cases, a defendant may be tried for some lesser crimes in district court and then, if he does not like the result, can get a from-scratch “re-do” in superior court.  This re-do isn’t really an appeal since it is another trial.  Other cases are held in district court and then the next step is to appeal to the Court of Appeals, skipping the superior court.

The appellate (appeals) courts start with the Court of Appeals.  If an appellant – a person appealing —  loses there, then he can appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court.   Then it’s on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the federal court system, which can also begin in North Carolina, uses a different ladder (listed below).

U.S. Supreme Court

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals

North Carolina Federal District Court

The North Carolina federal court system is divided into the Eastern and Western Districts. These courts hear federal cases — either a case involving a question of federal law or a case involving citizens of different states in a dispute over at least $75,000. An appeal from one of these courts would go to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Richmond, Virginia. Similar to the state court system, an appeal from the appellate court goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more helpful information on understanding the structure of the North Carolina court system, click on the links below:

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